opinion

Why We Need Design Sociology

“Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.”
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

In Coded Bias, MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini stresses in the US Congress hearing about possible regulations for the technology industry that AI is a representation of white male society. That is the underlying narrative of the excellent documentary by filmmaker Shalini Kantayya: it is a nuanced view on how technology made by people and institutions with mostly good intentions turns out to amplify what is already wrong in our society.

Coded Bias premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Last week Waag Society in Amsterdam organised a screening and online discussion afterwards. For a Q&A with Kantayya, Waag invited a handful of AI researchers and philosophers to discuss the matter. Although the outcome was nuanced, the conclusion was predictable: maybe social scientists could play a role as advisors after an AI-based product or service has been fabricated in a university lab.

It is disturbing how easy other academic disciplines ignore social science, or just colonise it when they feel like it. Especially when it comes to the way society functions. In public debates, philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists make statements about the effects of technology on society without any substantiation. Also, in documentaries like The Social Dilemma experts take a moral stance that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our societal reality.

Let’s be honest: sociology has long been under threat. Especially in the 1990s, the idea that sociology as a discipline wasn’t relevant anymore became a topic for discussion. As Antony Giddens points out in his book In Defence of Sociology (1995): “What do you get when you cross a sociologist with a member of the Mafia? An offer you can’t understand.”
Why does sociology irritate so many other academics? Giddens gives the answer: “Sociology […] challenges our assumptions about ourselves as individuals and about the wider social contexts in which we live.”

That argument is more valid than ever: in times of polarisation, moralisation, guild and victimhood, we don’t want a nuanced view on the broader social contexts. We just want to have a strong opinion. But what we want and need are two different things (and yes, now I’m moralising too). To really understand our complex technological society, we need to be able to look at our social contexts from multiple sides. We need to understand how we design our society and how our designed tools shape our behaviour and the other way around.

So why isn’t there design sociology?

In 2017, sociologist Deborah Lupton already raised that question. Anthropologists have been active in design and art for quite a while now, mainly due to the rise of human-centred design. Anthropology focuses on the interactions between people and the role their artefacts play in constructing these interactions, and the tools that are used these interdependencies have been proven useful in design and art, too. However, the transformational level in design – the interplay between artefacts, behaviour, values and wider social contexts – are still mostly absent in the regular design practice and research. This is where sociology can make a huge impact.

According to Lupton, design sociology can add three perspectives. First, it can engage in “the broader sociocultural and political contexts in which design as a way of thinking and a profession is situated.” Design sociology can also involve conducting research through design. Design methods and concepts can be used in other disciplines. Third, sociologists can embrace design methods and concept to use them in their own field of researching the broader social contexts.

Lupton writes: “Design sociology approaches offer a way of developing greater insights into what people do with objects and systems, such as those involved in digital technologies, and not just what they say they do. Furthermore, they can build on these insights to develop future-oriented perspectives that can contribute to the further development and improvements in the design of objects and systems, including making recommendations. Design sociology can contribute more formative and conceptual research that can contribute to the design process by uncovering the meanings and uses of objects or systems that are already part of everyday lives, or by asking people to consider or generate new ideas about future objects or systems before they have entered everyday life. As such, this research can be helpful in shaping design decisions, both during the design process and when the design is tested.”

This is why we need design sociology. It brings the perspective of design as transformational force. Design changes behaviour, society and values. Design sociology helps us understand these changes, instead of moralising them like most (tech) philosophers do. Furthermore, design sociology is integrated in the design practice and makes it possible to use social science in the design process. As Lupton points out: “Design sociology is a method for social critique and the identification of social inequalities, disadvantage and marginalisation. It can be a form of participatory social research or action research. Design sociology research can also be a way of contributing to the development of new technologies and systems for the benefit of communities, activist groups, government agencies or industry.”

Unlike philosophy and more than psychology, sociology can go beyond moralisation and one-dimensional ways of looking at our relationship with the tools we design and what they change in time.

As Marshall McLuhan states rightfully, we are our technology. Instead of trying to deconstruct our reality into tiny pieces and then isolate them and try to define them in opposition to each other, we need to embrace a more critical stance and see our reality as a social environment that consists of parts but isn’t reducible to them.

We need design sociology.

Continue reading and watching
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kantayya, Shalini (director/producer). (2020). Coded Bias [Documentary]. New York: 7th Empire Media. (LINK)
Orlowski, Jeff (director) & Rhodes, Larissa (producer). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Documentary]. Boulder, CO: Exposure Labs, Malibu, CA: Argent Pictures. (LINK)
Giddens, Antony. (1995). In Defence of Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.
Lupton, Deborah. (2017). ‘Design Sociology part #1 to #4’. The Sociological Life, a blog by Deborah Lupton. April 16 – May 11. (LINK)