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Undoing the Ontology of the Poor: A Participatory Design Project

Mariacristina Sciannamblo and Maurizio Teli

30 May, 2017

Contemporary European Union citizens and migrants are experiencing low income, unemployment, and precarious jobs. The official statistics highlight how these conditions lead to material deprivation, risk of poverty or social exclusion, revealing the harsh impact of capitalism and neoliberal policies that threaten welfare policies and increase social inequalities.

This context constitutes the analytical and empirical field of the European-funded project “Commonfare”, which aims at aiding those who are at risk of poverty and social exclusion by building a digital platform through participatory design methods. The project articulates its actions in three European countries and, in doing so, focuses on different populations: unemployed youth in Croatia, precarious workers in Italy and the Netherlands, and non-Western migrants in the Netherlands.

The direct participation of people in research activities reflects an understanding of social methods and theories as engaged and performative – as illustrated in strands of Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholarship. John Law and feminist thinking in STS, for example, remind us that research methods generate not only representations of reality, but also the realities those representations depict – a concern Annemarie Mol has developed in terms of ‘ontological multiplicity’ and ‘ontological politics’. A similar understanding of theories and methods inevitably interrogates research projects and researchers about what kind of worlds they help to make with the heuristic tools they deploy.

In the Commonfare project such an approach to social methods and theories primarily concerns the participants whom the researchers are working with. That is those individuals that European institutions, policy-makers and statistics use to call “the poor” or people at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Such labeling linguistically reflects their subalternity, and is often associated to a ‘lack of’ a fundamental property (such as lack of human or financial capital), or a ‘dependency on’ something else (such as welfare provisions).

The adoption of a participatory design approach, which starts with our partnership with local NGOs and advocacy organizations that act as gatekeepers in each of the three countries, leads us towards an alternative understanding of people who live in precarious conditions. Early results of the research activities – including observation and interviews, focus groups, design workshops, and moments of reflexivity within the consortium (conducted in the aforementioned countries Croatia, Italy, and the Netherlands) – are calling into question the ontology of poverty as delivered by aggregate data. And is unveiling the ways whereby participants resist such labeling, for instance by defining themselves as “neither poor neither rich”, even when acknowledging they would experience significant difficulty and hardship if faced with unexpected expenses of a few hundred euros. The refusal of the institutional labeling – which basically equates poverty with financial deprivation – rests on the recognition of the value of social relations that people who are said to live in conditions of precariousness stress.

More specifically, we have identified two different narratives. The first frames the precarious working conditions of the interviewee in the light of a diminished opportunity for professional development that could be addressed through unionization and more traditional strategies of the labor movement. The second is characterized by giving up on professional development in favor of the cultivation of social relations.

Participatory Workshop: Undoing Ontology of the Poor

This lack of alignment between large-scale statistics, the language and narratives embedded in the vocabulary of funding agencies, and the ethnographic data we are collecting reflects the ontological multiplicity that Mol insightfully described by illustrating the case of anaemia, and pinpoints an alternative version of ‘the poor’ that resembles what Toni Negri describes as biopolitical subject, namely a reality that is able to bring both limits and transformative force to bear. It is precisely such active disposition, lively tension, and demand of knowledge that the epistemic practices we are employing are able to grasp.

As a result, the adoption of participatory design methods focused on social issues within large-scale contexts, such as the European Union, challenges the taken-for-granted understanding of the subjects and the complex phenomena under scrutiny. Moreover, the articulation of research activities in three countries which deeply differ as for economic, political, and historical traits results in a heterogeneous portrayal of poverty and precariousness, thus forcing us to undertake a deep reflection on the relationship between research methods and the outcome of their deployment.

Following Pelle Ehn, a participative and interventionist understanding of design practices does not aim just at building devices that provide access to certain functions, but it opens up political processes that enact other articulations among subjects, spaces and values. Enacting realities through methodological practices means precisely to set the stage for certain network-hinterlands, set of connectivities, and circuits (as Law points out). The participatory methods that characterize the Commonfare project lay out controversies and matters of concern around the depiction of poverty in Europe which resist the labeling of mainstream representation and enact a political subjectivity that is as much troubling as transformative. Hence, this framing of design means to put STS at work, as Ehn suggested.

One of the ways through which the ontological multiplicity unfolds becomes visible through the combination of different research methods and theoretical perspectives throughout the project. If the quantitative data, coming from official sources or collected during the project, display actual inequalities and economic difficulties, the qualitative data points towards elements for rethinking the politics of the poor and their perspectives as biopolitical subjects. The political implications of these two perspectives then appear different among each other, and question who could be an ally of researchers aware of research capacity to build the realities it investigates.

Thinking about participatory design, our empirical results suggest a move that extends research networking from traditional collaborators, like trade unions, to identify the spaces in which social relations are nurtured, and different forms of collective action are enacted. The reconfiguration of the forms of cooperation among researchers and social actors is, therefore, another of the means whereby the ontology of the poor could be rethought, and the wealth of social relations described by our interviewee could be nourished and grow toward a wider perspective on contemporary societies.


Mariacristina Sciannamblo is a postdoctoral researcher at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute (M-ITI). She has a background in Science and Technology Studies, Feminist Technoscience Studies, and Media Studies. Her PhD research revolved around the gender-informed and feminist critique of Information Technology (IT), and on the understanding of how computer-supported cooperative work tools shape organizations. Currently, she works within the European-funded project PIE News/Commonfare, with a focus on public engagement in participatory design projects that aim at addressing critical social issues such as low income, precariousness, and unemployment.

Maurizio Teli has been working interdisciplinarily for more than ten years. His current research revolves around sociologically-informed Participatory Design. He has recently published a co-authored Routledge monograph and journal and conference articles oriented to bring political economy back into Participatory Design. He is Research and Innovation Coordinator of the H2020 PIE News/Commonfare project, aiming at rethinking welfare provisions in the age of platform capitalism.

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.