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The Circuit of Culture and

D/discourse Analysis for

Design Research

Dr Gavin Melles
Faculty of Design
 The Circuit of Culture model describes the five interrelated
perspectives from which we can examine the processes of
production, interpretation, and use of cultural artifacts
 Marketing, Advertising, Design act as cultural intermediaries in
the circuit of culture articulating different ‘players’ together and
encoding meanings about lifestyles etc., into objects
 D/discourse analysis allows us to examine how language and
material objects work together to produce the
discourses/lifestyles we inhabit which define who we are or
want to be
 Combining the circuit of culture model with D/discourse
analysis brings social and cultural theory together with
empirical discourse analysis, which is relevant to design
Circuit of Culture
 The Circuit of Culture is a theory or framework that suggests that in
studying a cultural text or artifact you must look at its representation,
identity, production, consumption and regulation.
 Du gay et al. (1997) suggest that taken together (these 5 points)
complete a sort of circuit… through which any analysis of a cultural
text… must pass if it is to be adequately studied (p.3).
 The framework has been applied and extended to examining Napster
(Taylor, Demont-Heinrich, Broadfoot, Dodge, & Jian, 2002). Gerard
Goggin (2006) uses this framework in his book ‘Cell Phone Culture:
Mobile technology in everyday life’ in order to fully understand the cell
phone as a cultural artefact. His book is split into four parts—
production, consumption, regulation and representation and identity
(through looking at mobile convergences).
 The framework is not without its critics and has been called ‘little more
than metaphor’ (Fine, 2002, p.106).
Significance of circuit of culture and
discourse analysis for design work
 The meanings of any cultural artifact can be examined from five
different angles: identity, production, consumption, regulation,
and representation.
 This circuit of culture is a useful metaphor and heuristic for
understanding the multiple values and meanings of any object.
 Designers have a key role in articulating the meanings of new
objects as they are cultural intermediaries who attempt to
encode objects with meanings so that individuals choose such
objects as emblematic of lifestyles
 People use material objects (clothes, watches, cars) together
with what they say and do to project certain identities they want
others to recognize they have (i.e. to be in the Discourse).
 Discourse analysis allows designers to examine the present
and articulate the future according to their particular purposes.
Representation (& identity)
 Practice of constructing meaning through the use of signs and
language, principally through the language of advertising which
‘must engage with the meanings the product has accumulated
and it must try to construct an identification between us – the
consumers and those meanings (du Gay et al. 1997, p.25)
 Representation is the discursive process by which cultural
meaning is generated and given shape: “we give things
meaning by how we represent them” (S. Hall, 1997b, p. 3). As
such, meaning is not static or inherent in representations but is
socially constructed through symbolic systems, or discourse;
(Curtin & Gaither 2005, p.99)
 Graphic design involved in representation, Japanese technical
sophistication emphasized, youth, sex, gender, lifestyling and
identity aspirations
Representation & identity
Production (& Consumption)
 Different accounts offered of the story of production, heroic individuals (Akio
Morita), happy accident, Sony: signifying Japan but transcultural and hybrid
 For Walkman to have meaning it has to be bought and used (consumption
 Marketing and public relations engage in initial and ongoing evaluation to
feedback to advertising and design
 Designer acts as cultural mediator (and in the story of Sony has a high status
function in the organization) lifestyling the product to customer niches
 Production pursued on the basis of a particular imagined customer
 Production lead by mostly male managers leading a cheap female assembly
line (gender)
 Although production processes take place at a number of levels (i.e., individual
talent, the organizational culture, and circumstantial happenstance),
organizational culture probably plays the largest role because production is
most often dictated by corporate constraints and cultures (Curtin & Gaither
2005, p.100)
Production & Consumption
Designer as cultural
 To make artifacts sell … designers have to embody culture in the
things they design. Designed artifacts are certainly there to do
something, they are often functional (for playing tapes for instance);
but more than this, they are inscribed with meanings as well as uses.
 Designers are key cultural intermediaries, to use the terminology of
cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1984). By the term ‘cultural
intermediaries’ Bourdieu is referring to that increasingly important
group of workers who play an active role in promoting consumption
through attaching to products and services particular meanings and
lifestyles with which consumers will identify.
 In their symbolic work of making products ‘meaningful’, designers are a
key link in our cultural circuit; for amongst many other things, they
articulate production and the world of engineers with the market and
 Although objects are encoded with meaning during their production,
the process of production is never fully realized until the moment of
consumption: “the processes of production only provide a series of
possibilities that have to be realized in and through consumption” (du
Gay et al., 1997, p. 59).
 Because meaning does not reside in an object but in how that object is
used (Baudrillard, 1988), the meanings encoded during production are
but one set that may be articulated through consumption ((Curtin &
Gaither 2005, p.101)
 Mobile Phones, Internet used for resistance and consumers are not
cultural dupes
 Consumption practices used for social differentiation (Bourdieu 1984
Distinction) but needs observational – ethnographic and other methods
to explore how subcultures appropriate objects for identity
 The moment of regulation
encompasses the attempt to control
cultural activity, from the formal or
legal controls of technological
infrastructures, regulatory bodies,
and institutionalized educational
systems to the informal or local
controls of cultural norms and
 In the Walkman and other cases
focuses on the shifting relationship
between private /public worlds and
utopian and dystopian visions
 Regulation linked to consumption as
people interpret the object and to
production as this responds to norms
and values, e.g. smaller headphones
D/discourse Analysis
 Every moment in the interdependent cycle of
relationships in the circuit of culture is susceptible to
treatment using D/discourse analysis
 Designed objects, and objects in general are critical
to being recognized or identified
 When ‘little d’ discourse (language-in-use) is melded
integrally with non-language ‘stuff’ to enact specific
identities and activities, then I say that ‘big D’
Discourses are involved.
Discourse and identity
 We are all members of many, a great
many, different Discourses …When
you ‘pull off’ being a culturally specific
sort of ‘everyday’ person, a ‘regular’ at
the local bar, a certain type of African-
American or Greek-Australian, a
certain type of cutting-edge particle
physicist or teenage heavy-metal
enthusiast, a teacher or a student of a
certain sort … you use language and
‘other stuff’ – ways of acting,
interacting, feeling, believing, valuing,
and using various sorts of objects,
symbols, tools, and technologies – to
recognize yourself and others as
meaning and meaningful in certain
ways (Gee 2005, p.7)
Seven building tasks in
discourse analysis
1. Material significance – How is this language being used to
make certain things significant or not and in what ways?
2. Activities – What activity or activities is language being used
to enact?
3. Identities – What identities is this language enacting?
4. Relationships – What sort of relationships are being
(re)produced here?
5. Politics (ideology) – What is being communicated about what
is good, right, valued etc., here?
6. Connections – How am I connecting this to what was said
and done previously?
7. Semiotics – I can talk and act to make certain symbol
systems, eg. legal language, street jargon, more important
than everyday language in out discussions?
Five tools of inquiry
 Situated meanings are meanings in context and in
relation to cultural models, i.e. not dictionary meanings
 Cultural models are socioculturally differentiated
approaches to life, e.g. parenting, prevalent in particualr
subcultures (those which advertising privileges)
 Social languages are distinctive choices of grammar
and vocabulary that identify you, e.g. active/passive
voice, jargon, etc.
 Discourses are the material addition (behaviour,
clothes, etc) to discourses which produce identities and
the world
 Conversations are historically significant debates about
Discourses, e.g. discourses about migrants, schooling
Some fieldwork: What does it all
 Consider some particular designed artifact – I pod,
website …
 Examine dimensions of the circuit of meaning with its
inter-relations in relation to this
 Decide which particular dimension is of interest to
 Observe, record, analyse what D/discourses are
relevant, beginning with situated meanings
 Expand your analysis to confirm some of your
 Resources: of Culture Intermediary
Further Reading
 Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction : a social critique of the judgement of taste.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
 Curtin, P. A., & Gaither, T. K. (2005). Privileging Identity, Difference, and
Power: The Circuit of Culture As a Basis for Public Relations Theory. Journal of
Public Relations Research, 17(2), 91-115.
 Julier, Guy (2007). The Culture of Design. 2nd Ed. London. Sage
 Du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H., & Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural
studies : the story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage Publications in
association with the Open University.
 Fine, B. (2002). World of Consumption : The Material and Cultural Revisited
(2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
 Gee, J. (2005). Introduction to Discourse Analysis. 2nd Ed. New York:
 Goggin, G. (2006). Cell phone culture : mobile technology in everyday life. New
York, NY: Routledge.
 Taylor, B. C., Demont-Heinrich, C., Broadfoot, K. J., Dodge, J., & Jian, C.
(2002). New Media and the Circuit of Cyber-Culture: Conceptualizing Napster.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 46(4), 607-629.