FeaturesDialogues: Feminisms in design

XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 40
Digital Citation

Feminisms through design: A response

Shaowen Bardzell

back to top  Response

I am delighted to offer a reaction to Sai Shruthi Chivukula's piece, "Feminisms Through Design: A Practical Guide to Implement and Extend Feminism."

Chivukula begins her article as a response to my 2010 paper "Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining and Agenda for Design," including its citation history and some of its diverse impacts.

I'd like to begin by speaking more personally about that paper's impacts on me. "Feminist HCI" was my first ever paper accepted to the CHI conference, following more failed attempts than I care to acknowledge here. Today it is my most cited work. To say that it changed my life is an understatement, having initially launched my research career, given me confidence to participate in this research community, and then over the years thrust me into roles that have helped me to appreciate how messy and difficult issues of emancipatory HCI truly are.

One of my intentions in that paper, which has continued on as a guiding value for me ever since, was to decenter myself. For example, in that work I offered a genealogy of feminist thinking as it had already influenced HCI—I was not trying to plant the flag, to introduce feminism to HCI. Rather, I was trying to give an honest name to an influence that was already in HCI. Even then, you could see it (if you looked for it) in the work of Lucy Suchman, Margaret Burnett, Elizabeth Churchill, Susanne Bødker, and Jen Rode, among many others.


And in developing the framework of five qualities of feminist HCI (i.e., pluralism, participation, advocacy, ecology, and reflexivity), I was not so much attempting to develop a novel theory as I was attempting to synthesize some of the distinguishing characteristics of feminist work—not just in HCI. It was never intended as a novel research contribution, but rather as an effort to capture what was already there. It is therefore not a problem or a disappointment for me that, as Chivukula's research has shown, the majority of the research that cites the paper does not take up this framework in earnest.

In fact, something better has happened. Researchers have developed feminist HCI in their own ways and from their own positions. Ten years ago, I was an assistant professor without tenure, so when Elizabeth Churchill mentored me and also stepped up to fight the fights to get feminist HCI into the mainstream—getting approval for a special issue on feminism and HCI in Interacting With Computers [1] and writing about feminist HCI in Interactions magazine [2]—the least of my concerns was whether she built theory around my formulation of advocacy—she was already embodying it! Similarly, researchers such as Nova Ahmed, Alex Ahmed, Ebtisam Alabdulgader, Teresa Almeda, Madeline Balaam, Rosanna Bellini, Jeffrey Bardzell, Stacy Branham, Jill Dimond, Catherine D'Ignazio, Lynn Dombrowski, Casey Fiesler, Sarah Fox, Lone Koefoed Hansen, Sarah Homewood, Lilly Irani, Nalini P. Kotamraju, Neha Kumar, Amanda Lazar, Ann Light, Silvia Lindtner, Amanda Menking, Michael Muller, Andrea Parker, Ari Schlesinger, Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard, Katta Spiel, Angelika Strohmayer, the FemPower.Tech group, the newly formed Gender, Health, and Wellbeing collective, and so many others have taken feminist HCI in directions I had never foreseen, and it was more than enough for me to have been a "signpost" within their brilliant contributions.

And so it is when I approach Chivukula's proposals for feminisms through design, I do not look for any orthodoxy or fidelity to what any of us have done in the past. I hope there is never a feminist HCI the way that other design practices in HCI have been designated. I look for a fresh voice and perspective—a perspective that will challenge me, that will help me see and think for myself in new ways.

There were several ideas in her work that gave me pause, triggering reflection.

One of them was her focus on teaching and learning, and specifically on the vulnerabilities of students. Feminism is one of many forms of intellectual activism that has focused on the concept of the safe place, and it was intriguing to me to see this idea brought into HCI. Not insofar as HCI research contributes to the research and development of new systems, but rather because HCI is also responsible for developing people—users, yes, but also our junior and future colleagues.

Much of this has to do with what counts as failure—how we acknowledge it, learn from it, turn it into knowledge. This suggests the need to tell different research stories than we currently do, which seems to imply increasing the diversity of the kinds of products we accept as research, and how failure might be a point of focus in dissertations, scientific reports, critical essays, pictorials, and design artifacts.

Another of her ideas was the emphasis she put on "antidisciplinary" forms of knowledge. All of us in HCI are familiar with the interdisciplinary label, including the complicated ways in which HCI seems to succeed and fail at it. More recently, the notion of transdisciplinarity has gained some traction. So the notion of antidisciplinarity provoked me—I wondered, if we did it well, what might that look like? For Chivukula, a big part of it is that "knowledge can be curated through relatable objects"—a sentiment that fits well with research trends such as research through design, critical design, and speculative design.

The challenge for me is whether this is really antidisciplinary at all, since it seems that many who use these approaches do so in ways that are deeply informed by disciplinary thought, including the role(s) of criticality in critical design, the influences of "happenings" in research through design, and practices of scientific experimentation in lab-based constructive design.

When we become antidisciplinary, must we set aside the achievements of disciplinary knowledge? Could we do it even if we wanted to? Can we talk about feminism at all without invoking disciplinary thought? At the level of theory, I feel somewhat skeptical.

But what I am not skeptical of is Chivukula's deep insight that the curation of relatable objects is a practice from which feminist HCI (and, indeed, all of HCI) would benefit, if engaged in more seriously. The idea itself is not new—John Carroll and Wendy Kellogg were talking about the artifact-theory nexus in the 1980s, and research through design has been a hot research trend for 13 years now. But speaking as someone trained in literature, where the curation of artifacts and robust debates about how to respond to them are at the very center of the discipline [sic], my sense is that HCI has far, far to go.

More deeply, what seems to link all of Chivukula's ideas together is her insistence that as a research community, we show care for each other. This is manifest most obviously in her focus on community building. But it is also evident in her attention to vulnerability, including but not limited to that of students, and also in the ways she seeks to cultivate sensitivity and empathy as a form of ongoing collective labor, which is reflected in her formulations of how we should use artifacts in research.

Above all, I'm excited to see a younger scholar picking up the torch and figuring out what feminist HCI means for her now, as she begins to shape the future of feminist HCI.

Indeed, she has already begun.

back to top  References

1. Bardzell, S. and Churchill, E.F., eds. Feminism and HCI: New Perspectives. Interacting with Computers 23, 5 (Sept. 2011), 385–564; https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/interacting-with-computers/vol/23/issue/5

2. Churchill, E. Sugared puppy dog tails. Interactions 17, 2 (Mar.–Apr. 2010), 52; https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/march-april-2010/sugared-puppy-dog-tails1

back to top  Author

Shaowen Bardzell is professor of information sciences and technology at the Pennsylvania State University's College of Information Sciences and Technology. Her research explores the contributions of design, feminism, and social science to support technology's role in social change. She is co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). sbardzell@psu.edu

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