Actor-Network Theory and design

The design van The paper "Making the Social Hold: Towards an Actor-Network Theory of Design" by Albena Yaneva is an interesting contribution to the role of Actor-Network Theory in design.

It basically shows how various ANT concepts can be relevant and insightful in the context of designing artifacts. Relying on notions such as scripts or delegation of action to objects the author examines various mundane artifacts (stairs, handrails, elevator buttons, etc.) and show how the way they have been designed triggers "specific ways of enacting the social".

Some excerpts I found interesting:

"If you follow me for a moment, again, in my trajectory, you will witness how the objects from my university mornings (my key, the door lock of the resource room, the elevator buttons, the staircase handle, the conference room arrangement) do not stand for social forces and divisions, nor do they symbolically represent the university’s order, hierarchy or divisions of labor; rather, they perform the social as we use them, and connect us in a new way with fellow colleagues, students and university administrators. (...) expanding the project of ANT to the field of design requires mobilizing this method’s persistent ambition to account and understand (not to replace) the objects of design, its institutions and different cultures. This means we must understand the designerliness of design objects, networks and artifacts, instead of trying to provide, by all means, a stand-in (social, psychological, historical or other) explanation of design, i.e. a psychological explanation of the creative energies of the inventor, a psychoanalytical explanation of the client–designer–user relationship, a historical explanation of the social contexts of design. (...) An ANT approach to design would consist in investigating the culture and the practices of designers rather than their theories and their ideologies, i.e. to follow what designers and users do in their daily and routine actions. (...) we should study the experiences of both users and designers, as well as the numerous connections that this research would reveal."

Why do I blog this? collecting material about ANT and design, a hot topic lately. What I find interesting here is that there the move from sociology to design is similar to the one we have seen in the 80s from psychology. At the time, cognitive psychology moved from explaining individual behavior by internal factors (the brain, a cognitive system bound to the individual) to explaining it with external factors (artifacts in our environment, the importance of context, the situated character of action). This led to the emergence of Situated Action or Distributed cognition. Conversely, sociology moves from the "social" to artifacts (non-humans) and show how social is inscribed in objects.

Another important point of this article is the proposition that Yaneva makes as a research agenda: instead of investigating the influence of external factors (be they economical, cultural, political) on design, the idea is to describe the design process itself by capturing "the movements of artifacts and designers in the design studio".

Yaneva, A. (2009). Making the Social Hold: Towards an Actor-Network Theory of Design. Design and Culture, Volume 1, Number 3, November 2009