Non-Citizens doing Citizen Science

Part 1: Non-Citizens

The enthusiasm for citizen science as a strong approach to involve the public in science and or the public doing science, led to many discussions with my colleagues at the Citizenlab of the University of Twente on what citizen science is. In this blogpost I want to share some of my personal thoughts on citizen science by first defining the terms citizenship and citizen. To do so I will refer to Ariella Azoulay’s book; The civil contract of photography, which will also explain the origin of the title Non-Citizens doing Citizen Science.

For Azoulay, the use of the terms citizenship and citizens should be understood in a social context around relationships between individuals, beyond the boundaries of a nation-state. She disputes the discourse of citizenship as being something that you can own because you are protected by the authority within the borders of the nation-state. It is not only the boundaries of a nation-state that determines whether a person is a citizen, but also the way in which a government groups citizens thereby creating ‘the other’. As soon as there is a protective shield around some of the citizens, a dividing line between them and others is created. The status of ‘the others’ causes a separate group of non-citizens with compromised civil status within the group of citizens.

Azoulay talks about the so-called ‘impaired civic’ status of this group, whose citizenship has been deprived, that will determine the way in which all citizens are governed. After all, ‘the others’, the non-citizens, are ruled with the same (violent) force. In this way, not only the fragile status of the non-citizen is at stake, but also the status of the citizen. For Azoulay the existence alone of non-citizens, groups of people that are ignored and/or systematically exposed to violence by a ruling power or people that get stuck between nation-states, renders the necessity to reconsider the concept and practice of citizenship.

Azoulay is emphatically concerned with the relationship or repairing the disrupted relationship between citizens. The cooperation and solidarity between citizens, separate from the nation-state, guarantees a force that can draw on the power of a violent authority. It is in the disconnecting of the power of the people from the power of the ruling authority, the potential to (re) open political actions emerges. Azoulay derives the possibility of such disconnection from the structure or design of the various social contract theories. These contract theories generally exist, she says, of two stages. The first phase involves the formation of a political community. This formation establishes an obligation between the participants themselves. The community thereby provides itself with some form of authority. During the second phase, the participants cede their right to exercise political authority to their representatives, the sovereign government. The power of citizenship, according to Azoulay, lays in the first phase; the formation of a political community which establishes an obligation between the participants and thereby providing some form of authority. This also explains why Azoulay’s interest in the discourse on citizenship is not in the way in which sovereign decisions can be accounted for and limited.

It is in the conditions of being visible through photography that Azoulay foresees an active role in bringing about reforms in a society. These conditions will have to affect our consciousness with respect to the other. In Azoulay’s case, the other in need who makes an appeal via a photo to everyone who takes part in photography. By addressing others to stop ongoing violence or in the position of an addressee, anyone can still be a citizen within a photographic community. Anyone in the sense of people who are or are not represented by an authority, the citizen and non-citizen.

I won’t go further into Azoulay’s view concerning a civil contract of photography, but I will use her vision on citizenship and citizens placing both terms within a social context around relationships between individuals and their role of participants in a political and social community with an obligation towards each other that provides some form of authority. On the one hand Azoulay’s vision offers the broad range of citizens and non-citizens that will bring insights on doing science to the establish some form of change, from society bottom up. Second it will provide a specific perspective on the role of citizen science as an empowering tool.

Azoulay, A. The civil contract of photography. (TCCP) Zone books, New York. (2008)
DriescheVanDen, C. Een burgerlijk contract zichtbaar gemaakt. Hypothese van fotografisch burgerschap. Philosophy master thesis at Tilburg University. (2013)

Part 2: Can non-citizen do citizen science?

Speculative by Design: criticism and fiction.

“…many oppressive relations result not from people having mistaken ideological beliefs, but from living in material circumstances that provide no alternative.” (Levy-Bryant. Onto-cartography, An ontology of machines and media. Edinburgh University Press. 2007)

When we talk about critical design, we mostly refer to a design method that improves products through a carefully chosen political and ethical attitude. On the other hand, speculative design as a form of critical resistance is concerned with making alternative structures of circumstances in daily life visible, aiming to create radical change. The difference between these two design methods lays in the vision on what design can do: improving products by reflection or offering an alternative perspective on societal issues. The latter vision implies that speculative design must be able to change the existing perception of what is considered ‘normal’ by large groups of people. Hence, creating a political element within design that goes beyond moral arguments in the vein of designing with ‘good intentions’. So how do we assess the political element of the outcome within the speculative design method when we talk about the quality of design?

Only by investigating a societal problem that is worked through over a longer period of time, in a constant loop between experience, interaction and insights from technology (as a product or service), does a measurable political evidence arise. As a result, not the designer but the influence of technology in the domain of social relations, will have to be able to offer new perspectives on political issues. Hence, speculative design needs to be approached from the technology consumed in the contemporary capitalist economy rather than the design process or the designer as creator. And because we can only see in retrospect whether there was a change, the historical origin of design will have to answer the question whether design contributed to a critical resistance during the process of societal change. The question remains whether the method of speculative design can claim its right to change.