Chains To Constellations
The Place of The Individual
Bourdieu and his influence over the study of power and dynamics in society, made evident in his popularisation of “Field” theory during the latter half of the twentieth century, should already make obvious the importance of his seminal 1993 text, The Weight Of The World. It is a collation, as he explains within the introduction, of anonymised interview excerpts from the individuals of French society—responding in part to previous criticisms of his work, which paid favour more closely to societal structure and ignoring personal circumstance when it comes to evaluating the place, or value, of the individual within society.
In the book’s third chapter, Everyone In A Place In Their Own, the scene is presented as a conversation between friends, Bourdieu and Françoise being so—chronicling the struggle Françoise and her family has had with their relationship to society, as it had evolved with their change in status. The chapter speaks of how as a child, Françoise and her parents would find content in existing as a family bloc in relative squalor, but upon moving into a new development, develop a long-standing conflict with the neighbours to their semi-detached property.
By 1991, the year in which the interview was taken, Françoise is disillusioned and separated from the envisioned ideals of a stable home life she imagined as a child—choosing to send her children to a religious school far from home, distrusting those in positions of governance after years of inaction and public indifference to her struggle against the injustices of the neighbouring occupants. Her mother by contrast, having spent Françoise’s adolescence (reluctantly) squatting illegally and being reliant on state benefit, is the only family member not understanding by Françoise’s anxieties (perhaps like the reader), instead appreciating the simplicity of “owning ones place of their own”.
Critics to his intriguing methodology would claim it lends itself to personal bias—a one-sidedness to each tale, but which offers a unique experience of exploring the complexities of the “Point Of View”. We can begin to understand, for example, why Françoise’s mother would be content toward the end of the chapter, and why contextually, Françoise might not be so.
Pierre Bourdieu in Paris, March 1993
Bourdieu’s courageous challenging of post-modern indifference to social suffering; that of the poor, elderly, disabled, or disenfranchised, was recognised at the time in the form of controversy and outrage—but regardless of political allegiance, is still recognised today amongst sociologists as a profound work—the interviews and circumstances featured only possible because of the passing of a maelstrom-like century of change, particularly in France and mainland Europe.
Though the third chapter talks of a conflict arisen between individual points of view, Bourdieu’s main interest, and most congratulated work, was the highlight of play between those who possess authority in society to enforce world-views, and those without that power. It is an aspect of his study that was more deliberately political, but an aspect which connected his theories surrounding individual, and societal “Field” theory, and examined the walls of the political and social constructions that surround us.
Cogs In The Machine, for example, views the post-modern diversion of social class through the lens of the educational system—arguing against the increasing distance placed between the school authority, the problems of the enrollees, and the responsibility or role of the teacher in mediating the expectations of society, in producing capable and educated students.
He compares in his writing the “coherent brutality” of the old educational system, in which students would be sorted naturally by enthusiasm between specialising for practical apprenticeships or vocational courses and those preferring academic progression toward diplomas and university degrees, against a new unflinching political policy which forces an increase in the number of students heading toward achieving diplomas, regardless of their personal circumstance—a quintessential example of Bourdieu’s arguments highlighting the tyranny of authority against the powerless—not with malicious intent, but rather through ignorance of points of view.
A value constellation constructed for individuals in Bourdieu's texts.
By removing options to go into vocational practise, students become disenfranchised with the system and are forced to consume cultural capital (another key aspect of Bourdieu’s teaching) not appropriate to their social end-goal or upbringing, which often makes of them “bad” or unproductive civilians.
By removing authority from the teachers as those who direct students, to those who are simply instructed to hand out work with little input on it’s direction, social power is consolidated to those at the top of the educational system, their decisions based on their own individual viewpoints. In writing of these case studies, Bourdieu also warns of the danger of reliance on statistics—there is now a higher population of diploma-achieving students, but at the cost of more disenfranchised workers in fields inappropriate for them.
By examining all of these “themes”, we can begin to understand the importance of individual points of view, and the incredible complexity of personal circumstance that causes each of us to value different routes in society in ever increasingly different ways.
The Original French Cover for Weight Of The World, Published 1993
Constellation in Product
Chain constellations are crucial in offering a visual construction of an insight how one exists in a daily reality built upon infinities of value constellations that drive the economic, social, moral and environmental choices that others make everyday. Over the next few pages I will explore a few in selective case studies.
Within ECA, for example, there exists a multitude of interplays and selfish decisions that motivate how and why I complete my work, and for whom I complete it for. Are we all chasing recognition and feedback, or do there exist academic relationships that are symbiotic?
Consider value through the lens of one studying the facts of entropy within the universe. It is always exchanging, moving, dissipating—due to the actions of other exchanges of value, a constant maelstrom of reflexive movements that compound with an almost physical impossibility that we can only begin to grasp. That is why I have only mapped a small part of the ECA constellation, relating to only myself on the left. It would be an unbearable act of futility to attempt to map an “entire” and inclusive image of ECA through constellations as it would most likely encompass the whole world.
My own constellation within the Edinburgh College of Art
A public installation of community-designed birdhouses within the Muirhouse Arcadeum Shopping Centre on the fringes of Edinburgh, The Roost Project was aimed at drawing attention to the potentials of community engagement within the arts in deprived areas, and sought to add a personal voice to the changes happening to the area—a number of recent developments and re-structuring of public spaces that concern residents, fearing that their identity may be taken away.
Through working within a mesh of different artists, designers, local community organisers and charities, The Roost Project manages to bring together a multitude of disciplines and working fields in a cohesive project, highlighting the strength of it’s value constellation—though most likely unintentional, since nobody goes into a design project thinking first about the layout of a constellation.
Exhibited within the University of Edinburgh’s Design Informatics Pavillion during the Fringe Festival last year and exhibiting a range of speculative, IoT, and biodesign concepts, the BitBarista was a project that explored the capabilities of a connected product sphere within the interactions designed into coffee machines.
By designing automation into the machine and making transparent some of the ethical and environmental transactions that occur when purchasing coffee, it can help us better visualise and understand the effects we have when existing and operating within a value constellation.
As a series of value exchanges actually happen with the BitBarista and its “Customer” over a period of time, it is split into three realities, highlighting influences that we might have on a service after-the-fact. In the case of the BitBarista, the next order of coffee beans is influenced by the voting choices of the previous drinkers, displacing power and choice over time.
A Case Study in Starbucks
Buyer psychology and the importance of customer value is taught as a tennant in Starbucks, a mermaid-branded chain of coffee stores familiar to most, now in it’s fourty-fifth year.
It is as long-time CEO, Howard Schultz, says—“Starbucks represents something beyond a cup of coffee”. But what exactly could this something be, and how does it shift between each of the players within a Starbucks constellation? We have certainly felt the something at some point in our lives, even outside of the Starbucks equation; consuming advertising or noticing branding on a friend’s cup.
Starbucks hasn’t always been a champion of the sensory customer experience, much as it has not always been a coffee store—originally marketed as a re-seller for high-quality whole coffee beans, before realising that richer exchanges could be had by simply roasting and making coffee in store. But over time, the ways in which Starbucks engages with us on an emotional level has been tuned into a company policy, and one that makes us pay objectively more for drinks that might be available elsewhere, but which are named and styled differently at Starbucks.
Psychologists have call the effect “Anchoring”—Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker explains; “When you walk into Starbucks, the prices on the board are supposed to have been determined by the supply of Double Chocolaty Frappuccinos on the one hand and the demand for them on the other. But what if the numbers on the board are influencing your sense of what a Double Chocolaty Frappuccino is worth? In that case, price is not being determined by the interplay of supply and demand; price is, in a sense, determining itself.”
The company reported revenue of more than twenty-one billion dollars in its 2016 fiscal year—and its stock, after falling to less than four dollars a share in 2008, is now around sixty dollars. Something is certainly being done correctly.
A series of constellations for Starbucks employees. Consider how each speaks to the values of each individual within the chain.
Insight and Reflection
I have been a reluctant convert to the purpose of value constellations—not wanting to understand at first the logic that governs the network of arrows, where to apply these constellations and what information to glean from their creation. Initially I considered constellations as a primary research method, as opposed to the visual refinement of other primary research—a change in viewpoint that helps standardise research methods to make it more understandable to others.
I found it can help to begin to understand value constellations as a subjective visual affirmation of the social networks we perceive in-front of us—and to find purpose in the constellations as explanatory maps that help reveal the reasons why we are motivated to take action; within a workplace, social circles, or within the context of an automated service.
The individuals within Bourdieu’s interviews, for example, were often victims of circumstance within a system that is built against the indigent; and were motivated to change because of the emotional, social and environmental circumstances that they were in—the reasons for because of connected reactions from other individuals within their own constellations.
The craft of constellations, as demonstrated by sociologists such as Bourdieu, is about calibrating social distances through interview and questionnaire, and transposing them onto our own points-of-view. By reading carefully the ways that individuals talk of others within their immediate social circle, we can understand how they value their own worth within a system, and how they place themselves in relation to others.
It was interesting to make the leap from analysing the value constellation of the BitBarista project—an individual object that largely makes transactions within itself, to creating a value constellation for Starbucks—a large multinational which relies very heavily on the emotional exchange and reaction between individuals, at least at the front-end of the business where customers interact.
I had found a large separation between what customers valued within the Starbucks experience, and what management or cashier staff valued—initially just gleaned from point-and-click questionnaires, and then in face-to-face interviews; the latter of which were a lot more about the emotional resonance that Starbucks can have on individuals during specific experiences, rather than overarching opinions or perceptions of the business.
In Can Starbucks Make It In Italy?, Pantuso echoes these thoughts—reflecting that as Starbucks prepares its presence within Italy, it has fought uphill to present itself as an experience, rather than competing in terms of quality or price; as in Italy, “patrons “take” an espresso, often standing at the counter, for which they’re seldom charged more than a Euro”. To justify the current Starbucks pricing, they would have to forge value through personal relationships between barista and customer.
That which constellations can teach us might not be entirely obvious at first without applying it to design research within the context of a brief; but at this stage I can see that it has definitely altered my perception of product design practise—that it can be very often emotional and closer to sociology than engineering, and that often the emotional decisions made in favour of products and experiences can be made only evident after viewing the experiences of users in testing. It’s often not enough to justify a design decision through objective fact—and that running through use with non-designers will reveal successes or weaknesses that would otherwise be seen over.