"Hey, can we make that, please?": On Craft as a Means of Cross-cultural Community-Building

Anne Weibert, Konstantin Aal, Thomas von Rekowski, Volker Wulf

Institute for Information Systems and New Media, University of Siegen

INTRODUCTION

From the arts and craft movement (Dormer 1997) to today's DIY (Tanenbaum et al. 2013); from theoretical thinking about the significance of craft in relation to the making of art (Whittick 1984) and everyday design artifacts (Bean & Rosner 2012); crafting as innovation (Yair et al 2001), and crafting as remodeling and repairing (Tinari 2010): crafting and the creation of things has been in the focus of researchers for many years, spanning multiple disciplines. This includes the CHI and CSCW community, where the relation of computing and craft has moved to the fore in recent years (e.g. Buechley et al. 2009; Mellis et al. 2013).

Two lines of discourse have evolved. The first is concerned with craft and its significance for the development of the individual (e.g. Bardzell et al 2012, Treadaway 2009). Here, special attention is paid to the creative moment involved (Do & Gross 2007). The second line of research approaches the concept of craft from a decidedly interdisciplinary point of view, seeking to fundamentally explore and understand its influence on design in HCI (e.g. Wright et al 2006).

Whereas other works focus particularly on crafting as a type of activity or on its influence for informing design practice, we seek to explore the potential of craft for community-building processes. Our study is based on a network of computer clubs in socially and culturally diverse neighborhoods in Germany. Providing open and yet guided access to modern information- and computer technology in an after school setting for both children and adults, these clubs seek to contribute to the bridging of the so-called 'digital divide' - the disproportionate access of immigrant communities as compared to mainstream society to computer infrastructure (e.g. Norris 2001; Wagner et al 2002; Whitte & Mannon 2010). In bridging this divide, the computer clubs aim to foster cross-cultural understanding and respect in the diverse local neighborhood settings (Schubert et al 2011; Stevens et al 2005). In our comparative study of three craft-based interventions, we seek to understand how craft can be employed as a means to trigger and foster the cross-cultural and technological identity exploration which fosters community-building in socially and culturally diverse societal contexts.

RELATED WORKS

We explore how craft is an appropriate educational method for generating boundary-crossing effects and a means employed not only for the appropriation of computing concepts but also for the support and fostering of community-building in a socially and culturally diverse setting. In the following, we establish our research approach and study setup by first discussing previous works in the area of crafting and making before relating key aspects to previous works on identity development and community building.

The Concept of Craft

On a very basic level, craft has been described as "any process that attempts to create a functional artifact without separating design from manufacture" (Löwgren 2006, 200); thus craft as a method is apt to interlink the physical and the digital (Wroblewski 1991). Previous research has described it as a skill for manipulating materials into physical objects (Bardzell et al. 2012; Bean & Rosner, 2012; Rosner & Ryokai 2009; Torrey et al. 2009).

Creativity has been identified as a key component of the concept (Bardzell et al. 2012, Do & Gross 2007). Bardzell and colleagues describe it as a "pleasurable form of interaction, connected in meaningful ways to self-expression, livelihoods and leisure, creativity and innovation, heritage, and sustainability" (Bardzell et al. 2012, 11). Focusing on the relation of digital practices and 'traditional' physical crafts, manual work has been identified as a factor which adds value to the artifact created - even more so than any potentially valuable material involved (Rosner 2009; Rosner 2010).

Following this notion, we understand craft to be an act of making and creating an artifact which in itself speaks to meaningful aspects of identity and everyday life.

Computing and Craft Production

In recent years, the relation between computing and craft production has become ever more prominent in CHI and CSCW research (e.g. Buechley et al. 2009; Mellis et al. 2013), and the three cases we present here can be seen as an example of this. Craft-related leisure activities devised by researchers build on the insight that crafting has the potential to link the digital and the physical (e.g. Rosner 2010, Zoran 2013). Other works rely on craft as a cognitive method for sense-making, e.g. through play (e.g. Do & Gross 2007; Kuznetsov & Paulos 2010).

Ratto has taken this one step further, coining the term of 'critical making' for an activity that emphasizes "the shared acts of making rather than the evocative object" (Ratto 2011, 253). What stands out here is the collaborative: achievement of "value through the act of shared construction, joint conversation, and reflection" (ibid., 253).

Crafting and the Building of Identity

Identity-building processes are seen to be deeply rooted in learning activities. Race, culture and gender have been described as three main factors that shape identity, and their negotiation is a constantly ongoing process (Bhabha 1994). Hybrid ascriptions to more than one group are possible in the process. This is valid with regard to the shaping of cultural identity (Barth 1998; Berry 1992), as well as gender identity (Butler 1990) - where a binary perspective was at first prevalent in scientific research, there has been a shift towards a multifaceted view.

Craft-based project work supports this in that it relies on crafting as a cognitive method for individual sense-making. It allows for "meaningful ways of self-expression" (Bardzell et al. 2012, 11).

Crafting and Community Building

As with identity formation, the building of a community is a process in constant flow which strongly depends on the negotiations among the various constituent groups. Different specifications of adaptation mark the progress: integration, accommodation, separation, and marginalization. The attitude towards one's own identity as well as the intensity of one's relation to other groups are seen as important factors for progress (e.g. Berry 1984).

Crafting ties in to this process in that it speaks to forms of individual expression. At the same time, it allows for collaborative, reflective, shared construction - for 'critical making' (Ratto 2011).

METHOD

Methodological Setup

In our study of craft-based interventions as facilitators of cross-cultural and technological identity exploration, we followed a participatory action research approach, combining social science research methods and the regular participation with underprivileged or marginalized groups (McIntyre 2008; Whyte 1991). Qualitative methods were used in all our three case studies. We relied on field notes and collected transcripts as part of the participatory action research (PAR) setup (Kemmis & McTaggart 1988). The young and adult computer club participants engaged in the PAR process in the form of regular interviews and feedback sessions, providing feedback on completed project work and upcoming project activities, as well as the overall organization and structure of the computer club.

Field notes as the main data resource for the work presented here are supplemented by interviews and the artifacts created over the course of the three projects in focus.

Data Collection and Analysis

The members of our research team are actively engaged in the computer club in the focus of this study, where they routinely act as tutors and have done so since its inception. This is the computer club where the activities we describe and analyze took place. The field notes were taken during the club's weekly sessions and were documented afterwards in the form of detailed minutes. They focus on the observable collaboration and interaction between children and adult participants in the club, their appropriation of media and computer technology in combination with various craft-based activities and the associated processes of community building.

Data analysis (Mayring 2000; Krippendorff 2012) was conducted by the authors who were active as tutors in the computer club. Our content analysis was led by the study focus on craft as a means to foster community-building in a socially and culturally diverse neighborhood setting. To prevent bias, our research team established a routine of weekly meetings for all the tutors from all the clubs to assemble, report and discuss the progress of the project activities in the various computer clubs that are part of the network.

Computer Club Setting

At the center of this study is the computer club located in a primary school in one of the large cities in the Ruhr Area of Germany. This club was jointly founded in 2009 by a group of neighborhood residents, a local non-profit organization and managers located in the neighborhood. The surrounding neighborhood stands out in the city because of its high population density, the large number of families, and the comparatively young ages of its inhabitants. Almost 58% of the population has an immigrant background. Unemployment rates in the area are high, wages are low; access to higher education is often difficult.

This computer club is part of a network of computer clubs located in socially and culturally diverse neighborhoods in various cities in Germany. Contributing to the bridging of the so-called 'digital divide' - the disproportionate access of immigrant communities to computer infrastructure as compared to mainstream society (e.g. Norris 2001; Wagner et al 2002; Whitte & Mannon 2010) - the clubs provide open and yet guided access to modern information and computer technology for both children and adults.

With this approach the come_IN computer clubs build on the original US initiative of computer clubhouses (Resnick & Rusk 1996). Relying on principles of situated, collaborative learning and constructionist thinking, these computer clubhouses explicitly address inner city youth from educationally and socially deprived backgrounds. They aim to open up chances for disadvantaged local communities in the cities. Their success is well documented in research (e.g. Resnick et al 1998; Michalchik 2008; Kafai et al 2009, Center for Technology in Learning 2013). Based on this concept, the come_IN clubs aim to foster community dynamics and strengthen social ties - on the local family, school and neighborhood level (Weibert & Wulf 2010). Furthermore, collaborative project work in the club contributes to the development of individual skills and thus opportunities (Weibert et al 2014).

The come_IN structure reflects the computer club aim: (Primary) schools in intercultural neighborhoods in Germany have been chosen for the location of the clubs. Being a locus for interaction between people of different backgrounds (e.g. economical, educational, migrational), the school as the clubs' location can be assumed to be a starting point for social interaction that does not have to start anew but can build on shared experiences. Within this location, the computer clubs aim to be everything else but school: Appropriation of computer technology in the computer club results from constant negotiation among its young and adult participants - tutors and teachers in an equal position among them. The club provides the opportunity to become acquainted with modern technology and software - but it does not follow a pre-set schedule in doing so. Club participation is supposed to be intergenerational: children are invited to participate together with a parent or another adult family member or friend. Thus project work in the club is intended to trigger intergenerational learning experiences that ideally continue in family and neighborhood contexts (Schubert et al 2011).

Project work in the computer club is decided upon conjointly. The young and adult participants plan and coordinate their club's current and prospective activities in joint opening and closing discussion rounds. To ensure that the voices of children and adults were equally heard in the process, it was decided that one child and one adult per session would team up to jointly moderate these rounds. A 'treasure box of ideas', which some of the clubs keep, makes project ideas accessible for later times: children and adults collect their project plans and ideas for activities on paper cards that are kept in a wooden box. The neighborhood influences project topics (e.g. Schubert & Weibert 2014; Stevens et al 2005) - e.g. when magazines about the neighborhood are created, shared experiences like a two-day trip to Berlin or a soccer match with a neighboring Turkish soccer club result in photo- and video-projects, or are processed by means of MIT's visual programming language Scratch (Maloney et al 2004).

Project Setups

All three projects in the focus of this study are rooted in neighborhood issues, problems and activities that the young and adult participants had brought into the computer club. All three projects were jointly agreed upon by the club participants and were carried out through combining digital skills and traditional handcraft. Participation was completely voluntary; however, a stable group of participants developed in all three cases.

Computer Puzzle

The computer puzzle project was one of the first activities of the computer club in the focus of this study. The project developed as an answer to the very basic questions that the young and adult participants had brought to the club, and from their common understanding that computer literacy is a key skill securing access to various parts of public life. In the computer puzzle project, club participants took a very palpable approach to the computer, exploring its constituent parts with screwdriver, pliers and soldering iron (Figure 1). The parts were thoroughly examined, and an explanation of their function was provided by a tutor. In the end, one computer was re-assembled and installed for the mothers in the club to work with. In an activity stemming from the main computer puzzle project, some artwork was crafted using the remainders of the computer parts. Crafting in the context of this project was concerned firstly with the re-creation of the computer, and secondly with the transformation of some of its constituent parts into something else, whereby an art sculpture was crafted from hard drives and other computer parts. The project developed in 20 club sessions over the course of six months. On average, five women took part in the project, four of whom have a migration background, coming from Turkey, Macedonia and India.

figure1
Figure 1. Club participants explored a computer with screwdriver, pliers and soldering iron.
Safe Routes: Designing for Safety on the Way to School

This project was developed because students and their parents were concerned about a dangerous street crossing right in front of the school building, where many accidents and near-accidents had happened. This had caused teachers to devote extra time to educating the children in road safety. Some of the children carried the topic to the computer club, voicing their interest in turning it into a project. The outcome was threefold: 1) the club participants decided that they wanted to create a video about dangers on the way to school; 2) children designed reflective vests by creating small animations using Scratch (Maloney 2004); and 3) children crafted these vests with paint brushes and reflective colors (Figure 2). The project took five weeks to complete. Ten children, two tutors and a teacher took part.

figure 2
Figure 2. Children crafted their vest designs with paint brushes and reflective colors.
"Travelling Dragonflies" Geocaching Project

The geocaching activity developed as a craft-based activity resulting from the computer club participants' idea to relate the real-world treasure hunt which is geocaching to their own lives and neighborhood. They decided to craft little individualized objects to be sent on their travels as so-called geocaching 'trackables'. Dragonflies were chosen as the shape of the trackables because the school where the computer club is based is called "Dragonfly Elementary School".

The project developed in three subsequent steps. First, the computer club participants designed and crafted the little dragonflies from colorful beads and wire (Figure 3), equipped them as so-called 'trackables' with an online identity and travel destination which was registered at a geocaching website. Secondly, these dragonfly trackables were released in a nearby cache that the computer club participants had identified in the neighborhood. Thirdly, children and adults in the club followed the 'travels' of their dragonflies on physical paper maps and also online. Further, they had them compete in a geocaching trackable online race. Our field note data covers a time span of seven months where the project unfolded in 36 hours of club work. Seven adults and ten children (7 boys and 3 girls aged 7-10) took part in the study. With children and adults from Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Tunisia and Morocco, participant backgrounds mirror the diversity of the neighborhood in which the club is located.

figure3
Figure 3. The trackables were designed to be dragonflies.

FINDINGS

Computer puzzle

Adult and child participants alike were drawn to the activity, as they had never explored a computer from the inside. The children in particular liked the exploratory part of approaching the computer with the help of screwdrivers, pliers and soldering iron.

As the project continued, the activity shifted more and more towards the adult participants: all of them were female, and they said that at home they did not have much access to the computer. "There's my husband, and then there are my sons... not much time left for me", one woman said. Another one added: "At home that's a man's thing." So they enjoyed the freedom to ask a lot of questions and also to learn about the interplay of software and hardware in a hands-on approach, as well as to explore and compare different operating systems. The joint crafting activities let the women develop a stable relationship as a group: When one of them was late for the computer club or failed to show up without giving prior notice, the others from the group would call her and tell her to hurry up and come to the computer club ("Where are you? It's computer club!"). Also, they would use the crafting activity as a vehicle to discuss other issues from their everyday lives (e.g. informally and casually chatting about their family lives, problems at work or caused by the loss thereof, and the progress of their children at school). Also, the women would provide help and advice amongst themselves, e.g. by sharing experiences they had made when facing a certain problem, or in passing on contact information of instances and people to provide help and assistance in the neighborhood and beyond. In this way, a stable and lively community of women emerged, who - by means of crafting and their engagement in the computer-related project work - did not only notably gain self-confidence in the use of computer technology, but also developed friendships reaching across cultures and beyond the weekly club structure.

The project resulted in two artifacts. First, the mothers put one of the old computers back together in the end and installed it with the operating system edubuntu to keep it as "their" computer in the computer club from then on. Secondly, the mothers discovered that there is a certain beauty in the various constituent parts of a computer, and they made use of this by designing and crafting an art sculpture from hard drives and other leftover computer parts.

Safe Routes: Designing for Safety on the Way to School

All the crafting in this project resulted from computer-supported design and programming work. Children in the club created a video about the danger of their route to school. They used different cameras and camera angles to show their audience their point of view. With a camera attached to their heads, the children recorded how they cross the street and what kind of dangers they look for. Furthermore, they virtually designed reflective vests at the computer, using drawing software as well as the visual programming environment Scratch. These designs were printed and used as template for the crafting of the real reflective vests.

In crafting, children were seen to follow a strong desire for quality and beauty. They were always concerned that their designs would be most skillfully crafted and completed - and if there was the least doubt that they themselves would be able to achieve that, they would seek help from their teacher or a tutor.

In this project, collaboration was mostly linked to aspects of creativity. Children turned towards each other and their respective craft creations when it came to developing ideas further, or when someone was short on ideas on how to proceed with his project. That way, ideas that were considered cool, or a detail of a project that was considered as especially skillfully crafted, would 'spread' among the children through being copied by others and included in their creations. Besides exchanging design ideas, the children also asked each other for help; those who were very skilled and creative in using the paintbrush and other tools, e.g. making use of the end of the paintbrush to paint very thin lines of color were most sought after.

Thus, in crafting, the sense of community among the children in the computer club was strengthened: they experienced that they were able to rely on and make use of their skills to transport a message to their neighborhood that was meaningful to them. By collaborating as a group for the creation of this message, they added weight to it so it would receive more attention.

"Travelling Dragonflies" Geocaching Project

Within this project, craft activities were concerned with the design of dragonflies from beads and colorful wire, which were then used as "trackables" - travelling items - in the geocaching project. These designs were then equipped with a travel destination. Children could be observed to link the destination to their own personal lives and experiences, e.g. "Go to Bosnia" one boy wrote, going on to explain: "That's where my family comes from, you know?", or related to their personal familial situation - just like the boy who wanted his trackable to go to places "where there are happy people, and friends"; because he was contending with a great deal of conflict at home due to his parents' recent divorce. Thus the geocaching project work did speak to the children's identity building in that it made them think about their own personal characteristics when designing their dragonfly trackables and equipping them with a name, a character and a travel destination.

At the same time, the crafting element in the project activity also fostered community building. All crafting took place in an atmosphere of competitive collaboration. Children were seen to help each other when needed, e.g. when threading beads onto the wire, or in writing travel descriptions - well aware that providing assistance to others would merit them with the position of skillful expert, but also knowing the assistance was needed to bring the overall project activity forward. Several of them teamed up to create their trackables; in these constellations they had to collaborate on the design, the attached text and the travel destination. At the same time the children showed a strong desire to have their own dragonfly recognized as the most beautiful and skillfully crafted. "Hey, can we make that please…?" was a commonly heard request for help, uttered with the greatest confidence that there would be someone (tutor, mother or a more skilled participant) around in the club who was able to join in the crafting, thus securing a high quality artifact as a result. And usually there was.

Once the trackables had started their 'travels', crafting activity in the club was concerned with following the progress of the dragonflies on maps - both online as well as on a paper map hung on a wall in the computer club room. Each child would update the position of his/her dragonfly every week using a photo sticker on a pin and thus developing a sense of space and place (and their own position within) in collaboratively shaping an image that showed their own position and the current locations of their dragonflies in relation to the rest of the world (Figure 4).

figure4
Figure 4. Every week the position of the dragonfly trackables was updated, thus allowing the children to develop an understanding of space and place, and their own position within.

DISCUSSION

In all three project cases, we saw the craft part to be the element to provide the link between lessons of computational literacy and the children and adult participants' everyday lives and experiences.

This was the case in the Computer Puzzle, where the hands-on approach to the computer provided the mothers in the computer club with access to a topic that was not granted in their own homes. Through the crafting activity, the mothers gained confidence in the handling of the computer hard- and software, so that in the end they even approached it in a non-utile way, crafting an art sculpture from left-over hard drives and other computer parts.

In the Safe Routes Project, computer club children turned an everyday problem (the dangerous street crossing in front of their school) into a craft project: the digital designing of the reflective vests made them use and expand their computing skills (using image-processing software and the visual programming environment Scratch), the crafting of these vest designs with paint on the fabric of actual vests again linked these skills back to the everyday lives of the school children.

And finally, in the Travelling Dragonflies Geocaching Project, the crafting part spoke to the participant's identity building in that it made them think about their own lives, individual skills, origins, and wishes. Subsequently the project fostered community-building processes in that it made participants think about these individual aspects in relation to the neighborhood community and their position within that community.

We saw that crafting does appeal to actors independent of age, gender and cultural background, providing "meaningful ways of self-expression" (Bardzell et al. 2012, 11). Likewise, crafting supports the ongoing negotiation process of the factors that shape identity; race, culture and gender (Bhabha 1994) in a "shared act of making" (Ratto 2011) during joint project work activities. In a social learning process, not only are artifacts created collaboratively but personal ties are forged through "joint conversation, and reflection" (ibid, 253).

CONCLUSION

When he coined the term 'critical making', Ratto linked modes of engagement with the world: a reflective, critical thinking approach, and the very hands-on, physical "making, goal-based material work" (Ratto 2011, 253). In our study, we took this concept to the socially and culturally diverse neighborhood community setting. We have shown how craft-based interventions speak to individual needs and experiences; how they allow for the development of individual skills such as computational literacy, reading and writing, and how they also allow for traditional handicrafts. Building on this, the crafting allowed for more: it let computer club participants act as experts (Tanenbaum et al 2013, 2604), providing help and assistance as well as receiving it when needed. It enabled them to develop an eye for the needs of others, discuss different perspectives, organize tasks and work - and besides all this, to translate everyday life experiences into "goal-based material work" (Ratto 2011, 253) that is apt to foster collaboration, joint reflection, and in doing so, support the building and strengthening of a local community.

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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441