Inventive & Creative Methods: How Social Sciences and Design Meet

While design is generally regarded as involving an element of making things to investigate the social world, social science methods observe, document and collect data about the social world, but the social scientist is not implicated in any form of creatively shaping the world they find.

Lury and Wakeford in their inspiring book “Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social” (2102) emphasise that methods are used to not simply investigate the social world, but are also engaged in the sense that these contribute to and are implicated in the making of the social world (Lury & Wakeford, 2012). Lury and Wakeford discuss the inventiveness of method as addressing a specific problem as well as the “(…) the capacity in the use of that method to change the problem” (Lury and Wakeford, 2012, p. 6). Rather than research being descriptive, this moves research towards a more interventionist, experimental paradigm. As Marres et al. state in “Inventing the Social” (2018)“(…) social research is today expected to be interventionist (…) the idea that social life is somehow artificial, can be curated, designed or even engineered, has become increasingly prominent (…)” (Marres et al., 2018). In this sense, Marres et al. state that social inquiry should invite, persuade or provoke actors as well as situations to generate interesting insights into social life (Marres et al., 2018). A prominent example of this is the brilliant study by Kuijer et al. on sustainable bathing. For this study, the authors investigated the practice of bathing by introducing a variety of low-fidelity prototypes. Professional actors were recruited who would perform a scripted practice around bathing (Kuijer et al., 2013). This is really interesting as prototypes are deliberately introduced to provoke a “crisis of routine”, in other words to disrupt what people would normally do, and to document how new bathing practices arise around the issue of sustainable water consumption.

In other words, as researchers we are already intervening in and changing the social world, whether this is through a survey or interview with participants as the choice of the topic, the questions to be asked, what is included and what is left out, and how we ask the questions inevitably guides the research. Seen from this perspective, any research is already contributing to making up the social world we are investigating and the data collection tools are merely designed interventions.

Social science is very good at observing, analysing and explaining phenomena that exist in the present, but lacks in more innovative tools to address the social world as it changes and new phenomena emerge. Design, on the other hand, with few exceptions, is future-oriented in the sense that it asks what could be and seems to be good at making and inventing new things, but not so much at explaining or considering the socio-cultural context in which designed things emerge. However, the making of the future is never empty and the future does not arise in a vacuum, but is made by people with different perspectives and influence. This has already been demonstrated by Bijker et al. in their influential book “The Social Construction of Technological Systems” which highlighted the importance of the socio-economic context in which new technologies emerge (Bjiker et al., 1987). Science and Technology Studies (STS) are useful to interrogate the genealogy of how things emerge (Smith et al., 2016). Mazé states that the future is never empty, but “(…) will be occupied by built environments, infrastructures and things that we have designed. It will bear the consequence of our histories, structures, policies and lifestyles, which we daily (re)produce by habit or with intent in design” (Mazé, 2016, p.). Smith et al. argue that future making is situated, “(…) dispersed and circulated as part of the social (re)production of daily life” (Smith et al., 2016).

My research makes an attempt to address these issues discussed. The research tries to account for how the way in which the emotion recognition device was conceived of and developed by documenting the design / development process. This includes the research literature on algorithms and data, as well as the sociology of emotions that informed the design of the study and the device. As we are not usually able to identify and account for how software and algorithms are developed, this provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the process of developing / coding the software for the emotion recognition device by evaluating whether or how emotions could be quantified and / or coded into a functioning software. In design, developing an in-depth understanding of the materials you are working with is paramount, while digital and code can also be considered as a material, in the same way as working with wood, metal or plastic, that has specific constraints and possibilities. At the same time, the emotion recognition device, when placed with participants, gives clues to how people’s routines around talking about or sharing emotions might be impacted by the technology, using classic social science research tools, such as interviews. In this way, some form of integration of perspectives from different academic disciplines might be achieved.

The future could involve social science research that is deliberately (rather than implicitly) interventionist and experimental, while design benefits from a broader understanding of the context in which things are designed, which would involve to develop a concern with the social impact these designed things might have in terms of changing people’s habits, routines or behaviour.

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