The Confluence of Design and STS: Reflecting Disciplinary Positions and/or Situatedness

by Yana Boeva

This review reflects my involvement and roles in a panel (B07 “Situating designs”) and a special event (Diseña 12 journal launch) on design and STS. The piece takes this year’s conference theme “Meetings” to discuss how the quite divergent fields of design and STS interact with each other, what challenges, in particular, STS scholars encounter when studying design, but also how the aspect of interdisciplinarity behind both of them is tackled in the everyday “situatedness” of STS scholars and designers alike.

Disciplinary design problems. Installation at London Design Biennale 2016. Photo by the author.

Meetings — this year’s EASST theme — closely recounts my conference participation and attendance. I had just submitted my dissertation (for its defense) the day before the conference. As a result, all I could think of at this singular moment of my PhD was the many familiar and unfamiliar faces I would meet and converse with over the next three days. Yet I wasn’t going to EASST to listen and absorb other scholarly research only. Instead, I had planned and prepared for myself a very active and participatory schedule — chairing a panel I had co-organized, then presenting a paper on my dissertation in a different panel, and finally commenting at a lunch panel. In hindsight, it seemed like I was testing my academic aptness. Although meetings was the conference theme and in some way framed my participation, my actual research focus was on design and STS. Put differently, it was a conversation on the confluence of design and STS.

This conversation on design and STS began as a reunion of two STS doctoral students at 4S 2017 in Boston. Sharing common interests with Peter Fuzesi from Lancaster University in questions around user-technology interactions, the corresponding design processes, and practices, and the role designers play in defining what we understand as design, to submit a panel proposal for us came across as a fitting opportunity to expand our conversation. The proposed open panel “Situating designs” (B07) inquired into the situatedness of design practices and artifacts. The call ultimately brought forth eight papers and two sessions from a multiplicity of disciplinary backgrounds (from architecture to education) and research perspectives: social work for health (Jade Vu Henry, Peter Fuzesi), postcolonial transformation design (Nicholas Baroncelli Torretta), collaborative processes for urban and rural infrastructure development (Sampsa Hyysalo, Kostas Latoufis), and design knowledge production and ethnographical methods in/for design research (Bernhard Böhm, Yutaka Yoshinaka, Goetz Bachmann). While as panel convenors we had the opportunity to stir the direction of the conversations and discussions on questions around design practice and how STS interacts with it, we chose to step back and assign that role to our two discussants who work in the confluence of design and STS — Daniela Rosner and Alex Wilkie.

Although both discussants probably did not deliberately take up the conference theme as a point of orientation, their approach emphasized two aspects of meetings that opened up the conversation in different ways. Alex Wilkie rephrasing Latour’s famous title about the missing masses provokingly asked the panelists in the first session about “the few missing things” either in their presentation or research — what are the problems of design education, where are the politics in a participatory design education project, how can we avoid Western ontologies in decolonization projects, where and how do we understand transformation and transformative processes. Wilkie’s questions and some of the audience’s questions reminded of what is already at stake in the confluence and perhaps in the collaboration of STS and design—namely, that the seeming interdisciplinarity of both areas of research and practice is not generally predisposed to a mutual language of interdisciplinarity. More often, they act inward and outward in very traditional and disciplinary way.

Daniela Rosner’s commentary in the second panel, on the other hand, focused on how the research presented by the four speakers acknowledged how STS and design are connected, as well as how their work reconnects to broader questions prefiguring that. For instance, whereas ethnographers in different social disciplines have intensely studied and recognized their impact on their subject of research, designers adopting ethnographical methods for project-based work either miss this level of awareness or are being to gain that. Other papers, as Rosner noted, revealed a similarity of recognition processes of care practices, maintenance work, or user design activities, which have been essential in the past two decades of STS research and are now taking place in design and engineering work. This “slow” approaching also happens between STS and design as Rosner’s research work and design practice of Rosner (2018) display, but also many other more recent examples demonstrate: reflective design (Sengers et al., 2005), adversarial design (DiSalvo, 2012), studio studies (Farías & Wilkie, 2015), or the special issues in Design Issues (2004) and Diseña (2018).

While the papers in our panel offered a broader focus with a particular emphasis on practice, the special issue of the bilingual (Spanish, English) publication Diseña 12, edited by Ignacio Farías and Tomás Sánchez Criado, and launched at this EASST conference looks at the methodological confluence of design and STS. Titled “Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses,” this collection of essays and design-research projects presents reflections on how the design disciplines and their actors encounter and collaborate with the social sciences, in particular, with STS. I had the privilege to be invited as a guest commentator on the journal launch along Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, and thereby continue some of the conversations from the “Situating designs” panel. But whereas in the panel I could quietly listen to other scholars’ perspective, here the challenge was to comment in 15 minutes on over 300 pages of incredibly diverse and rich material, primarily the work of design professionals and design scholars. Turning the focus onto pedagogy in general and STS pedagogy in “slightly different sites,” as Zuiderent-Jerak called it, helped narrow down and allowed us to reassess our position and the challenges as STS scholars within academic institutions. As many of us often end up being hired in technical universities or engineering departments, the question of pedagogy and the confluence of different pedagogies, be that STS and design, calls for a shift from the predictive model of reading and teaching literature to more experiential pedagogical activities that might involve the practices of design, architecture, engineering, art, and many others. The journal launch at EASST emphasizes the importance of these conversations about our interactions with other substantially different disciplines regardless if that means for research or for teaching.

Finally, and perhaps in continuation of what began in Boston, I met Zoë Robaey, a postdoc researcher on biotech and society at TU Delft, at the Lancaster train station on the way to Manchester airport. She had attended our panel on design but time constraints and convenor duties limited a conversation between us. The overcrowded Saturday morning train offered unforeseen possibilities that EASST’s full schedule would probably not have opened for us. From discussing about her experience in working as a philosopher in an engineering design department and the kind of research one can accomplish in this setup, to how different STS and design appear to be in different parts of the world, this unplanned EASST meeting hopefully opened up new avenues for collaboration, research, and exchange on the confluence of design and STS.



DiSalvo C (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Farías, I and Sanchez Criado, T (eds) (2018). Disena 12: Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses.

Farías, I and Wilkie A (eds) (2015) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies & Displacements. London, New York: Routledge.

Rosner, Daniela (2018). Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sengers P, Boehner K, et al. (2005) Reflective Design. In Proc. 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: pp 49-58.

Woodhouse E, and Patton J (2004) Design by Society: Science and Technology Studies and the Social Shaping of Design. Design Issues 20(3): 1-12.