Taking an ‘idiotic’ approach toward participatory design

An implicit feature of our participatory design workshops is that they are unlikely to ‘work’. In fact, whether the workshops result in actual changes to school practices, policies and procedures is not our main concern. Instead, these are ‘provocative’ research activities intended to tease, test and problematize the structures and strictures of the datafied school (Pangrazio 2017). Our design workshops will certainly develop a range of ‘prototypes’ for new practices, procedures and even products relating to data-driven education. Yet the main purpose of these development processes is to stimulate critical engagement amongst school communities. The most likely tangible outcomes of these workshops is confirmation of what is not possible and (much more importantly) a better sense of why this is so. Of course, this is a deliberately contrary approach to take towards design research. Design usually results in making things that will lead to improved futures. So why be so awkward? Why set out to fail?

Our approach is inspired by the potential of ‘idiotic’ research. Here, we drawing on the writing of Mike Michael, which over a past few years has explored the idea of empirical idiocy as a means of unpacking social situations. Michael privileges the character of the ‘idiot’ as someone allowed (and often expected) to go against consensual ways of thinking and acting. The idiot is someone with permission to think otherwise in a gloriously impractical and implausible manner – turning events ‘on their head’ (Michael 2012, p.170) and assuming “a sensibility that … renders what is familiar in everyday life unfamiliar” (Michael 2012, p.169). There idiot is therefore is an ideal position to imagine all of the possible ways the datafied school might be. If we truly believe that “social events are ontologically open, in-process, emergent” (Michael 2012, p.179), then idiocy is a perfectly logical stance to take. It makes good sense for a research project such as ours to culminate in a bout of highly informed and ‘productive’ idiocy.

While often taking itself far too seriously, design research is an ideal mode of engaging in implausible, oppositional, idiotic thinking. As hinted at above, there can be great value in design activities that do not necessarily culminate with the production of useful artifacts. This is design work that is “less concerned with developing instrumental or utilitarian devices than objects that enable playfulness and exploration” (Michael 2012, p.173). At best this is design work that might possibly produce “objects that are obliquely functional in order to provoke reflection on the complex roles of new technology” (Michael 2012, p.172). This is not academic research that might result in lucrative patents being issued or spin-off companies being established.

Therefore some of the design workshops in this project will hopefully be conducted as a playful, exploratory and cheeky means of disturbance and deconstruction. This is not merely mindless ‘blue skies’ thinking as celebrated in commercial design and development. This is a theoretically-attuned and critical minded process that Michael (2012, p.178) sees as ‘de-signing’ – i.e. “in the sense of loosening, or ‘ambiguating’, the significations that contribute to the eventuation of objects”. One of the main functions of the second phase of our research project will be the opportunity to pause for (critical) thought. These will be research activities that momentarily halt the flow of research conclusions, recommendations and solutions. In pursuing the ‘practically nonsensical’ (Michael 2012) we do not seriously believe that much (if any) change will occur … but we are certainly interested in the insights that might result from attempting to push and prod the issues as far as possible. As such, the design workshop phase of this project is not simply an instance “of empirical research that went badly wrong” (Michael 2012, p.168). Instead, these are valuable empirical activities that will deliberately look for trouble(s).



Michael, M. (2012). De-signing the object of sociology: toward an ‘idiotic’ methodology. in Back, L. and Purwar, N. (eds) Live methods. London, Wiley-Blackwell

Pangrazio, L.   (2017)   Exploring provocation as a research method in the social sciences. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 20 (2):225-236