Mediating Difference through Community-Based Design in Urban Contexts

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Difference is a fundamental aspect of human life, especially within mixed urban communities where people are differentiated by age, ethnicity, religion, standards of living, organizational affiliations, and cultural traditions. This raises the question of how such communities can shape the future of their shared environments in more just ways, given that each individual or societal group holds a different claim for what it means to have a good life. My dissertation, spanning three years of participatory design fieldwork in New York City, investigates how design researchers can engage communities with and through design to better mediate difference in urban contexts. It further examines how difference in turn can help us rethink how we imagine and do design itself. I approach these questions through situated pedagogical design programs that offer socio-spatial contexts for ethnographic observations and participation. I show how design can support mediating difference in such contexts through three projects, each involving a different constellation of community groups from NYC. I also identify three stances to approaching difference from democratic and care techno-science theories and interpret each project through one of the stances. The first stance, called public deliberations, tries to resolve difference through deliberations that ultimately work towards the majority claim. The second stance, which I term pluralistic care, advocates bringing pieces of difference into the public realm, and attuning to them with curiosity, dialogical skills, and care. The third stance, called agonism, calls for creating spaces of conflict that do not shy away from difference and making disfranchised claims visible. The dissertation fieldwork reveals that public deliberations largely work to surface common claims, but do not necessarily create rapport around difference and minoritized claims. The pluralistic care stance can bring us closer to a state of equilibrium around difference but it entails relational work that might leave little or no time for other design goals such as producing material artefacts. The agonism stance has a strong potential to reveal invisiblized claims that the other two stances may not reveal. It is however socially and emotionally risky, which requires more research on the supervisory roles designers should play in such contexts and the modes and moves of conflict that break, rather than extend and deepen, the nature of design and difference encounters. The choice of one approach over another ultimately depends on the goal of the design context, the desired affordances, and the social justice considerations in place. I conclude by reflecting on the affordances and limitations of an interventionist ethnographic approach to design and critical theory, and suggest new research trajectories in design around unmaking.

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339 pages
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Parikh, Tapan Suryakant
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Jackson, Steven J.
Ju, Wendy Guang-wen
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Information Science
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Ph. D., Information Science
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Government Document
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Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
dissertation or thesis
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