Ethics in design and issues of social class: reflecting on the learning unit: Design and the Construction of Class Distinction



Product & Industrial Design


  • cultural influence, stereotypes, ethics, transformation


The second year Design Studies learning unit “Design and the Construction of Class Distinction” (BA Communication Design, Industrial Design, University of Johannesburg) introduces students to definitions of social class in terms of capitalism (Olin-Wright 2008, Goldthorpe 1980, Crompton 1998, 2003) as well as to Bourdieusian concepts of habitus, field and capital (Bourdieu 1989; Weininger 2005, Bennett, et al 2010; Jenkins 2003; Grenfell 2003).

In this unit, students are asked to relate these concepts to taste, style and design through individual essay writing and, emerging from this, a small- scale, empirical research project related to their own cultural environment as students in Johannesburg. It prompts students to raise powerful questions about the ethics of design in capitalist societies and engage in complex and rich conversations about consumption in post-apartheid South Africa. The strong sociological focus on social class and inequality seemed to provide a potent catalyst for this interrogation.

By drawing on the critical pedagogies of Mclaren & Scatamburlo (2004), Dolby (2001), Willis (1999), Apple (2015) and the praxis of Neville Alexander (2013) I present a case for sociologically reflexive (Wacquant 1992) design theory linking this to the structure of the learning unit. I show that explorations of social class allowed design students to ask relevant and difficult ethical questions about their profession and its transformational agenda.

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