The Science of Culture in HCI

I just received a CFP for a special issue on “enculturating HCI.” Now, “enculturating” is a rather strange word, which I will talk more about below, but for now let me at least say what it seems to mean in this CFP: “making HCI cultural.” Here is the intro:

We are living in a globalized world but local or cultural identities strongly influence our patterns of behavior and our interpretation of behavior in others by estblishing norms and values. Nevertheless, current interfaces seldom reflect such cultural heuristics. Thus, users are forced to adapt their way of interaction and interpretation to a given (most of the time western) perspective. Instead it would be much more reasonable to allow e.g. for culturally tailored presentation of information. Although there is no principled approach yet to challenge the importance of cultural patterns in human-computer interaction, there are a number of promising results from a variety of research projects around the world that have started to integrate cultural aspects in the interaction. These range from artistic work over web design to CSCW support tools and training applications with conversational virtual characters. Bringing together the leading reseachers from these emerging research streams in this special issue will further discussions and contribute to establishing a new research area.

Now, I have a lot to say about this, but perhaps the starting point is the assumption that HCI was ever outside of culture to begin with, that its “enculturation” (if you think about the different meanings of culture, including agriculture and lab cultures, this is a really strange word!) is even possible. I would argue that culture was always already there. The fact that three decades into the field that HCI is only now acknowledging it and engaging with it is the bigger headline.

And, as is typical of HCI, the only “principled” way to go about this is, naturally, to use traditional engineering and user research paradigms. Let me excerpt some more of this CFP:

The special issue will be centered around three main research challenges:

1. Models and Theory…

2. Empirical data on cultural/cross-cultural interaction…

3. Systems and applications…

Now I want to be very clear that I emphatically support the goals that this special issue is setting out to achieve. I am very happy this is happening.

But I am equally emphatically going to assert that this appropriation of scientific methodologies to address cultural issues in HCI deserves far more reflection than it seems to be getting. The three research topic areas quoted above will look absolutely alien to anyone who studies culture.

Worse, this 785 word CFP fails even to acknowledge the existence of cultural studies, literary theory, philosophy, new media theory, or design criticism. Of all of the sample approaches and topics offered in this abstract, the 2,500 year tradition of the humanities–i.e., the people who study culture professionally–are not only not mentioned, but it simply isn’t clear even where they *might* fit in. Here are the sample paper topics offered:

Areas of interest include, but are not limited to:
– Models and theories of enculturated interfaces
– Design guidelines for enculturated interfaces
– Field studies of intercultural interaction
– Standardization issues on resources and tools for enculturated HCI such as
multilingual/multi-cultural comparative corpus, verbal/nonverbal behaviors
annotation scheme
– Language processing for enculturated interfaces/multilingual NLP –
Multimodal processing for enculturated interfaces
– Culture adaptive interaction techniques focuing e.g. on conversational,
mobile, pervasive, or web-based interactions
– Computer supported intercultural collaboration
– Web technologies for enculturated HCI
– Ambient technologies for enculturated HCI
– Prototypes of enculturated systems
– Evaluation case studies/Evaluation guidelines for enculturated systems

Standardization, information processing, evaluation guidelines, “cultural heuristics”–all of these topics are alien to cultural approaches to technology, media, the arts, and society. Cultural heuristics (a phrase from the intro quoted at the beginning of this post, not the previous list) strongly implies a reductive epistemological position that begs for a little critical reflection. But these terms are all the familiar concepts and strategies of computer science and psychological approaches to HCI; they are not the language of the study of culture.

To preempt any possible misunderstandings, let me say very explicitly that I do NOT believe either (a) that cultural studies has it “right” and that HCI should simply appropriate its approaches; nor do I believe (b) that any of the scientific approaches here are intrinsically due to fail. Indeed, the “digital arts and humanities” movements both at federal levels and even at my local university explore ways that science and technology can support cultural research, and I enthusiastically support these initiatives. But there is no claim behind them that they are “enculturating HCI” as if HCI in its natural habitat lacks culture!

Rather, my point is that as a cultural studies person, this CFP comes across as a colonialization of cultural study–“we know better than you”–and the fact that it doesn’t even seem to know that there are any other perspectives, or that it holds them in such contempt as not even to acknowledge or engage them, is alarming. I have a serious problem with the parochialism of HCI, which claims to be “interdisciplinary” but which, in cases such as this, is more imperial than interdisciplinary.

If HCI wants to engage with the cultural, then (a) it’s about time, since HCI has always been cultural and in failing to engage with that fact has abdicated some of its ethical responsibilities, and (b) at a minimum, there needs to be some reflection about the fitness of appropriating strategies, methods, epistemologies, and ethical positions from engineering into aspects of human life involving categories that engineering has comparatively little history dealing with: identity, ideology, enlightenment, intimacy, social justice, aesthetic pleasure, subcultures, human expression, self-actualization, speculative reasoning, taste, and radical critiques of knowledge production.

We in HCI should at least be asking: Are the goals of a more culturally nuanced HCI best served by prototypes, evaluations, standardization, information processing models, heuristics, and empirical user studies? This CFP has already answered this question implicitly and in the affirmative. On what grounds? I would hazard to guess habit.

I don’t have a problem with any of those approaches per se, but I believe we need to cast the nets wider. The disciplines that brought us innovations in modeling and predicting the usability of interfaces may not, on their own, be sufficient to address profoundly complex and controversial issues of cultural identity and interaction. The obvious answer, to me at least, is that the people who understand interaction the best–people in HCI–need to have a dialogue with, not an imperial take-over of, the people who understand culture the best–people in cultural studies (in the broadest and most inclusive sense).

HCI without cultural studies is dangerous; cultural studies of interaction without HCI are irrelevant (at least to interaction design).


  1. seanryanconnolly

    It was a good day for me to read this, thank you.

    At first, it makes me ask a question: certainly paradigms exist in the world-wide-web. Left-hand-navigation; headers; 2-and-3 column web pages. While we maybe able to point to the modern transition moments away from these paradigms, it would be interesting, in the context of this CFP, to investigate what were those cultures from which these paradigms have sprung. Was the it a national culture, or, a culture of academia? A culture of business for e-commerce? A culture of media for eLearning? The posted CFP:

    “We are living in a globalized world but local or cultural identities strongly influence our patterns of behavior and our interpretation of behavior in others by establishing norms and values.”

    : seems to suggest an ethno-nationalist slant to their assumptions about culture. But obviously, as the web was international from inception, the cultural paradigms that dominate on the web today may have arisen from any grouping with a culture.

    Lastly, I’d say this post makes an excellent — even if paradoxical — basis for a paper to approach models and frameworks.

  2. Pin Sym

    This resonates. I recently had a review oh my paper on using Grounded Theory to gain a cultural sensemap of dying + technology in the US. The conference is of moderate importance in the world of CHI, I will share here since it is relevant. One reviewer wrote,”there may even be some issues over whether this has anything to do with CHI at all..”
    It was accepted anyway on the basis of its ‘controversial’ nature.


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