Uncertainties Revisited: Actor-Network Theory as a Lens for Exploring the Relationship between Uncertainties and the Quality of Participation

Uncertainties Revisited: Actor-Network Theory as a Lens for Exploring the Relationship between Uncertainties and the Quality of Participation

Liesbeth Huybrechts (Faculty of Architecture and Arts, University of Hasselt, Hasselt, Belgium), Katrien Dreessen (LUCA School of Arts, KULeuven, Leuven, Leuven, Belgium) and Selina Schepers (LUCA School of Arts, KULeuven, Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/IJANTTI.2015070104
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In this article the authors use Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to explore the relationship between uncertainties in co-design processes and the quality of participation. They investigate discussion of uncertainties in social processes concerning the nature of actors, actions, objects, facts/matters of concern and the study of the social. To discuss uncertainties in co-design, and more specifically in infrastructuring processes, this article groups the diversity of articulations of the role and place of uncertainty in co-design into four uncertainty models: the (1) neoliberal uncertainty model, (2) uncertainty management model, (3) disruptive uncertainty model and (4) open uncertainty model. The authors qualitatively evaluate the relationship between the role and place of uncertainty in two infrastructuring processes in the domain of design for healthcare and the quality of these processes. They elaborate on how ANT supported them in developing a ‘lens' to assess how uncertainties hinder or contribute to the quality of participation.
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Co-design is the process of guiding collective creativity between actors throughout the design process (Sanders & Stappers, 2008). This collective action can have various motivations (Saad-Sulonen, 2014; Arnstein, 1969). Within the field of Participatory Design (PD) in the 1970s, co-design allowed workers to participate in the design and use of workplace computer applications (Ehn & Kyng, 1987). Today, co-design often still supports this political goal of democratising technology by giving users more control in the design of technologies or processes (Vines, Clarke, Wright, McCarthy & Olivier, 2013; Bratteteig & Wagner, 2012). PD also actively explores the technical or structural advantages of co-design activities; setting up design processes in participatory ways so that participants can contribute to their improvement (Ehn & Badham, 2002). Furthermore, collective action can be set up as a cultural critique, which is generally the rationale in Design Activist contexts, demanding the reconfiguration of power relations (Schäfer, 2010). Finally, co-design can support economic goals and has been integrated in the neoliberal market (Florida, 2012).

These different motivations for collective action are often related to different views on how uncertainties in co-design processes hinder or contribute to the quality of participation. Since there are some controversies on this issue (see e.g. the work by Storni, 2011), this study will look further into uncertainties in relation to the quality of participation. Clement & Van den Besselaar (1993) distinguish five ingredients that shape the nature and quality of participation (Frauenberger, Good, Fitzpatrick & Iversen, 2015), which we complement with four recent strategies formulated by Vines et al (2013). This results in the following aspects, shaping the quality of participation:

  • 1.

    The participants can make sense of and take independent positions on issues;

  • 2.

    Information is made transparent for all participants, including documentation of all aspects of participatory processes and the participants’ voices and assumptions;

  • 3.

    The participants are included in decision-making;

  • 4.

    The appropriate participatory methods, tools and techniques are available and participants are given a share in defining them in order to explore different forms and degrees of sharing control;

  • 5.

    There is room for alternative technical and/or organisational arrangements.

This research can be framed within Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field that investigates mutual interactions between science and its wider social, political and cultural contexts (Jasanoff, Markle, Peterson & Pinch, 2001). STS approaches to co-design have made clear that “design cannot be reduced to the shaping of dead objects” (Ehn, Nilsson & Topgaard, 2014, p. 8), but also involves humans. The other way around, co-design is an example of material participation, a specific mode of engagement in participation that uses its surroundings (Marres, 2012). We will specifically use Actor-Network Theory (ANT) – an approach within STS – as a ‘lens’ to investigate how uncertainties in co-design play a role in the quality of participation, since it has specifically foregrounded the agencies of both human and non-human actors in uncertainties related to the social (Latour, 2005; Latour, 2011; Latour & Weibel, 2005).

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