Why Critical Theory?

Drawing on the original proposal, this week I’ll just briefly provide a very short introduction into how Critical Theory is relevant to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in general and through that for this project in particular. Unlike before, I have put in selected references for people to go on further to investigate Critical Theory for their own purposes.

Critical theory is a mode of inquiry in which the preconditions of specific contexts (technical or not) are analysed according to their power dynamics and implications for equity (Horkheimer, 1972). Within HCI, several subfields and multidisciplinary approaches converge to understand what happens when humans and technologies engage with each other and how to design for this encounter (Preece et al., 2019). Drawing from different perspectives of oppression, Critical Theory allows us to understand HCI as a set of powerful interdependencies of different agencies and power relations, particularly by using critical discourse analysis. As Foucault (2005) put it, discourses represent an “institutionalised way of speaking or writing about reality that defines what can be intelligibly thought and said about the world and what cannot”. Discourses work to create community through creating shared understanding and terms of meaning; they set the bounds and goals of a space, a conversation, and a movement (Bizzell, 1992). Given this background, it is timely to conduct more work at the intersection of critical theory and technological contexts.

However, critical theorists often lack a deeper understanding of the technological contexts of modern computing technologies. Similarly, computer scientists and HCI researchers often have limited training in critical thinking, even though, particularly for design, such knowledge could deepen design for specifically desired experiences (Bardzell et al., 2012). Particularly as technologies move more and more towards, on and even inside the human body, investigating the conceptualisation of body images and their implications from a critical perspective is highly relevant for the research community.