HCI as “Core” or “Relation”?

I write this blog post in response to a blog post published a week ago called “A Growing Problem in HCI Research,” written by my colleague Erik Stolterman.

The “growing problem” that Stolterman refers to is the expansion of HCI as a research field to the point that it now “has an empty space in the middle.” He elaborates, “I would argue that a large part of todays HCI research could and maybe should be seen as research in other disciplines.” He then lays out some notions of what constitutes research in HCI versus research contributing to other disciplines:

If research in HCI do not in any sense contribute to our understand of human computer interaction in some general or universal sense, and if it is only an application of what we already know in yet another field, then it may be a contribution to that application field but not to HCI. So, if someone applies HCI theory and knowledge (whatever that is) in another field to explore and examine a phenomena without bringing back some serious insights to HCI theory and knowledge then it is not HCI research.

What this type of expansion leads to is unfortunately in many cases research that do not contribute in a serious way to the core of HCI while also being questionable research in relation to what is the standard in the “other” field. If the research really contributed to those other fields then the research should be evaluated and published in those fields.

So Stolterman appears to be making two related claims:

  1. HCI can and should have a “core,” and any research that calls itself “HCI” should speak to it in some sense.
  2. It is often the case that what is presented in HCI (a) really belongs in another discipline, and (b) is of “questionable” quality in relation to that other discipline.

Now, Stolterman clearly recognizes problems in defining a “core” but leaves a serious attempt to do so out of the scope of that blog post (which is fair enough in a blog post!).

But regardless of what candidates he (or anyone) might put forward as “core HCI,” I have two objections, one ontological (focusing on the question of, “what is HCI, such that it can or should have a core?”) and the other political (i.e., “what does a ‘core HCI’ do, given what we know about the roles of social power in scientific legitimation?”).

Objection 1. The idea that there is and should be an “HCI core” is a much more problematic statement than Stolterman seems to acknowledge in his post. He sets up a categorical distinction between “core HCI” and “other disciplines,” which is a strongly essentialist position, i.e., that HCI and, say, psychology are distinct entities. But consider the subcommittee structure of CHI, which includes User Experience and Usability; Specific Application Areas; Interaction Beyond the Individual; Design; Interaction Using Specific Capabilities or Modalities; Understanding People: Theory, Concepts, Methods; Interaction Techniques and Devices; and Technology, Systems, and Engineering. It is difficult for me at least to identify a core unifying all of that–epistemological, disciplinary, domain-based, methodological, etc. Also, Facebook conversations, casual chat during conferences, and the occasional blog collectively suggest that many members of this community also don’t see a strong “core” and accept that, rather than see it as a problem. Moreover, a historical survey of HCI as a research field going back to around 1980 also suggests that there never has been much of a “core HCI.” I would have a very hard time even identifying credible candidate formulations of a “core HCI.” And I think this is the case for a very good reason: HCI is a much more fluid discipline than most, at least so far, because it is so young and because the nature, uses, locations, and meanings of technology has changed so dramatically over the years. Had HCI had a well articulated core early on, I am skeptical that it could have adapted as well as it has.

Objection 2. Stolterman’s second claim, which I paraphrased as “It is often the case that what is presented in HCI (a) really belongs in another discipline, and (b) is of ‘questionable’ quality in relation to that other discipline” is doubly political. First, it acts as a legitimizing rhetoric for whatever gets to be in the “core,” and delegitimizes everything not in the core. We know that scientific consensus is socially constructed, so the collective act of identifying a “core” vs. a “periphery” seems to run enormous risks in terms of powerful established stars and leaders in the field identifying themselves as “core.” The second political implication is that research that is deemed not core to HCI also falls under the suspicion of being “questionable quality”–not good enough to be published in the discipline where it belongs and only apparently good enough in HCI because we don’t seem to know better, a position that seems to denigrate researchers and reviewers alike. In short, Stolterman’s suggestion provides two independent mechanisms for an established group in the field to maintain dominance against change and innovation: one strategy is to accuse something of not being “core,” and the other is the suggestion that the work, not being core, is not in fact legitimate anywhere. Having once been a junior scholar transitioning into HCI from somewhere else, as many of us have and do, I can attest to the chilling effect of being told that one is “not really HCI” or “not a real designer.”

So there are high risks of advocating a core. I guess I’d rather have “an empty space in the middle” of HCI research than run the risk of canonizing a group of “the most legitimate HCI scholars,” who, among other things, are likely to be older, white, male, and ethnomethodologists. Just kidding on that last one. (Maybe.)

Alternative View. I find an alternative view much more attractive, and that is to see HCI as an always already applied field, which creates a relational identity for the field, an identity structure for which “core” is not a relevant concept. On this view, one key reason that so many HCI researchers have one foot in another discipline is that they are trying to leverage the insights of a mature discipline (engineering, psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature/cultural studies, etc.) to help provide resources to deal with the needs of IT design, which evolves faster than, and creates more epistemologically diverse requirements, than most traditional research disciplines (e.g., math or philosophy). At the same time, working in the context of HCI reinvigorates traditional disciplines (this is as true for Card, Moran, and Newell in psychology in 1980 as it is for anthropology and sociology today). And some of this research couldn’t be done in those traditional disciplines because they already have those cores that make them resistant to this kind of work!

All of this is not to say that individual judgments to the effect that “X is subpar research,” or “Y seems mostly irrelevant to HCI” have no legitimacy. It’s just that I’d prefer not to resort to given notion of a “core” as the ground truth for making that judgment. Is there something wrong with a paper that appeals mainly to researchers in, say, the “Interaction using Specific Capabilities or Modalities” area, but doesn’t resonate with anyone in “Technology, Systems, and Engineering,” or “Interaction Beyond the Individual”? I don’t think so. Is there something wrong with research submitted to “Design” that doesn’t appeal to “Design”? Why yes, I think there is. I think there is something wrong with a paper that tries to use a theory from psychology or cultural studies but misapplies that theory, but again, reviewers don’t need a solid notion of a “core” to make that judgment.

Provocation back to Stolterman (and readers of this post): What I would much rather hear from you (all of you!) is what sorts of papers are in your judgment of general interest to HCI–actual examples or even topic areas. That is, rather than claiming that there is a “growing problem” and delegitimizing papers that don’t offer general knowledge in your judgment, why not take the positive alternative and advocate for papers (or types of paper) that you really do care for, and say why you care for them, and why you think the community should take them seriously, or more seriously than they currently do?

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