Embodied Deliberation

Over the past two decades, designers have been invited into and made a place for themselves in the public sphere. In the wake of a series of crises, they are experimenting with new forms of decision making, pushing into domains not previously open to design such as climate governance, welfare provision, or humanitarian interventions. In these traditional spaces of government, designers routinely advance a set of ambitious goals: in the words of Marco Steinberg, they want to do nothing less than “innovate the model of government itself.” These objectives, however, are stated in an abstractly political language variously invoking democracy, citizen participation, and inclusive collaboration.

Yet, designers’ invocations of ostensibly democratic norms do not come in the form of a coherent political philosophy. Without recourse to lengthy parliamentary procedures, designers maintain a certain imperative to act (Handlungsimperativ) in the face of urgent problems. Thus, design advocates highlight the urgency of a series of crises––such as climate change, migration, welfare etc.––in response to which “governments will increasingly need to have the capacity to redesign the way they conceive and deliver new solutions” (Steinberg 2019). It is here that designing is imagined to be most useful. But what is the specificity of design practices in government? And how does designing actually function in relation to complex problems?

This book carves out a political theory of and for designing on the basis of the historically and contextually specific practices designers employ in governmental spaces. This is notably not a book that seeks to give designers a political theory which otherwise they lack. Rather, it makes explicit and translates into a more conventionally theoretical language what already exists (albeit perhaps in embryonic or inchoate form). By making connections to existing political theories such as deliberative democratic theory, participatory democratic theory, and new materialist theory, it places contemporary practices of designing in the public sphere in a wider context of political practice.

The book focuses on the pragmatist-deliberative aspects of designing which have their historical origin in the work of Horst Rittel, Donald Schön, and Richard Buchanan. Against the background of a brief genealogical account, I discuss the contemporary use of physical models and ludic methods in participatory workshops in terms of a particular proceduralism at the center of which is the generation and mediation of lived experience as situated knowledge. The material-experiential aspects of traditional studio practices such as prototyping, therefore, function not only as a crucial precondition for what Noortje Marres has called material participation (Marres 2015), but they also force us to be attentive to the embodied quality of political deliberation. That is, in political controversies––situations that are essentially contested and in which the formulation and description of discrete problems is not immediately possible––a logocentric model of rational deliberation is not always feasible or even desirable. Here, embodied deliberative practices highlight that situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) are not always commensurable but are bound to produce frictions. The translation work required to render different perspectives mutually intelligible is always laced with the potential for conflict, requiring explanations, patience, and often a lot of goodwill. And yet, this potential for misunderstanding need not always be a bad thing. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2004, 10) writes, “[t]o translate is to situate oneself in the space of the equivocation and to dwell there. It is not to unmake the equivocation” but rather “to open and widen the space imagined not to exist between the conceptual languages in contact.” The book argues that embodied deliberative practices, such as we find in designing, draw on this equivocative potential and provide a technical framework for mediating perspectival knowledge. Embodied deliberation, therefore, is more than a material addendum to conventional deliberative practices. By making visible the material-embodied aspect of all political interaction, it hones in on the importance of political technologies of deliberation. It is here that a political theory of designing intersects with and contributes to theories and practices of deliberation.

Rather than borrowing ideas from theoretical traditions, the book points out existing connections––both in terms of elective affinities and historical convergences––between designing and deliberative planning. This demonstrates that designing is not exactly politically naïve, even though designers have not paid enough attention to elaborating their own political theory. Apart from the exceptional usefulness of existing political theories for the practices of designing in the public sphere, I argue that this cross-fertilization can be bi-directional (see here Michael Saward’s, 2021, excellent recent case for making design thinking part of democratic theory). Thus, political theorists, particularly deliberative democratic theorists, tend to ignore the material and embodied aspects of deliberation, aspects which are not only front and center in various design fields but for which designing offers a set of technologies of participation.

The book will draw from published empirical examples as well as from my own fieldwork. It engages both theory and empirical material non-normatively and will not make explicitly normative claims. To be sure, a theory is not intended to serve as the backbone of practice, something without which practical endeavors would be empty. Nor is theory offered as a yardstick by which the normative goodness of political practices can be measured. Rather, I understand political theory as primarily diagnostic. By that I mean that it can help make sense of where we are in our present and what is at stake in the various practical endeavors that keep shaping our world. I do not mean this necessarily only in a critical sense. Certainly, theory can help point out ills and can show where practices have deleterious effects. But that is not its only use. Political theory can also help point out productive openings and potentials. Critique can be both negative and affirmative without merely accepting existing conditions. It is in this spirit that I offer this book a humble diagnostic tool to both designers and political theorists in the hopes that both can learn from each other and inform each other’s work.


Haraway, Donna (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14: 575-599.

Marres, Noortje (2015). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. 2nd ed. ed. London : Palgrave Macmillan.

Saward, Michael (2021). Democratic Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steinberg, Marco. (2019) The Demise of Government? . Accessed Sep 10, 2020. https://states-ofchange.org/stories/the-demise-of-government.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo (2004). Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, 2(1): 3-22.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s