A recursive research process for citizen science?

In the citizen science approach, the type of research process should be able to support different types of disciplines working together to achieve some kind of positive change in society. Design research as a participation methodology could possible support the shaping of a citizen science project.

When you look at the discipline of design the iterative process​ ​has become ​mainstream. From every step or phase​ like ​empathize, discover, test or ideate, the best options are incorporated into the next step. Inevitable this ​means you leave some of the knowledge in the previous steps behind. In transdisciplinary cooperation using different the types of expertise knowledge, which is typically for citizen science, the ‘leaving behind’ of insights might weaken the solution or outcome instead of strengthening it. In a worst-case scenario one discipline could disappear completely.

Using the waterfall model means that the project is divided into different phases beforehand. When an error is discovered in one of the stages, you go back to correct that stage and repeat the subsequent steps. ​This error is recognizable because this process is mostly used, as far as I have been able to identify, in the field of developing software programming codes. Working in a fixed frame where something works yes or no is, although the code itself has its quality, is different compared to a design process where the requirements for the solution are more open ended and discovered during the process itself. This makes it almost impossible to detect an ‘error’ before the testing or validation phase.

Another important condition of the waterfall model is that ​you would have to have a clear view on the steps to be taken and the preferred outcome. ​In a citizen science approach ​​to ​pre-defin​e​ steps​ ​for cooperative research between citizen scientists and academic scientist is very hard and maybe these steps shouldn’t be defined at all to give room to an equal cooperation between different kind of experts.

On the other hand, in a recursive process you go back to the beginning a few times, errors or not. Working in a recursive way is more like an ongoing process​ using all the knowledge and insights concerning an issue​​. In a recursive process you could ‘stack knowledge’. For this type of ‘stacking knowledge process’ you necessarily would need stop-moments to reflect, describe, combine and re-negotiate type of methods, tools, time, roles and provisional outcome(s), to make the research project manageable. At the same time you could keep track of the knowledge arising from working together during these so-called stop-moments or even better touchpoints. Subsequently deciding on the steps of the research process could be part of the research project itself, using design methodology and tools.

A recursive design process in a citizen science approach would prevent different types of knowledge from getting lost in the process, pre-fixed steps that might not work for all disciplines involved and on the other hand could support an open-ended outcome or different type of outcomes.

(Non-) 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-) 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?