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Waves and forms: constructing the cultural in design


While research in HCI on dealing with cultural issues when designing ICTs tended to adopt fixed and taxonomic views, recent theoretical perspectives closer to the social sciences have called for attending to the contingent, fluid, and dynamic aspects of the notion of culture. In this article, we contribute to translating these perspectives into an approach for informing design. We focus on abandoning prior conceptions of culture to allow the discovery of cultural differences through inductive field research while engaging with the target community. This allows a view on cultural difference that is generative for design: it is unique to each case, and it also remains close to the concerns of community members. We base our approach on Basile Zimmermann’s (2015) waves and forms framework, and we illustrate it through our engagement and design with VOCI, a local voluntary community of tech-savvy university students in Syria between 2011 and 2015.

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Fig. 1


  1. In anthropology, see Kuper (1999). Descola (2013) also provides an interesting solution as he suggests moving beyond the nature-culture binary. For a recent discussion on definitions of “culture”, see Jahoda’s (2012) reflections where he argues about the futility of attempts to define culture in a definite way.

  2. In the context of an HCI design-oriented study, these descriptions can (and rather should) be based on conversing with actors in the field. What is required is a detailed account of those actors, their locations, and how they situate themselves vis-à-vis the context in which they are active.

  3. For a similar ontological argument with a focus on issues relevant to the sociology of knowledge, see Collins and Evans (2015).

  4. VOCI is short for “voluntary community”. We keep the real name of the community as well as it members anonymous throughout this study.

  5. It is impossible to do justice to the heavily charged and rapidly changing the Syrian situation in these few lines. On the socioeconomic roots of the Syrian crisis, see (Nasser et al. 2013; Abu-Ismail et al. 2011). For discussions that problematize the role of sect and religion, see (Berti and Paris 2014; Phillips 2015). On the more recent involvement of multi-regional and international forces, see (Kinninmont 2014). An article by Max Fisher in the New York Times gives an accessible account on the recent situation as of August 2016:, accessed on 04/10/2016.

  6. For canonical discussions that go beyond the social constructivism and technological determinism, and which acknowledge the roles of people, meaning-making and social interactions, as well as technical and material structures, see the edited volume of Bijker et al. (1987), and the introduction of Mackenzie and Wajcman (1999). For recent overviews, see Sismondo (2010, Chaps. 6 and 9) and Wyatt (2008).

  7. Most reports on Syria’s civic and public life point to the state’s persecution of informal gatherings, mainly documenting cases of groups explicitly expressing political dissidence (e.g., Human Rights Watch 2007, 2010). According to Halabi’s experience, this goes beyond such iconic cases and applies to lower-profile gatherings which can be perceived as bearing political undertones (for similar reasoning, see Halabi 2016, ch.1 and 2).

  8. This dynamic started well before the uprising. Halabi had witnessed a number of local initiatives which exploited early internet forums to solve many practical issues for finding arenas necessary to interact. By the time of the uprising, Facebook was already becoming a widely-spread social platform, which further helped establish new arenas for communication and self-organization.

  9. Of course, VOCI’s understanding and realization of the term had its own nuances, and we attempt to take into account how its members established differentiated roles of authority, structured their organization, and engaged in processes of construction of fuzzy community boundaries (see Lamont and Molnár 2002 on a review on the study of boundaries in the social sciences).

  10. An analysis based on waves and forms can have different degrees of detail. The link we describe here from the general situation in Syria to the use of ICTs to self-organize is coarse, and it certainly merits more attention to the minute detail of the circulation of forms and their waves content. Our study was mainly focused on interactions inside VOCI, hence the analysis coming next has a higher resolution.

  11. It is important not to over simplify here and avoid assuming that online spaces are structureless or without rules. Instead, the rules of online interaction are different and depend on the platform(s) under question. There is an increasing public attention as well as a growing body of literature on how digital technology contributes to framing and governing everyday action (see for instance Woolgar and Neyland 2013; Neyland 2016; Ziewitz 2016).

  12. As we noted earlier, when using the WF framework we move freely between expressions and interactions as they circulate through people, media and physical objects. Therefore, we do not construct a distinction between what is material and what is not—in the WF perspective everything is material. This applies to our treatment of the digital, to which we do not assign a special category in this paper. The digital has enjoyed a number of discussions recently, with various positions on its materiality or other characterizations of its nature (such as “informational”). An attempt to sort out the different notions of materiality of the digital can be found in Leonardi (2010). For a perspective on the digital as non-material, see Faulkner and Runde (2011); about the importance of accounting for the materiality of the digital and “modes of analysis grounded in the stuff of computing [emphasis by the author]”, see Blanchette (2011). For a similar perspective to ours, see the recent edited volume by Pink, Ardèvol, and Lanzeni, where the authors abandon “a priori definition about what is digital and what is material”, and “prefer to understand digital materiality as a process, and as emergent, not as an end product or finished object.” (2016, p. 10).

  13. For example, consider the common circulation of the practice of making posts and comments on Facebook, which travels both through users and through interfaces from personal walls to private groups, to event pages, etc. For further exploration on VOCI’s practices and how they circulated, see Halabi (2016, Chap. 4).

  14. Above we noted the processes of organizing and constructing community boundaries, but the notion of “community” merits further problematization. Importantly for us, referring to a group as “community” might implicitly conceive it as a positive category (Averweg and Leaning 2011), which tends to consider communities as homogeneous and characterized by common will, and overlooks issues of conflict and power (Goodwin 2008; Carroll 2001).

  15. Community moderators were those most active and present in its events and those who mainly contributed to decisions and management. Their number ranged between 10 and 15 during the life of VOCI, and they were members who knew each other personally and professionally in the university and in everyday life.

  16. Fictitious name.

  17. For an ethnographic account on VOCI and its conflict, see Halabi (2016, Chaps. 4 and 5).

  18. In contrast with the other forms we have been discussing so far, the form of blocking an administrator in VOCI’s management is striking not because it was recurring (it wasn’t), but precisely because it was unprecedented in what we observed. One strength of WF is that by focusing on similarities and differences among forms, it allows attending both to recurring patterns and unique ones.

  19. For a thought-provoking account on framing design intention, see Nelson and Stolterman (2012). Also, for discussions on pluralizing the engagement of various actors in community settings to frame a common intention, based on shared (or not so shared) interests, see Heeks and Stanforth (2015), Halabi et al. (2015), and Andrade and Urquhart (2010).

  20. Several Syrian thinkers and activists have suggested that with the stagnation of political and civic life in Syria in the recent decades, local communities have grown unable to maintain trust and form coalitions to pursue common interests (“political desertification” التصحر السياسي, has been a frequently used term to discuss this topic). On the other hand, one can note that many groups self-organize, including community councils that assemble outside of government control to run local services (such as healthcare, education, provision, security, and courts of justice).

  21. For a documentation of the various views that came from discussing the prototype and the details of the design, see Halabi (2016, Chap. 8).

  22. Indeed, Halabi (2016) has compared VOCI with other cases reported in the literature, where he argues that, as far as we are concerned with conflict, our case relates to contexts where the distribution of digital privileges among members becomes problematic.

  23. These are well established features of various frameworks and methods in qualitative sociology and humanities which have informed Zimmermann’s theoretical approach. See for example the work of Corbin and Strauss on Grounded Theory (2007); Becker’s work on sociological research methods (1998); Latour’s overview of the actor-network framework (2005); Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch on the social construction of technology (1987); and Ragin and Zaret’s discussion on the comparative strategies of Durkheim and Weber (1983).

  24. Here for instance, we find Brunello’s (2015) ecological approach to study and deal with intercultural encounters in ICT for development (ICT4D) projects particularly useful.


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We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comprehensive feedback as well as the editors of this special issue for their dedication and encouragement. We would also like to thank Trevor Pinch, Nicolas Nova, Martin Weinel, Harry Collins, and Robert Evans for constructive discussions and criticism about the framework during the past 4 years. We appreciate the several informal conversations we had with Amalia Sabiescu which were inspiring around the implications and bearings of the waves and forms framework. Furthermore, Matteo Tarantino and Tania Messell provided us with valuable critique for improving the clarity of our argument. We are also thankful to Michèle Courant, Béat Hirsbrunner, and colleagues at the Department of Informatics in the University of Fribourg, for their constant support through the years of research on VOCI. The support of the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva is gratefully acknowledged.

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Halabi, A., Zimmermann, B. Waves and forms: constructing the cultural in design. AI & Soc 34, 403–417 (2019).

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  • Culture
  • HCI design
  • Waves and forms
  • Syria
  • Voluntary community