Something that I've been struggling with in the course of developing my thesis has been the concept of emic and etic and where my thesis experience fits into this binary positioning. For the unfamiliar, these terms come from the field of cultural anthropology, and refer to the positioning of the investigator, or in this case, thesis-er, with respect to the population that he or she is investigating. The form of investigation can take many forms, and in my case, the investigation that I'm in the process of completing is design. There are many dichotomies that can be used to position the two terms relative to each other: insider-outsider; cultural-scientific; subjective-objective. An emic account is one that is observed from within the culture, within the subject of observation. An emic observer brings into play the biases and cultural norms inherent in the very object of study. By contrast, an etic account describes the object of study from without, with a very deliberate aim of describing things impartially, as they are, sans bias.
As I've been designing products, experiences, apps and services [more on those later], I've, at times, taken a step back to try to understand exactly what it is that I'm doing as a designer designing for a community that I'm not a part of. The grounding statement of my thesis, the "thesis of my thesis", is "when a person sustains a spinal cord injury, their treatment is ableist and is seen through a lens of restoration as opposed to empowerment". Essentially, and bluntly put, walking is a sign to society as a whole that a person is "normal", and this point of view, this automatic categorization of wheelchairs as "abnormal" seeps into how treatment is framed. If we use products for people with SCI/D as an example, one could easily critique the current wheelchair industry for almost wholly borrowing its aesthetic from performance bikes, even though we're talking about a class of objects that restore mobility to the population that it serves. We put so much attention as people into the clothes that we wear and the aesthetic that we embody through our consumption choices, yet wheelchairs are distinctly "of a type", forcing wheelchair users to embody the same "product identity" as one another. If we return to the example of bicycles, it's easy to observe stylistic differences between bike companies, and even within the same bicycle company. Why doesn't this exist in wheelchairs? I posit that it is because wheelchairs are seen as a tool for recovery, and not, simultaneously, a tool for expression. Explanation aside, one of the tenets of my thesis that derives from this grounding statement is that a lot of treatment for SCI/D is "expert-led", and not "self-led" by the patient [again, more on this later].
So - where does my thesis fall? There is a huge irony in the fact that I am a person without a SCI/D that is designing for the SCI/D community with the stated goal of making treatment of SCI/D more "self-led". It's an unavoidable question, and perhaps one without an answer. In my time spent reflecting on the meta quandaries of my design work, I've come to a detente of sorts. Design is a user-centered process that relies on many of the tools of cultural anthropology [ethnography, interview, survey], which is in fact where I first stumbled onto this idea of emic and etic. After all, empathy, as they say, is the primary tool in the designer's toolkit. So perhaps it's empathy that drives my etic exploration of design for paralysis and disability, allowing me to channel the needs and desires of my users to create something that is "self-led" in concept instead of in practice. But more than that, I think my investment in the SCI/D community as the friend and supporter of someone with an SCI/D lends me a unique position that is more 'emtic' than emic or etic. That being said, I need to be careful that I keep the needs of the SCI/D community in mind, rather than imposing my etic assumptions about the community and the people within it on my design work. My work needs to always return to the user.