Design as Symbolic Violence. Design for Social Justice. A Conversation @DRS2016uk

This conversation will take place at Future Focused Thinking, the Design Research Society conference in Brighton in June 2016.

Design embeds ideas in communication and artefacts in subtle and psychologically powerful ways. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term symbolic violence to describe how powerful ideologies, priorities, values and even sensibilities are constructed and reproduced through cultural institutions, processes and practices. Through symbolic violence, individuals learn to consider unjust conditions as natural and even come to value customs and ideas that are oppressive. Symbolic violence normalises structural violence and enables real violence to take place, often preceding it and later justifying it. Feminist, class, race and indigenous scholars and activists describe how oppressions (how patriarchy, racism, colonialism, etc.) exist within institutions and structures, and also within cultural practices that embed ideologies into everyday life.

The theory of symbolic violence sheds light on how design can function to naturalise oppressions, and then obfuscate power relations around this process. Through symbolic violence, design can function as an enabler for the exploitation of certain groups of people and the environment they depend on to live. Design functions as symbolic violence when it is involved with the creation and reproduction of ideas and practices that result in structural and other types of violence. Breaking symbolic violence involves discovering how these processes work and building capacities to challenge and transform dysfunctional ideologies, structures and institutions.

Organizing questions

1. How do designers participate in symbolic violence?
2. How can designers reveal and undo symbolic violence?

Boehnert, J. (upcoming). Design/Ecology/Politics, Bloomsbury.
Bourdieu. P. (2010). Distinction, Translated by Nice, R., Routledge.
Bourdieu. P. (2001). Masculine Domination, Translated by Nice, R., Polity.

About the Catalysts:
Dr. Bianca Elzenbaumer (@bravenewalps) works on design projects that engage people in rethinking social, political and environmental issues by combining design research methods with radical pedagogy, conflict mediation techniques and DIY making.

Noel Douglas (@signsofrevolt + @occupydesign) is an artist and designer who works across a range of media. His main interests are in the aesthetics, politics and the creative use of graphics and art in social movements.

Luiza Prado de O. Martins (@luizaprado) is a Brazilian PhD candidate at the University of the Arts, Berlin. Her work explores the intersections between queer studies, design research, and decolonial studies. She is part of design research duo A Parede.

Dr. Joanna Boehnert (@ecocene + @ecolabs) works on the politics of design, technology, the environment and society. Her work investigates how visuals, data and text work together to communicate controversial and complex information. She is writing a book titled Design/Ecology/Politics.


One thought on “Design as Symbolic Violence. Design for Social Justice. A Conversation @DRS2016uk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s