EM#4 – Problem maker

Funded by an AHRC ProtoPublics ProtoProject award, this ‘co-design’ experiment sets out to prototype ways of making problems and publics. It directly addresses issues central to the funding call and critical to practice-based researchers, designers and policymakers, namely: what counts as a social ‘problem’ and what publics do problems bring into being?

The interdisciplinary team (Sociology + Design) approached these core concerns by way of two key interrelated practice-based research activities: first, the research aims to construct a problem-maker – a machine to render issues tangible, material and debatable in new ways – and second, the research will place the machine in a context where members of publics can interact with, problematize and customize problems and in doing so make their publics known or indicate new publics that arise around new issues.

The machine we built takes its name – ‘The Dewey Organ’ – from John Dewey’s (1927) ‘The Public and its Problems’ which critically examines civic participation and the relationships between citizens and experts. The ‘Organ’ is a device for making sound, harmony and dissonance, and of bringing people together. It also speaks of the material body politic, an anatomy of publics. Through this approach we emphasize the embodied/participatory and often mundane/everyday nature of social problems and issues. In particular, we deliberately move away from more accepted methods of problem-making, such as those found in top-down authoritative fields of politics, science and technology, or what Star has called ‘heroes, big men, important organisations or major projects’ (1991:12), and consider instead ‘boring’, smaller, less triumphal and more mundane issues that emerge in messier bottom-up entanglements. In STS, mundane systems and practices are considered valuable for making explicit the familiar and taken-for-granted ways in which people make sense of and operate in everyday life (Michael 2006).

Junk hacking machine making workshop
Performance at The Imagination Festival, Glasgow