Kat Jungnickel

Enquiry Machines: Sociology hack day

Enquiry Machines, Workshop

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Tuesday 16th July
NAB 314
Eventbrite listing

Late last year Dan McQuillian and I applied for and were awarded a Goldsmiths Learning Enhancement Fellowship to run an experimental workshop that brought together sociology, computing and hacking/ making practices.

Dan had read about my previous work on Enquiry Machines and suggested we explore this in the context of a classroom based teaching environment. The project was a pilot at using ‘hacking’ as a Higher Education learning method; ‘hacking’ can be understood as a playful engagement with pre-existing tools and materials, exploring and extending their limitations, with an innovative and clever outcome.


– to illustrate and/or explore a particular area of enquiry
– to enable a critical engagement with materials and making
– to support critical and conceptual thinking
– to bring to life a constellation of concepts and methods
– to offer students a chance to critically engage with ideas and processes in new dynamic forms

The event was  designed to provide students with the chance to make research ideas and problems into a series of material objects or ‘Enquiry Machines’. The idea was not so much to model or prototype a solution or answer but rather to materialise the problem in a new way – to produce new ways to enquire into the issue. It was a bit like a hackday, but with ideas, string, paper, cardboard boxes, cable ties, duct tape and any other junk that people happened to bring (or find during the day).

What is an Enquiry Machine?

What is an Enquiry Machine?

We aimed to push students out of their comfort zones, inspire them to think about research as a tangible intervention and in the process develop new critical and methodological skills. The session was designed to strengthen students critical abilities on three accounts: articulating core issues/questions, working with others, and opening up rather than closing down methods for thinking through and about complex things. Although initially designed to push students on the MA/MSc in Creating Social Media to experiment and innovate, in an accessible and fun way, work together as a group. The event was open however to a range of students  including other MA and PhD students.




A central theme of social computing at undergraduate and postgraduate level is that the affordances of social technology are a material for innovation (e.g. the new MA/MSc in Creating Social Media http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-creating-social-media convened by Dan McQuillan). This means that we encourage students to think broadly and reflexively about the material, technical and socio-cultural contexts of social media in order to critically locate themselves, their interactions and ideas.

This however presents a pedagogic challenge; students with a computing background are unfamiliar with this approach to technology and students from other backgrounds are inhibited by the technical specifics. The proposed project seeks to address this issue by experimentally adapting Kat’s ‘Enquiry Machines’ (EM) project in the context of social computing. The EM project sets out to render visible critical processes of knowledge making and interaction. It is an experimental methodology that is based on Kat’s sociology training and interest in messy and innovative methods.

In this context, the EM project will provide an experiential exercise that is fun, accessible and underpinned by learning practices that suit the subject (ie. critical pedagogy, rapid prototyping).

'Enquiry Machine' event poster

‘Enquiry Machine’ event poster

Students will build their enquiries into three-dimensional artefacts. They will transform their processes, concepts or methodological problems into material objects and use these objects to show, share and debate key ideas about social computing. Building ideas out of a range of everyday materials bypasses disciplinary boundaries (as there are no right or wrong answers in rapid prototyping and hacking culture) and opens up new ways of thinking about challenging ideas. The discussions generated  while creating  machines, and with others while the machine is in operation, are considered as important as the object itself.

The proposal built on Dan McQuillan’s direct experience of co-founding a hack-based social innovation movement (http://sicamp.org/), where it is clear that hacking / hackathons are an emerging form of innovation across business, society and academia itself (e.g. King’s College London organises first Humanities Hack http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/eventrecords/kclhumshack.aspx).

The event aimed to create an interdisciplinary bridge to hacking as innovation in a way that adapts Sen & Nussbaum’s capabilites approach to a learning environment. It will be shared as a ‘how to’ handbook and college resource via learn.gold and Mahara as a way to develop a college-wide community of practice around hack-based learning.



The session was structured in three parts:

1. Introduction/framing presentation – Kat started the day by introducing the concept of Enquiry Machines and outlining the tasks for the day.

2. Exploring/ problem development – Students were encouraged to articulate core enquiries (questions/issues/methods) in small groups. They were sent on a brief outside excursion to  walk/think through issues and collect extra materials

2. Making – Over lunch students worked together to materialise their enquiries in the form of material objects.

3. Performing – In performing the objects to peers, each group critically articulated coherencies / interventions and discussed how and why specific choices are made, what metaphors were produced and how ideas were generated in assembling these machines.