Participatory design, communicative reason and discourse ethics

M W J Spual

ETHICOMP Journal – Vol 1 Issue 1


The participatory design of information systems, like all participatory methods, is associated with strong ethical claims; ethical claims which derive their appeal from western democratic institutions. But, as with democratic politics, we are often hardpressed to articulate the source of the ethical and practical appeal of such methods. The recent expansion of interest in the participatory desogn of information systems (evidenced by recent collections such as Schuler and Namioka 1993, Schuler 1993) has largely been focused on the pragmatic issues of organising participation in specific contexts; in this respect it has mirrored a trend noted by Kiloh (1986) for wider discussions of workplace democracy, which are conducted at the level of management and industrial relations rather than at the level of political philosophy. This paper is concerned with the examination of one sustained theoretical attempt to articulate the ethical and political basis of participatory design, that of the social action theory of Jurgen Habermas (1984, 1987a, 1990).

Habermas’ theory of communicative action and its associated ethical stance, discourse ethics, provides a comprehensive and relevant framework within which to discuss the participatory design of information systems. Habermas, and the critical tradition of Western Marxism of which he is a representative, has exerted an influence at key points in the participatory design tradition: in the political foundations of the Scandinavian workplace democracy movement )Ehn 1988), in the epistemological underpinnings of computer supported cooperative work (Winograd and Flores 1986), and in the development of design frameworks for office automation (Hirschheim 1985, Lyytinen, Klein and Hirschheim 1991). Habermas’ theory also promises to accommodate the three main areas in which justifications for participatory design have been formulated: the epistemological, the ethical/political and the pragmatic (Greengaum 1993). The encyclopedic scope of Habermas’ work also provides an intellectual marshalling yard for contemporay debate in radical democracy, with the concerns of most major participatory democratic theorists (for a survey, see Pateman 1970) being represented.

Habermas provides a focus for quite another form of discussion relevant to workplace participation. As a representative of high modernism and the liberal belief in forums for debate and problem resolution based on reason and procedural neutrality, Habermas has been the subject of a sustained communitarian critique (see, e.g., Borgmann 1993 section 4. below), questioning the validity of a democratic ideal based on universal reason. The purpose of this paper is to survey the claims made by Habermas, to consider the major weaknesses exposed by communitarians and feminists, and speculate on the possible implications for an ethically sound participatory design practice.