Epistemology of Criticism

I realized tonight, on a walk with my spouse, that much of what I am doing this summer is documenting the epistemology of criticism. In other words, I am trying to render explicit the ways that critics come to know whatever it is that they come to know, and to compare that with how social scientists do the same.

There are several reasons why this activity is important. First, the two epistemological positions are sufficiently incompatible that both sides don’t “get” each other. To critics, social scientists can come off looking intellectually lazy, provincial, and mechanistic. To social scientists, critics can come off looking arrogant, totally subjective, and fluffy (not in the good way, like stuffed animals, but in the bad way, that is, lacking rigor). Second, my field (HCI), a traditionally social science-dominated field with an increasing interest in cultural categories, such as “experience” and “aesthetics,” is the site of a collision between these two epistemologies, and believe me, it’s not going well so far. And third, I’m trying to be one of the voices of translation, if not conciliation. That is, it may be too much to ask a social scientist to think and act like a critic and vice-versa, but it seems to me quite reasonable to ask a social scientist or critic considering contemporary, culturally embedded interaction design to have a basic comprehension (and with it respect) of the opposing epistemological position. We need to get away from the name-calling.

To articulate the epistemology of criticism, I have–as recent and future posts on this blog illustrate–read a lot of criticism and reflected on how it differs from what I suppose a social science approach to the same phenomenon might look like (part of the problem is that they don’t often consider “the same phenomenon,” so much of my enterprise is speculative). The immediate goal of this is to develop a theory of “interaction criticism” that will, not to put too fine a point on it, get me tenure. Now, one of the problems (and thanks again to Shaowen for asking the question that led me to this thought) is that on the one hand, I want to respect critical approaches. I want to practice criticism with the same care, rigor, and sensibility as a “proper” critic. (As opposed to the way many in HCI today seem to grab onto a random concept from critical theory and drop it ungracefully into HCI-as-usual.) At the same time, I want to update criticism for the context of interaction design. An interaction design is not a novel, and I must be mindful not to treat it like one.

So I know, obviously, that literary and cultural theory cannot simply be ported from Jane Austen to Steve Jobs. But it is a much harder question to know, in everyday practice, when a deviation from “true” literary/cultural criticism in order to accommodate the special characteristics of interactive digital media, is in fact a compromise, and how much of one, and whether anything can be done to make up for it. To answer that question, it seems to me, one needs something of a philosophical awareness of one’s use of critical theory.

There is a similar question to be answered as well, besides how does criticism differ from social science approaches, and that is, how does criticism in the arts (literature, painting, film) differ from criticism in design (architecture, interior design, industrial design, and fashion). I have some thoughts, but they need refinement. Probably that will happen in this space in the future as well.

In order to cultivate that philosophical awareness, I am attempting to articulate the epistemological underpinnings of these two different strategies for studying human-computer interaction.


  1. Will

    I think you bring up a good point with respect to the distinction between the role of criticism in art and in design. Among other things, I believe (and hope!) fleshing out this distinction within the context of HCI research will aid design-oriented research in gaining further (and much needed) ground within the broader HCI research community. I’m curious about you approach to doing this and, in particular, which exemplars you’ll draw upon to build your case? In any case, keep up the good work!

  2. key

    I like the way you’re thinking about this issue. The act of criticism, in its many forms and fields, is something I’ve long associated with those individuals who are so far removed from their objects of criticism—I begin to wonder how a critic is able to talk the talk without walking the walk. You’ve articulated this concern pretty well.
    It would seem to me that there is less of a split between disciplines than the critics may think, but the connection is one less rooted in the everyday constituents of design and literature as separate things, but combined understanding of both literature and design together in a single discussion. I don’t know if it’s a matter of compromise, but rather a matter of seeing the common thread.
    Maybe what I’ve said will help you, but know that you’ve already helped me. It’s good to know that others are thinking about similar problems. Thanks.

  3. Aaron H

    But I like name calling! 😉
    Well this question is certainly worthy of you time IMO, and I’m looking forward to seeing your thinking develop. I wouldn’t mind seeing a brief comparison not only to how social scientists come to know what they know, but also how the so-called hard scientists do the same (unless perhaps you think they are sufficiently similar?). It wouldn’t need to be long I think.

  4. jeffreybardzell

    Hi all, thanks for commenting!

    @Will: I do have a post draft underway treating the difference between design criticism and literary/art criticism. I think one distinction, and it is a matter of degree, is the respective emphasis placed on the internal poetics of an artifact versus reception of the artifact. Both types of criticism deal with both these categories, but given design’s integration with commerce, reception is more than an aesthetic category for design.

    @key: From my perspective (and I’m not trying to contradict yours), my problem hasn’t been with critics, my problem has been with scientists categorically rejecting critical epistemologies on the grounds that they are “all subjective” and lack “rigor” (understood in ways that reflect the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of their own discipline). I am certainly *not* suggesting that critics do not also have tunnel vision, but my peer reviewers are typically scientists, not critics, so a pragmatic problem for me is to figure out how to articulate a critical perspective in a language that my peer reviewers can understand, without compromising the work. I can imagine getting critics to take science seriously is an equally troubling issue, but it is just not one that I deal with everyday, so I don’t personally have anything at stake in that. I should note that Camille Paglia, feminist critic and author of Sexual Personae, has railed against feminist cultural critics for ignoring science because it doesn’t fit well with their critical epistemologies. So I think it’s a two-way problem, but for me personally, I only really need to worry about one of those two ways.

    @Aaron H: I’m definitely not going to lay out the epistemologies of all the potentially relevant disciplines, because that will bog me down indefinitely, is overkill for my own personal needs (see my response to key above), and has already been done! If you are interested, I recommend the following book: Moses, J. & Knutsen, T. (2007) _Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research_. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave.

  5. Warren Olson

    I recently did a research paper, that touched on the ‘culture’ side of your ideas, if not the design. This was into the Interviewing of Asian people by Westerners, in settings such as Immigtaion/customs etc. It is very clear, that Asian people for example, by and large think, and therefore comment or ‘critque’ differently.
    The western, perhaps aristotelian way of debate and free speech, certainly invites the ‘critic’ to air his/her viewpoint. In an Asian setting, where perhaps Confusian/Tao upbringings reign, harmony, not questioning alleged superiors, is of course more common.
    Would therefore, a ‘critic’ be less critical if he/she were Asian ?
    I tend to think yes !

  6. jeffreybardzell

    I would be very careful how to phrase this. Certainly, cultural differences change the general worldview of a typical citizen. That said, world view is only one input into a topic such as this. Clearly, education, interests, mentors, and so on are also inputs. There are, of course, spectacular Asian critics (including some of my own mentors as a grad student), and I certainly don’t think they are oustanding in spite of being Asian!

    So maybe a better way to talk about this is to say, first of all, that the concept of criticism I am talking about here is derived from Western philosophy, aesthetics, and critical theory. For that reason, it naturally foregrounds certain Western notions of, for example, the individual or what constitutes “taste” or quality art, etc. Even if it were true that the common Asian worldview–if indeed it exists as coherently and with the strength you seem to suggest–somehow makes it more difficult for an Asian to be critical on Western terms, that in no way suggests that an Asian wouldn’t be privileged to be critical within Eastern conceptualizations of art/criticism. (And, more generally, Asian design traditions, including Japanese and Korean design, stand up against anyone in the world, and the kind of criticism I am talking about is part and parcel of that.)

    Second, any Asian educated in a Western system, e.g., by getting a degree from a Western university, doesn’t seem to me to be at any disadvantage at all. And my own experience overwhelmingly confirms this, that Asian scholars in Western educational systems are every bit as critical, in the Western sense, as Westerners who go through the same system.

    So my point is that it is perfectly reasonable to wonder whether different cultural perspectives affect intellectual practices, such as criticism. But one must be careful not to give Western notions of an intellectual practice, such as criticism, a normative privilege–Eastern aesthetics and criticism should not be marginalized! And, most importantly, one must also not ascribe a strongly deterministic view of a national or even racial group’s capacities based on the general cultural environment in which it is situated.


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