Sitting on the Fence – Critical Explorations of Participatory Practices in IT Design

Sammanfattning: This thesis is about participation in IT design. The problem background that I have outlined is that information technologies have far reaching consequences for societies and for individuals, and that the design of information technologies is one among many practices that shape the world in which we live. From a democratic point of view it is crucial that also women should be involved in these reality producing practices. In relation to this there are at least two stories about women’s participation in IT design; one about their absence from IT design, and one about their inclusion therein. Based on this problem background the purpose of my research is to critically explore participatory IT design practices, with a special focus on gender, power and knowledge. In order to fulfil the purpose I have three research questions: Who participated in the IT design practices? How did knowledge come into being in these practices? How was responsibility enacted? My frame of reference is based on two research fields. One is Participatory Design (PD) with its focus on practitioners as co-designers in IT design practices, and the other is feminist technoscience which focuses on theories, methods, approaches, knowledge processes, and gender in technoscience practices. These two frameworks shares an interest in power relations and democratic participation in IT design. My empirical material was gathered with the help of ethnographic methods, and comes from a large IT design project in a Swedish government agency. The project was an eGovernment project, and a central objective was to rationalise the business. My focus was some (women) administrative officers who participated as business process analysts. This material was analysed with the help of feminist technoscience methodologies, foremost agential realism and diffraction. My thesis is based on five research papers, and the results of these are discussed and related to the research questions and the purpose. Based on an expanded notion of IT design and of participation in IT design, I argue that the administrative officers in the IT design project participated as central actors in the project. These administrative officers were able to participate within the context provided by various entangled sociomaterial practices, such as the project method, boundaries between business and IT, gendered divisions of labour, eGovernment, rationalisation, the project objectives, and an innovation practice. I also argue that in the project knowledge did not simply exist, but came into being as a result of entanglements of these sociomaterial practices, foremost the project objectives and the method. As a result of the reconfigured knowledge the administrative officers were removed to the periphery of the project. An additional argument is that with participation comes responsibility, and that responsibility is related to agency. Responsibility was enacted in and as a result of entangled sociomaterial practices. In this project the administrative officers were given and took a lot of responsibility within the boundaries provided by the sociomaterial practices, but they also worked to widen their agency and thus extend their responsibilities in the project. In relation to gender my argument is that the administrative officers in the project – who were women – participated as central actors, but they were also marginalised and made invisible. Thus in this IT design project women were included as central actors. As one of my contributions to PD and to feminist technoscience I want to underscore the importance of sociomaterial practices in IT design, such as IT design methods, and project objectives. These may act to restrict actors’ possibilities to act and to exert influence. Another is that knowledge in IT design practices come into being and are reconfigured as a consequence of intra-acting sociomaterial practices. Reconfigurations of knowledge might shift the power balance among actors in IT design projects and marginalise previously central actors. Responsibility too comes into being, or is enacted, in entangled sociomaterial practices. Furthermore responsibility in IT design is closely related to agency and participation, and widened agency might lead to extended possibilities to take responsibility. Additionally if positions in IT design are understood as fixed, they might make invisible more shifting and intricate professional relations and activities, and once these become visible, more women may become visible as central actors in IT design. A further contribution is that an expanded notion of IT design and participation might make women visible as central participants in IT design and in eGovernment. However, also central participants may become marginalised, as happened in this project.