Posted in Research, Social Change

Is there such a thing as ‘culture’?



Hofstede defines culture as the collective programming of the mind. So, culture reflects the dominant and shared meanings and values that distinguish people of a specific group from others. However, it is important to acknowledge that culture is an abstract, complex and fluid concept. There are no defined boundries to what to include in or exclude from culture. Boundries could be geographical physical, relational, biolegical, functional, to name a few, but these are over lapped, layered and ever changing.

Despite all this complexity, culture is still an acknowledged concept in our every day conversation, and in academic work. This is simply because culure provide a lense to understand and interact with a large group of people (could be thousands or millions) all at once. 

A counter debate against culture argues that acknowledging the existance of cultures entials adopting essentialist sterotyping attitude towards individuals. In that sense, culture hinders understanding the specificity of individuals and the different sitiuations in time-space. 

I would argue that we could still acknwledge the concept of culture without being essentialist or adopting a ‘negative’ stereotyping attitude. First, because culture, just like individual personalities, does exisit as a group identity which is something we can realize (congnitively) experience (emotionally) every day in different places (in different cultures). As such, neglecting the existence of culture entails neglecting the group/collective identities which have been developed throughout the human history. Second, essentialsim entails a static and postive conceptualizing of culture, whereas culture is dynamic and fluid. Thus essentialism in and of itself is contrary to the notion of culture. Third, there is a negative conotation to stereotyoing as a concept linked to racisim and discrimination in different aspects. I see steretyping as a neutral attitude towards treating ‘individuals’ identities MERELY based on their ‘collective’ identity (=cultrue). This means, culture is not meant to be representing one individual but rather the collective group as a whole, whereas one member of this group would be different in some way from the collective.

To conclude, culture is a benefitial concept for our understanding of the world and the different realities around us. It is meant to represent collectives not individuals. Thus, when dealing with people from different cultures, we should not consider culture as the only factor explaining their identity but rather it is only one factor and in any case it is should not be taken from a static or postivist point of view.

How do you understand culture? How would you use that understanding?

Posted in Design, Research, Social Change

A Most Religious State


Image: Wikimedia

According to Gallup Poll, Saudi Arabia is one of the most religious countries in the world (shown in dark red in the image above). This study also identifies a list of the top 11 religious countries. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia did not make the list. This might be contributed to how the study was designed. It was based on the question: “Is religion an important part of your daily lif?”. Such a question has two fallacies; first, it investigates conciouse behavior and second it investigates individuals and not groups, regulated by religious cultures or states.

Subconcious Religious Behavior

The question in Gallup’s study investigates the number of individuals practicing religion, more likely in a conscious manner. Whereas it is possible that individuals subconsciously acount for their religious values in many aspects of their daily lives. Moreover, even those who discard their faith, are suceptable to holding religious values of their communities and past religious experiences if they had any. Author of “The Atheist Muslim“, explains how religion is infused within cultures and societal values and how it shapes people’s identity even after they lose their religious beliefs. As such, to measure how important religion is we need to consider these factors and not only concious behavior.

For the country of our concern here, Saudi Arabia, a suprising finding of another Gallup study states that atheists consitute 5% of Saudis. However, it is still possible that those individuals are experiencing the mixed identity as in “The Atheist Muslim“. This is particularly more likely to happen in highly religious states such as Saudi Arabia as clarified in the next section.



Religious Regulations

The question in Gallup’s study targetted individuals not states or regulations. For a country to be listed as a religous one, it is essential that both its  culture and governance system are based, fully or partially, on religious provisions. As such, if we were to investigate religious regulations, Saudi Arabia would certainly make the top ten list, if not the top five one.

The tribal system in Saudi Arabia is profoundly infused with religion. To the point that many of the common traditions now are under debate in terms of whether they are Islamic or just tribal traditions. As such, even for someone who is not particularly religious, they are expected to conform with their tribe’s traditions, which are mostly religious.

The governance system in Saudi Arabia derives its authority from Islamic (Sahria) law. According to the Saudi Basic Law of GovernanceIslamic provisions regulate, and are infused with, almost everything from eduacation, eonomy and judiciary, to media, national identity and social norms. In addition to being represnted in regulations, the Islamic identity of the state is represented in its mundane system such as public holidays, Hijri (Islamic) calendar and the expression of Islamic faith on the saudi flag. Consequently, these regulations made it certain that religion is entrenched in all aspects of Saudis’ lives.

Image: Pixbay. The Saudi flag holds the expression of faith “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”

Furthur more, in recent Saudi regulations, calling for atheist thought has become considered a terrorist offense:

“Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

This might be due to the recent increase of Saudi social media users who have announced their apostasy. However, it is notable that the article above specified “calling for atheist thought” as an act of violating public order especially when associated with “question[ing] the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”. Whereas, apostasy per se, declairing oneself as an atheist, or converting to another faith, are not directly addressed in this article nor in the articles of the Basic Law.


To measure to what extent a contex is religious we need to understand both concious and subconcious religious behavior. Also, we need to understand the role of cultural and legal regulations in enforcing religious values as these factors although crucial seemed to be easily overlookedin Gallup’s study.

Designer’s Take on This Context

  • Understand whether your users are conciousely or unconciousely religious, or not.
  • Understand what ‘religious’ values they would always hold regardless of how religious they consider themselves.
  • When designing for social change, it is crucial to align the new change with religious values and not against them.
Posted in Social Change

The F word does not exist in Arabic




I have been struggling to articulate the term Feminism in my native language (Arabic). The word itself does not exist in Arabic. Thus, the concept is commonly referred to as ‘Women’s rights’ (حقوق المرأة) and it is sometimes translated to ‘Womanism’ (النسوية) although the latter is used in academic context but not commonly used in spoken language. Continue reading “The F word does not exist in Arabic”

Posted in Social Change

All what we need is an ‘Open Dialog’





Daniel Yankelovich distinguishes between dialogue, debate, discussion and deliberation. While debate aims at winning an argue, dialogue is a win-win situation. In discussions, there does not have to be equality, empathy and exploration of assumptions, whereas these three elements are essential in dialogue. Finally, deliberation is an activity that is more concerned about solving problems and making decisions, whereas in dialogue that is not the case. Continue reading “All what we need is an ‘Open Dialog’”

Posted in Social Change

Why Positive Activism?




The Problem-oriented approach

As in “positive psychology” and the problem-oriented approach in traditional psychology, similarly, other applied areas including activism have been problem-focused. The problem with traditional activism is that it works similar to the media where it attracts attention to the problems and the negative aspects of the world. As a result, this constant exposure to bad news and stories can play a significant role in making people either emotionally-charged or apathy and numb. This could also affect activists and cause psychological problems such as secondary trauma stress disorder (STSD).

Continue reading “Why Positive Activism?”

Posted in Social Change

Is technology the answer?







Can Technology replace social Engineering?

In his article (1966), Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?, Alvin Weinberg introduced the term technological fix to the lexicon of technology (and HCI). Weinberg remarked that although social problems are much more complex than technological problems, however, technological fixes can be applied to tackle or at least reduce social problems. To illustrate this, he discussed two examples of social problems,  Continue reading “Is technology the answer?”

Posted in Social Change

If you are excellent, see a psychologist

Positive Psychology Techniques


What is wrong with psychology?

In his book “A Primer in Positive Psychology“, Christopher Peterson observed that since World War II and for 60 years now, psychology has worked with the “disease model” focusing on human problems . He remarked that this focus has yielded remarkable achievements in this field. For instance, 60 years ago, it was not possible to treat disorders, but now 14 disorders are treatable and 2 of which are curable. However, this focus, according to Peterson, lacks balance for three reasons. Continue reading “If you are excellent, see a psychologist”

Posted in Social Change

Challenges of Digital Activism in Saudi Arabia


In the past few years, more citizens have opted for the online platforms where they can be active members in changing their cultures and communities. Activists, in particular, have seized this opportunity to practice their activism online, in order to have their voices heard and to reach a wider range of the society. However, Although online activism might have been legitimate in some cases, it is forbidden in others. The digital world is not as a universally free space as we might think. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, expressing one’s beliefs and calling for freedom of religions might not only be deemed as disturbing culture and religion but also considered as a criminal offence.

Continue reading “Challenges of Digital Activism in Saudi Arabia”

Posted in Social Change

Technological Design and Social Justice (workshop)

“I have been lucky to be accepted to participate in a great workshop titled “Exploring Social Justice, Design, and HCI ” which is one of the workshops to be conducted in CHI conference 2016.


In this blog post, I will briefly discuss the topic of social justice and technological design. Then I will explain the role of social justice in my research. Finally, I will provide some insights and takeaway notes from the workshop.

So, what is social justice anyway? Continue reading “Technological Design and Social Justice (workshop)”