Exploring social design in a development context: the case of a handcraft pottery community in Cambodia

  • Lina Kang

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis argues for an alternative methodology in social design to counter existing
approaches to development work. It is based on a field study conducted in a handcraft
pottery community in Cambodia over twenty months. From a cross-disciplinary
perspective that combines design culture, development studies and sociology, the thesis
discusses the ways in which an innovative approach to social design can be developed,
practised and analysed. The thesis, informed by the actor-network theory (ANT), unfolds
the problematic situation by revealing that in-kind donations and external support has
caused a sense of dependency within the local community. To move away from the system
of technocracy and diffidence and towards creative knowledge generation and ongoing
participation, the Social Design Thinking Workshops (SDTWs), as part of the field study,
were conducted with ten Khmer potters. Action research, participant observation, semistructured
interviews and visual ethnography were employed to understand the situation,
create designs for ceramic production, expand the knowledge beyond technicality and
reflect on the overall process of the SDTWs. A mutual relationship and productive
participation became possible by establishing an ontological and epistemological stance
that treated the people as research participants with indigenous insights and capabilities. As
a result, this thesis suggests three key implications for this social design thinking approach
in the Cambodian context. Firstly, by exploring the relationship between actors
surrounding the situation, researchers would be able to problematise and engage with
social issues from an unconventional perspective. Social design not only transcends its
dominant association with social responsibility, but it also becomes able to catalyse and
rearrange the social configuration within the situation. Secondly, by unlocking and
eliciting the tacit knowledge of the participants, the community would be better equipped
for an increased economic competitiveness and independence. Finally, by practising a
programmatic, iterative approach to social design, rather than seeing it as a straightforward
problem-solving project, the outcomes and impact of the practice can continuously be
tested, reflected, adapted and evolved. In this process, social designers are expected to act
as a facilitator, educator and imaginative storyteller that can catalyse the social interactions
within the problematic situation. While designerly approaches are increasingly employed
in a development context, relatively few studies have been conducted on these types of
practices. Overall, this thesis offers an innovative approach to social design that can be
useful for researchers and practitioners in the development context.
Date of AwardFeb 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorGuy Julier (Supervisor), Steve Reeve (Supervisor) & Carlos Peralta (Supervisor)

Cite this