Design against symbolic violence
"it is through processes of symbolic violence that power imbalances are naturalized(…). It is because oppressive ideologies are so deeply embedded within policy, custom, language, taste and emotions that issues like sexism, racism and colonialism are so difficult to eradicate."

In the first chapter of Design, Ecology, Politics: Towards the Ecocene its author – Joanna Boehnert explains the practice of Symbolic Violence following Pierre Bourdieu, who first coined this term in the book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste in 1979. According to Boehnert ‘Symbolic Violence is the result of systems of representation that normalize the hierarchical devaluation of certain people. (...) it works beneath the level of ideology and becomes a totality of learned habits and sensibilities.’ whereas „Bourdieu describes it as: ‘a gentle violence, imperceptible and invincible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition (or more precisely, miscognition), recognition, or even feeling’ (2001, 2).”

Boehnert states that the theory of Symbolic Violence is significant for design and believes that design can help in exposing and transforming harming behaviours. To support this theory I would like to place one of my project in the context of this statement.

While working on my BA thesis I asked a group of people all ages to participate in questionnaires, which main purpose was to explore whether or not oppressive practices and beliefs are still present in modern society (Polish society to be specific). Participants were to answer to which gender they assign given feature (ex. experienced, aggressive, fragile, soft). Not only they could choose between woman and man, but they were given the possibility to write any other answer. Yet, in a significant number of answers the binary divisions dominated.

The results I gained lead me to a conclusion which was the starting point of my project: "items of everyday use, materials, actions, personality traits and physical appearance – we are used to dividing them, to assigning them more often to one gender than the other. Almost automatically we assume that the reserve is a male quality while warmth is a female one”.

After summing up answers I began to translate the features into objects through using different materials (including metal, glass, stone and textiles) and created a set of interactive elements which purpose was to raise questions about defining the image of femininity and masculinity in Polish society and culture.

Using the set of elements if simple and consists of three steps. First, the person interracting with the project builds a totem of the features they would assign to ‘a typical woman’, then the same for a totem symbolizing 'a typical man'. The final step of using the set is to build user’s own image. This step needs to be done by applying on a totem features previously assigned to 
a woman or a man. This last part of interacting with the object is the most important. It proofs how much people are limited by socialization – none of us carries features which are either one hundred percent feminine or masculine. Using CROSSxTOYS with typically masculine or feminine features, we create an image of ourselves through which we learn that the gender binary division should be questioned. The divisions, stereotypes and norms imposed on us by society and culture can be harmful.

Symbolic Violence does not have to be visible. It appears in many social behaviours, beliefs and norms which are passed through generations and are supporting patriarchal hierarchy. To fight and resist Symbolic Violence we need more tools that would educate how to raise critical questions and resist oppressive practices.

„While there is no easy solution, it is possible to intervene and transform practices, institutions and system structures that legitimize and reproduce domination in its various forms.”

Even if there are no easy solutions, design can surely become a tool for asking questions and finding answers. Within these answers there is a hope for change. 

Boehnert, Joanna. Design, Ecology, Politics : Towards the Ecocene, p. 28–31, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018.
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