Design Activism and Subalternes. How can subaltern cultures have voice in design activism fields?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 10/10



Table of contents



Design Activism

Designers New Missionaries




In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Indian philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wonders if subor­dinates can make their voices heard against Western hegemony, and if so, in which way and using which tools.

She describes how Western imperialism exerts a form of epistemic violence against the peoples of the South of the World.

Westernpeople has, therefore, defined, using its canons, an “other” thatcan he directed, controled and represented.

Exploring the social design from the point of view of “others” and analyzing how these practices can be understood without being considered as a form of exotic knowledge, Subaltern Culture can have 'voice in social design field and can produce communicable new knowledge in theform ofa de­sign method.


Spivak, Subalternes, Desig Activism, Knowledge, Self-governance, Social Change.


In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Indian philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wonders if subordinates can make their voices heard against Western he­gemony, and if so, in which way and using which tools.

According to Spivak, the Western way of thinking, in respect to colonized peoples, is a particular form of violence, defined by her as “epistemic violence,” capable of inducing the colonized to see themselves in a marginal position with respect to col­onists.

The West imposes itself as a sovereign ruler of the entire globe, presenting it as the only way and creating the concept of Us vs. Them.

As Spivak says:

Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, si­lenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban sub proletar­iat. According to Foucault and Deleuze (in the First World, under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital, though they do not seem to recognize this) the oppressed, if given the chance (the problem of representation cannot be bypassed here), and on the way to solidarity through alliance politics (a Marxist thematic is at work here) can speak and know their conditions. We must now confront the follow­ing question: On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?1

This system is referred to by Spivak as “worlding of a world;” through this pro­cess, the West has created its Other, and considers them objects as objects to be ana­lyzed, and thereby takes the power to represent and control them.

Spivak points out that the interest of Western intellectuals against the colonial sub­ject always ends up being a missionary attitude; their mind and their point of view, in the end, coincides with the imperialist narrative because what it promises to the natives is “redemption.”

These “other” places, “other” ways of thinking, “other” knowledge, are the subject this essay2.

How subaltern culture can have voice in design activism field and in which way this approach can produce communicable new knowledge in the form of a design meth­od?


Good design essentially consists in a search for ways to create a better world. De­sign Activism practice is about finding solutions, making improvements in the hu­man being, addressing problems or opening up possibilities for a better life, paying particular attention to other living beings and the natural world.

Designers have to try to re-design not at the level of products and services but at the level of life-styles and well-being. They have to look at how organisms survive, trying to rethink how communities are create and evolve as well as how to manage one's own identity in a changing environment. The overarching aim is to improve the way we feed, clothe, shelter, assemble, communicate and live together.3

If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out of it. “Everyone designs,” wrote the economist Herb Simon4, who devised courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. For theorist Victor Papanek, “de­sign is basic to all human activities - the placing and patterning of any towards a desired goal constitutes a design process.”5

Designing is what human beings do.

John Thackara argues in his article, “In the Bubble,” that design-mindfulness in­volves a determination to think about the consequences of design actions before in advance and pay close attention to the natural, industrial and cultural systems that create the context of our design actions.

Designers have to deliver something of value to people, not deliver people to the system, treat content as something we do, not something we are sold, and treat dif­ferences in place, time and culture as positive values rather than as obstacles.6


This image was deleted by the editors due to copyright issues

Over the past decade, design activism studies have evolved considerably, particularly with regard to the analysis of the projects implemented in partnership with popula­tions that are less well-off around the world and the analysis of research in the test­ing of new group design practices and design-tool thinking.

The development of the design activism studio is purely Western. Some of the major companies that deal with design for social change, like IDEO, Team Bb or Project H Design, just to name a few, connect the power of design to the people who need it most. Project H Design says in their manifesto: “We are a team of designers, archi­tects, and builders engaging locally through partnerships with social service orga­nizations, communities, and schools to improve the quality of life for the socially overlooked. We believe design can change the world”.

Designers are the new missionaries; they come into village life, trying to understand it and make it better, using the modern world as a model.

As Professor and Designer Bruce Nussbaum says,

But should we take a moment now that the movement is gathering speed to ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right part­ners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in? Do designers need to better see themselves through the eyes of the local professional and business classes who believe their countries are rising as the U.S. and Europe fall and wonder who, in the end, has the right answers? Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have im­portant design lessons to teach Western designers? 7

Going in this direction of thought of Nussbaum, John Thackara maintains that in many parts of the world, people with low incomes meet the needs of daily life out­side the money economy through traditional networks of reciprocity. They survive, and often prosper, within indigenous social systems based on kinship and a myriad ways to share resources.This practice is called self-governance, and this framework is intended to provide a way to look at the near future.

It includes much of the essential activity people have always undertaken to raise and educate their families, take care of their land and enjoy themselves.

It can be extended to the whole economic and social system of a country and can become the only way to provide a normal life for all citizens and can be applied in a systematic way, to all social and economic fields: from health care to forestry sys­tem, from education to agriculture, etc.


1 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, 301.

2 Ibid., 271-313.

3 Wood, John. Metadesigners Network 2016. Metadesigners Network 2016. Accessed September 22, 2016.

4 Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences ofthe Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996, 77.

5 Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009, 121.

6 Thackara, John. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, 25.

7 Nussbaum, Bruce. The World after Oil: The Shifting Axis of Power and Wealth. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

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Design Activism and Subalternes. How can subaltern cultures have voice in design activism fields?
University of Iceland
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design, activism, subalternes
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Anna Giudice (Author), 2016, Design Activism and Subalternes. How can subaltern cultures have voice in design activism fields?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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