Transforming Society by Transforming Technology: The Science and Politics of Participatory Design

Asaro, Peter M.
Accounting, Management and Information Technologies

This article attempts to shed historical light on some of the social, political, and ethical issues that have arisen from two disparate perspectives on technology which have both come to integrate an explicit consideration of social factors into systems design. It presents two distinct historical traditions which have contributed to the current field of participatory design methodologies—Joint Application Design (JAD®), and the British “socio-technical systems” and Scandinavian “collective resources” approaches—and which in practice integrated the end-users in different ways consequent upon their differing perspectives on workers, professional relationships to technology, and stated goals. One interest in examining the independent development of methodologies from these two perspectives is that, despite their differences, the approaches ultimately converged on a set of shared concerns and very similar practices.

The paper also examines the relation of these traditions to transformations in the theorization of business organization and trends of corporate restructuring which helped to secure a place for variants of related methodologies in major US and multinational corporations. It concludes with an examination of some broader issues in the relationship between technology and society and the prospects for the critical study of technology. I argue that participatory design and its related methodologies are best understood as a model for involving users, designers and the technology itself in a process of technological development. Rather than seeing participatory design as merely the insertion of public dialog within technological design practices, as several observers have done, we should see it as a model for the critical practice of developing technological designs.