Rethinking Curriculum Saturday, June 9th, 2018

Multiple Stakeholders: Applying Actor-Network Theory to Design Education

Michael Lahey, Assistant Professor, Kennesaw State University

Lessons from Actor-Network Theory about how social experience are formed can be applied to design education curriculum to foster student development.

Contemporary designers need to be trained for a world where they will often be asked to engage with and persuade multiple stakeholder groups about their vision for a product or service. In many cases, designers will have to convince stakeholders with contradictory goals and visions about the merits of finding common ground.

As design educators, we must ask what methodologies design students are learning to deal with post-collegiate business environments that skew toward complexity and messiness. How, and in what way, are we responsible for teaching such methodologies? How do we create spaces in our curriculum for teaching that focuses on a designer’s ability to keenly adapt to shifting social situations?

This presentation asks what the various methodologies of Actor-Network Theory can teach us when applied to contemporary design education? Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is a sociological, materialist theory most often associated with the work of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law. ANT approaches to the social world argue that “the social” is created by shifting networks of relation. This means that there is no thing called “the social” outside of the material and semiotic networks that sustain it.

ANT is very good at showing how new forms of social association come together and disband based on the results for various participants. It is also very good at explaining how knowledge is created in the intersection between divergent forces, both human and non-human. For instance, the work of Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer offer a model to explain how scientific knowledge at a museum is created in the intersection between diverging social worlds. They assert that scientific work is heterogeneous, requiring the input of a vast array of actors and institutions across social worlds of conflicting value. For the museum to survive, an entrepreneurial actor must work to manage the tensions and specificities of various social worlds (i.e., networks).

What if we posit the designer as this “entrepreneurial actor,” tasked with mediating between various conflict values (i.e., stakeholders)? ANT’s approach to defining social situations––with its attentiveness to context, interconnection, and goals––speaks to a core concern with design education. Designers have to be self-reflexive about their roles in creating social situations (i.e., new products and services) and are often working in contexts with multiple stakeholders with very different goals. I argue that applying ANT to contemporary designer education can heighten our concern with training designers comfortable in complex social situations.

In this presentation, I will explain ANT before turning to show how various ANT methodologies apply to current design education. I will then explain how design educators might apply these lessons to curriculum development, including the importance teaching design students some core principles that can be applied to internships, service learning, and beyond.