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The Performativity of Feminism in Human-Computer Interaction

Cameron Poole

Goldsmiths, University of London

April 2014

Passionate detachment requires more than acknowledged and self-critical partiality. We are also bound
to seek perspective from those points of view, which can never be known in advance, which promise
something quite extraordinary, that is, knowledge potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of
domination. Donna Haraway


This paper presents a study of relationships between the user and the
designer/researcher in human-computer interaction (HCI) resulting from applications of
feminist theories in recent practice and research. My analysis of case studies informs my
argument that feminist approaches afford more ambiguous and elusive constructions of
the user in the design of interactive technology. The examples I present are meant to
illustrate how feminist theories reveal new methods and practices for enacting user
research; ones that allow the designer/researcher to fully embody the research. As Taylor
describes we too [the designer/researcher] are part and parcel of just those human-
computer interactions we are studying and designing for. (Taylor, 2011: 693) To begin
my study, I introduce the general concerns in feminist theory that characterise recent HCI
practice and research. Next, I outline the evolution of feminist theory in technology
studies beginning with the history and philosophy of science, then, moving to Science
and Technology Studies (STS) and finally, ending with a discussion of its current state in
HCI. Next, I analyse recent examples of Feminist HCI using three case studies that
explicitly or implicitly engage with feminist theories in the way that user/designer
relations are conceived or constructed. Finally, I conclude with insights about this area of


Over the last decade, feminist theory has played an increasing role in HCI
research and design as the field has expanded into new areas of focus. A handful of
scholars argue that this is evidence of HCI undergoing major epistemological and
methodological redefinition as it shifts from second-wave to third-wave HCI. Taylor
describes the shift as characterised by rich and nuanced forms of computer-mediated
collaboration and unfamiliar communities, far flung places, and practices not ordinarily
considered when thinking about information communication technology. (2011: 1) As
Taylor argues, marginalized subjects and activities increasingly preoccupy HCI, but as I
will explore, the term marginalised has very different meanings and implications in this
emerging body of research. What these studies do share is a desire, as Bardzell explains,
to reveal unspoken values within HCIs dominant research and design paradigms and
underpin the development of new approaches, methods and design variations. (Brahnam
et al., 2011: 401) Uncovering and legitimising marginalised perspectives is a central tenet
of feminism and perhaps evidence of its important role in reshaping the field of HCI.
Feminist theories that address marginalisation and other concerns have provided
designers and researchers with methods for understanding how the configuration of the
user and the construction of knowledge, in the form of design and research, is subject to a
myriad of situated factors embedded in complex social and power relations including, but
not limited to, race, class, gender, and sexuality. In the following section, I outline how
and when these theories emerged in STS and HCI.

Literature Review

The Emergence of Feminism & Technology

The feminist study of technology began in the sixties and seventies in part due to
the lack of women pursuing careers in science, engineering and other male-dominated
fields as well as renewed public interest in class divisions of labour and Marxist ideology,
which neglected womens perspectives and experiences of work. Feminist historians and
sociologists produced studies attributing male dominance to the social effects of
technologies over women in the workplace, especially in the domestic environment
[Cowan, 1976; Cowan, 1983; Wajcman, 1991]. These early studies were criticised for
gender essentialism, the belief that certain behaviours, interests, motivations, and abilities
are intrinsic to gender as well as technological determinism, the belief that technology
has direct causal effects on society. Once Judith Butler (Gender Trouble, 1990) made her
argument that gender is not innate, but performed and enacted as a social activity, the
next generation of feminist scholarship rectified the above issues. Butlers performativity
of gender mirrored similar theoretical debates in STS emphasising that technology is a
construction of social activity. Major developments emerged from historians and
philosophers of science, particularly Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway, who made
connections between Feminism and other scholarship. They theorised the field using
critical postmodern approaches to explain, connect, and guide the variety of feminist
research that was quickly amassing. Some of their theorisation directly responded to
shortcomings of new critical developments in STS, specifically Actor-Network Theory
(ANT) and the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT).

In the following electric and poetic diatribe against ANT, Haraway criticises the
theorists as arrogant, narcissistic, and self-indulgent:

A more usable that is, psychologically, technologically, and politically lively
theory of actors, agents, actants, and practice is urgently needed. Decentering the
godlike, individualist, voluntarist, human subject should not require a radical
temperance project mandating abstinence from the strong drugs of networked desire,
hope, and---in bell hooks (1990) provocative term for an affective and political
sensibility---yearning. (Haraway, 1997: 128)

Haraway was critical of ANTs neglect of the treatment of gender, but her criticism was
more of a dig at dominant epistemologies of objectivity and neutrality in the natural
sciences and research communities in general. In fact, SCOT and ANT are still some of
the most influential theories for feminist studies of technology. The social construction of
technology, developed by Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, pointed to the sociological
study of the design and development of technology, not just the usage, as a valuable area
for research in STS. (Wajcman, 2004: 450) Actor-network Theory, developed by Michel
Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law, argued that the evolution of technology and society
are contingent upon each other. In other words, the two are co-produced. (Wajcman,
2000: 451). Feminists extrapolated that technology and gender are also co-produced,
which had major repercussions for the field. Theories that Harding, Haraway, and other
feminists produced undermined the dominance of objectivity as an indicator of
valuable research and pleaded with women to produce their own subjective accounts and
versions of objectivity in research. These theories fall under the category of feminist
standpoint theory, feminist epistemologies, and situated knowledges, which I will discuss
in more detail in my analysis of the case studies.

The State of Feminism in HCI

Feminist studies of technology began to have serious implications for technology
design when sociologists applied the theories discussed above into practice through
ethnographic research of the people, places, and systems that produce technology at all
different stages of development. This marked the birth of feminist technology studies as
scholars moved past merely pointing out inequality and began to delve deeper into the
sociocultural and sociotechnical problems propagating womens oppression. The feminist
scholars showed new understanding of the nuances of male dominance of science,
medicine, and technology by uncovering the specific socially situated practices for
knowledge production that bring these fields into existence. They went into the very
places where technologies are created to understand how the social practices of the
design, development, and dissemination contribute to larger culture trends in gender
relations. These studies again contributed to traditional areas of technical concern in
feminist scholarship related to the work place [Green Owen, and Pain, 1993], household
technologies [Cockburn and Ormrod, 1993], and reproductive health [Wajcman, 1991].
They provided a new sociological analysis of the performance of gender and persistence
of gender stereotypes enacted by the processes, mechanisms, practices, actors, and
decisions involved in the development of technologies. These new theoretical approaches
introduced feminism to the design of technology, where my discussion of its significance
to HCI begins.

Despite the connection between feminist theory and the history, philosophy,
sociology, and design of technology, HCI practitioners have only just begun to integrate
approaches from feminist technology studies over the last decade. [Harrison et al., 2007;
Suchman, 2009; Bardzell et al., 2011]. Bardzell and other researchers argue that this
marks the start of another disciplinary shift or epistemological trouble (Harrison et al.,
2011) A growing amount of HCI literature is concerned with an expanded focus,
theorisation, and reflexivity of the field. [Taylor, 2011; Bardzell, 2010; Bardzell, 2011
Harrison et al., 2011] Many of these researchers argue that feminist theory has much to
offer HCI. According to Suchman, a feminist approach to HCI values a commitment to
critical, but also constructive engagement with received conceptions of the human, the
technological and the relations between them. (2009: 1) While Bardzell argues, The use
of feminism in Feminist HCI is above all pragmaticto orient the field into using
feminist strategies to help explore and reveal users experience, and to do so in a way that
supports interaction design in constructive and positive ways. (2011: iv)

As Cooper and Bowers (1995) explain, HCI has a history of drawing upon new
disciplines in the social sciences as the field changes epistemologies. The second-wave of
HCI came about with the rise of ubiquitous computing and the overwhelming
possibilities for designing interactions among users and between users and machines. The
user transitioned from information processor to socially situated and HCI
practitioners looked to Sociology for methods and theories that could help them
understand different social contexts, activities, and interactions including those from
STS. As a result, practitioners had a need for new design frameworks in computer
systems, which meant that these design practices and processes became more and more
integrated in HCI practice:

It is not insignificant, we suggest, that the implicitly moral assertions about the needs
of users are here tied to the chronological place that such considerations should take
in the design process. If design starts with the needs of users, then HCI will claim a
more central place in system design. (Cooper, 5)

As the field of HCI diversifies and unique cultural and social contexts become the
focus for designing new machine interactions, the need for feminist theory and methods
in HCI research and practice will only grow. This is because feminist theory has always
been concerned with the plurality of human experience and knowledge. In the next
section of this paper, I will compare and contrast three studies that suggest models for a
feminist approach in HCI, pointing to the specific theories that are applied and how they
affect the configuration of the user.

The Case Studies

Study 1

I begin with a case drawn on a research study through design that resulted in an
artefact as a design intervention that transgresses traditional gender roles in the domestic
environment. This example is significant because of the researchers ironic and deliberate
manipulation of stereotypical masculine identity and work in the home. The authors
briefly describe the final outcome:

We call the design the Significant Screwdriver to foreground the personal
significance of its use. The unit itself is a fairly standard cordless screwdriver/drill
unit, costing approximately $50 USD, that we have adapted with sensors and an
Arduino to collect data about its use. This usage data in turn is used to generate
aesthetically pleasing and easily shared electronic visualizations of their work as a
mechanism for men to express the domestic care they enact, but seldom express, when
they are working around the home. (Gross et al., 2011: 372)

I see this design intervention as two fold. In the first sense, in reference to
Butlers concept, the artefact is meant to intervene in the performance of stereotypical
gender norms in the home. The authors state, Power tools participate in the construction
and performance of domestic masculinity. (373) They also state, Designs can
perpetuate and even create gender roles and divisions. (372) The screwdriver is designed
to do both as a tool for enacting non-traditional masculinity and subverting traditional
masculinity by drawing out feelings of love and care in the functions. Even today, these
feelings are often associated with feminine responsibilities in the home, such as caring for
the children and providing emotional support to the family. Therefore, this artefact enacts
non-traditional masculinity through traditionally masculine means and opens up new
perspectives of what it means to be a masculine man doing masculine work in the
The act of performing or doing gender is quite literally embodied in the
screwdriver functions. Men perform traditional masculinity using the screwdriver to build
or fix and perform traditional femininity by reflecting on feelings for those that will
benefit from such activities. So how does this configure the user? The researchers intend
for the user to be a man as they mention solely testing their prototype on men. The users
must also be men who perform DIY projects in the home using power tools. The users
motivations for performing such tasks must stem from an emotional responsibility to the
family or loved ones. At the same, the researchers appear to recognize that the gender
identities of actual people are more ambiguous than user configurations allow. The term
interpretive flexibility has been used in STS to emphasise that designs are not always
used as the designer intended, but in this case, the researchers use other techniques to
imply and even suggest evasion of the user configuration. For example, the screwdriver
monitors and visualises use so that the user can interpret their emotions during handy-
work. Arguably, this designs the self-construction of gender identity into the functioning
of the device. The researchers admit the screwdriver has long been a symbol of
masculinity so these traditional functions can be disregarded as a powerful enforcement
of gender stereotypes, since these are already well established in many other cultural
forms. This leaves the interpretive aspect, which configures a thinking user and perhaps
one that contemplates gender identity. The user is forced to think about the emotional
experience of doing work around the home and the affects this has on their feelings about
themselves and the people around them.

There is a misunderstanding, especially in more traditional veins of HCI practice,
of what feminism means for technology studies, which prevents many from taking part in
such research. In my second reading of this case, I argue that this design has a second
user, the interaction designer. Another purpose for the study is to implicate interaction
designers in the gender identity construction of both users and non-users. I argue that the
researchers strategically configure subversive versions of masculine identity to illustrate
how designers configure technologies that also facilitate the construction of gender
identities. In this sense, it is a critical statement about current practices in HCI in which
technologies are uncritically gendered. This case is a particularly intriguing example
because it questions the leading misconception that feminist theory is only applicable to
studies about women. The theory of feminist epistemologies emphasises the endless
variety of ways of knowing and stresses the need for uncovering and legitimising non-
dominant perspectives, but not simply those related to women or gender (Alcoff & Potter,
1993). The Significant Screwdriver is a testament to the fact that mens experiences,
identities, and epistemologies are also constrained by mainstream paradigms of
masculinity. The purpose of the study is to value and enable the construction of non-
dominant masculine identities and experiences in its users as well as to configure the
interaction designers with feminist considerations.

Study 2

The second case is a critical analysis of HCI research concerned with the Other
or non-traditional and non-Western contexts for technology, what the author calls out
there. This study presents an important discussion of postcolonial considerations for
Euro-American researchers constructing non-Western subjects (i.e. users), considerations
that stems from concepts in feminist standpoint theory.

Out there is increasingly becoming a topic of concern in HCI. Thanks to various
clarion calls, researchers in the field are turning their attention to technology-
mediated activities that are shaped less by Euro-American sensibilities and defined
more by how they are culturally and geographically distinct. Fieldwork and
ethnography researchers, for instance, are beginning to investigate ICT use at
religious sites, by the socially excluded and disenfranchised, and by people in
developing regions. (Taylor, 2011: 685)

Aspects of feminist standpoint theory figure strongly in this research, for
example, Harding argues that feminist standpoint theory has an appeal to groups around
the world seeking to understand themselves and the world around them in ways blocked
by the conceptual frameworks dominant in their culture. (2004: 687) This definitely
applies to the marginalised people that Taylor characterises above. Standpoint theory, in
general, emphasises that peoples viewpoints and perspectives stem from subjective
experiences of social and cultural factors contingent on race, gender, class, sexuality, and
other conditions. Feminist standpoint theory argues that some perspectives or standpoints
are better starting points for constructing certain types of knowledge. (Harding, 1993: 58)
For example, women provide a better starting point for understanding womens
experiences than do men. In another example, marginalised people are a better standpoint
for understanding the effects of domination because they have experienced what it is to
be inferior. In this study, Taylor argues that the subject has a better starting point for
analysing his or her own perspective and practices and that this should be included in the
accounts of Western researchers in foreign contexts.

Taylor discusses the term difference in this particular area of HCI research as
an apparatus for understanding and constructing the user according to perspectives and
experiences that oppose that of the researchers culture and lifestyle. Rather than using
difference in relation to the researcher, Taylor argues that the term should belong to the
subject. In other words, the researcher might understand difference in relation to and
from the perspective of the subject. This is strikingly similar to feminist standpoint
theory, yet Taylor applies it to a specific analytical tool used in HCI in order to
demonstrate flaws in how researchers use it to produce knowledge that only reflects their
particular standpoint and not the standpoint in question. Taylor urges researchers to
deeply analyse how their own standpoint affects how they construct visions of out
there. This includes unconscious, ingrained frameworks of thinking performed by
researchers as a result of their Western culture and value systems. Part of Haraways
contribution to feminist standpoint theory is her insistence on vis--vis research:

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating,
where partiality and universality is the condition of being heard to make rational
knowledge claims. These are claims on peoples lives; the view from a body, always a
complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above,
from nowehere, from simplicity. (1991: 195)

In other words, she argues for researchers to be reflexive and accountable for their
standpoint or unique perspective and straightforward about the methods and tools used to
construct their unique and situated research. An example of a vis--vis approach,
discussed by Taylor, is research conducted in the 1980s by Helen Verran, an Australian
historian and philosopher of science, who studied differences in the way that children
from Nigeria and Australia recognise the persistence of matter, in other words, how
they account for different groupings of physical materials and substances. (690)
According to Taylor, one of the successes of this research is Verrans awareness and
explanation of how her perspective of order and the mechanisms for attaining it are
culturally situated in the traditions of Western science:

Her a posteriori commentary consequently serves to shift her and her
orderings/knowings into the frame of analysis. The ordering of the conditions become
self-evidently bound up with a system of knowing first and foremost of science as a
foundational epistemology. (691)

What Taylor argues is that Western researchers cannot escape the past of science as the
framework for ordering information and constructing research. Her discussion is based in
feminist dialogues of the subjective nature of objectivity. According to Harding,
objectivity is:

tied to a theory of representation and concept of the self or subject that insists on a
rigid barrier between subject and object of knowledge between self and Other
which feminism and other new social movements label as distinctively androcentric
or Eurocentric. (2004: 138)

The notions of strong objectivity (Harding) and feminist objectivity (Haraway) are
analytical tools that can be used for making personal biases more transparent in research.
Harding argues strong objectivity requires that the subject of knowledge be placed on
the same critical causal plane as the objects of knowledge. (2004: 136) The researcher
and their research must be questioned, challenged, and studied as well because it is not
truth or fact, but a single subjective perspective. Haraway explains that feminist
objectivity or:

situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and
agent, not a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to the master that
closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and authorship of objective knowledge
(1991: 198)

This is exactly what Taylor values in Verrans research. Feminist Standpoint Theory
stems from such a realisation that the same power relations and male dominance that
governed labour divisions and technology development influenced systems of
knowledge, in which feminists were producing research. Questioning the authority of
Western feminists or any Western researcher/practitioners in HCI is an attempt to
empower the non-Western subjects/users in these projects, but there are problems with
this approach unless these non-Western people are not enforced, but involved in the
processes of constructing and organising the research outcomes in their own ways. Taylor
suggests, Our accounts and explanations might allow for the unsettling of what we
know, why we know it, and how we apply it. (692) This alternative suggests that
researchers be accountable for studies of subjects even if they are messy, complex, and

Study 3

The last case is a study in which the researchers interviewed designers responsible
for a new era of sex toys. The designers careful considerations of the development,
production, evaluation, reception, and social implications of their designs are presented as
an ideal model of third-wave HCI practice. I will explore how the designers used their
own experiences and feminist reflexivity to think outside of dominant commercial
practices and identify sexual intimacy and pleasure as a market in need of redesign.

One of the hallmarks of the new class of digitally enabled designer sex toys that we
have been describing is that they are the outcome of a particular engineering and
design process. This process is different than that typically taught in HCI, with its
emphasis on users, empirical measurement, and iterative prototyping and
evaluation. (Bardzell, 2011: 3)

The authors point out that none of the designers in the study have a background in
designing for sexual pleasure. In fact, a number of them based their initial concepts on
their own experience of a lack in the current market for sex toys. Historically, HCI
engineers and designers have been criticized by feminist scholars for designing
technology based on their own experiences and skills, known as i-methodology (Akrich
1995), but arguably this is not something that designers can entirely avoid. Haraway
opened our eyes to the situated nature of all knowledge and designs are no different.
Designers can never be objective, but will always be subjective. Designs will always be
enmeshed in power relations. They will always configure the user in unintentional ways.
Feminist reflexivity is relevant because it emphasizes that knowledge is contingent on
predominant cultural philosophies and institutions. Originally, this was a starting point
for women to question how their own knowledge production had been and continued to
be socialized by a society controlled by men. Feminist scholars questioned whether
women had the agency to speak in their own voice, in other words, was it possible for
women to produce knowledge of their own situated prerogative and drawn from their
own experiences when these prerogatives and experiences were contingent on superior
male value systems and structures for knowledge production. (Harding, 2004: 2)

This study is significant because the designers appear to have employed feminist
reflexivity to redefine the sex toy industry and sexual intimacy as mediated by
technology according to their own standards and experiences. The researchers define this
as critical self-reflection on their own experience and/or a more systematic act of design
criticism. (261) In the past, sex toys were cheap, poor quality, unreliable, and associated
with the porn industry. The designers used their own judgement to fix the problems they
saw with the current state of engineering, production, packaging, and advertising of sex
toys. They used unconventional methods to engage with potential users about theirs ideas
and opinions. One started a blog to talk to people about sex toys. Another took to the
streets to have random conversations with passers-by. Many of the designers had on
going and regular conversations with sexual health experts and retailers to learn more and
unite their aspirations and concerns for the industry. Almost all of the designers talked to
their friends, family, and partners about ideas. The researchers applaud the concern for
subjectivity, cultural relevance, and humanity and care in their approaches to
understanding peoples sexual needs:

The distance between the designers-as-researchers and their research subjects seems
reduced in many of these examples. Instead of scientists behind a two-way mirror,
these designer-inventions are having frank, personal, and individual conversations
with consumers, whether they are new acquaintances or their own family members.

Throughout the study, the researchers employ the term consumer to talk about
the users. They seem less concerned with how the consumers functional needs are met.
Instead, the study values the consumers opinions and input in all stages of the design
process. It seems that the designers are configuring the rights of the consumer to be
involved in commercial developments, which inevitably impact their lives. Neither the
researchers nor the designers explicitly engage with feminist reflexivity, but given that
Shaowen and Jeffrey Bardzell advocate quite strongly for feminist HCI [Bardzell, 2010;
Bardzell, 2011] its not inconceivable that what they call embodied design is a catchall
for social theories that inform third-wave trends in HCI including feminist ones. They
also come to a realisation, which I mentioned earlier in Study 1, that designers cannot
escape a first-person mentality that pervades the design process. (263) Alcoff and
Potter outline two popular feminist positions toward dominant epistemologies: (1) The
terms appropriation and respect emphasise that feminist epistemologies are founded on
the idea of an equality of accounts of knowledge and therefore all knowers, even the
dominant ones, should be respected and included. (2) The terms criticism and rejection
emphasise that dominant knowers are responsible for claims and assumptions that have
ignored and marginalised other perspectives therefore their views must be challenged.
The designers in this study incorporate both of these sets of terms in the way that the
handle sexual experiences and knowledge. They look to a variety of sources, not
excluding their own and those of their family and friends, to inform their decisions as


This paper has attempted to provide an instance of how HCI research and practice
has been theorised according to feminist concerns developed by feminist studies of
technology over the last fifty years. My aim was to discuss how these concerns provide
new methods for envisioning, designing for, researching, understanding, and configuring
users in relation to the designer/researchers experiences and motivations. The first study
shows how interaction designers unknowingly become the user as they are implicated in
questioning, exploring, and subverting traditional HCI user configurations. The second
study offers theoretical frameworks for reversing the construction of the subject/user as
different or other in order to move towards a deeper understanding of non-Western
cultural practices and epistemologies. In the third study, the researchers advocate for HCI
research that models the un-conventional practices of a group of sex toy designers who
have revolutionized their industry. The feminist theories that pop up in these case studies
are critical to the development of HCI because they apply a set of cares and concerns that
treat the user as ambiguous and unfixed, not universal. They also implicate the
designer/researcher in taking responsibility and accounting for the many ways in which
they change or direct the users behaviours, practices, and needs. The researchers and
designers avoid essentialising user needs, but rather point to the subjectivity, mess, and
complexity of users interests and experiences based on race, class, gender, sexuality,
culture, education, and location. Feminist epistemology is a good starting point for third-
wave HCI because of its commitments to the complexity of human experiences and
interactions and the critical value of questioning paradigms. Such an approach increases
the HCI researcher/designers awareness of the complex repercussions that their
professional and academic actions have not only for technology or users, but for real


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