Wednesday, February 28, 2007

We have never been disciplinary

Designers typically make claims about being able to integrate between disciplines: that "design thinking" and design methods are effective at drawing together knowledges from different contexts in the process of designing. Once that meant different kinds of (design) specialist; increasingly this means the various stakeholders in a process of creating a venture, especially "users" but also various organizational functions needed to design and deliver a new thing. So, design might be seen as profoundly or indeed determinately interdisciplinary - offering a process to enable collaboration across multiple disciplines.

A colloquium (academese for talkshop) on "Interdisciplinarity and Society" held at St Catherine's College, Oxford, the other day provided me with resources to reflect on this. The day was an ouput of a study led by my collaborator Andrew Barry (Oxford University Centre for the Environment), Georgina Born (anthroplogy, Cambridge) and Marilyn Strathern (anthroplogy, Cambridge) funded by the ESRC which is a comparative study of interdisciplinary research involving a survey of interdisciplinary collaborations involving natural scientists and either social scientists and/or artists worldwide.

Another output will be a book which draws on the contributions from several amazing scholars at the event. These included:
- historian of science Simon Schaffer (Cambridge), who took us on a zoom round his understanding of interdisciplinarity drawing on Foucault: that disciplines organize by assembling in space and especiallly by organizing aesthetic objects in space.
- anthroplogist Lucy Suchman (Lancaster), who talked about the currently fashionable role of anthropology in industry, drawing on her time at Xerox PARC.
- Georgina Born and Gisa Weszkalnys, who described the findings of their study of emerging "interdisciplines" in art-science collaborations, in particular the multidisciplinary teaching programme at UC Irvine called Arts Computation Engineering and the emergence of new aesthetic objects.
- Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard), who drew our attention to the ways that academic departments control disciplines, compete for funds and replicate themselves.

Designers and theorists from different backgrounds and contexts have been turning design into a discipline over 40 years or so, and (in the UK) the teaching of design and most research about design has moved into universities. Design is now identifiable as a range of disciplines, some within the arts tradition and some within engineering. Recently I have been wondering to what extent design (and art too?) can be considered to be disciplinary even though it's now embedded in academia. One the one hand, according to Hebert Simon's definition, nearly any purposeful activity is a design activity. On the other there are students, teachers, professional designers, and theorists whose activities enact the discipline(s) of "design". From another perspective, design processes and artefacts cannot be understood without people engaging with them in context. The boundaries are hard to describe. To follow Latour's "We Have Never Been Modern", I wonder if it is possible to make the claim "We have never been disciplinary". If design is un-disciplined/undisciplinary, might this make its practices and methods particularly suitable as a starting point for multi-disciplinary collaboration?

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