Examining the maker movement through discourse analysis: An introduction

The extensive discourse regarding ‘making’ and the maker movement is primarily centered on the opportunities that ‘making’ creates for society, particularly for manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.  Through this blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” (this is the first blog post out of a series of 5), I aim to critically examine this discourse, not in an attempt to discredit the movement and its supporters, but rather to draw attention to the issues and challenges of the maker movement and how these may be addressed. These point-of-view pieces will draw on literature, media, and conversations with people who are actively engaged in the movement.

We will cover a number of topics, including:

The maker movement has grown at a rapid pace over the past six years.  Makerspaces are being developed at an astounding rate, both domestically and internationally.  They are touted as havens for techies, artists, and entrepreneurs. Project-based learning, design learning, experiential learning are hot topics in both the formal and informal education fields. A manifesto has been published (Hatch, 2014) and ‘how-to’ guides on making and building makerspaces abound (Makerspace.com, 2012; Bagley, 2014; Kemp, 2013; Lang, 2013).

Mass media has also entered the conversation. In 2013, the Huffington Post published an article titled “What is the Maker Movement and Why Should You Care?” which concluded by stating,

Makers will continue to be found in fields ranging from food to crafts to technology. And together, they will push each other forward to invent and build new and innovative things. Many technologies that will drive this growing population are not even built yet. In effect, the maker movement has only just begun. (Morin, 2013)

Further, in an article published in Slate, Tom Kalil wrote,

The Maker Movement is important for a variety of reasons. First, it promotes values that are ends in themselves, such as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-expression. Second, it has the potential to get more boys and girls excited about STEM, in the same way that chemistry sets inspired previous generations of scientists and engineers. Third, many manufacturing companies complain that they have many job openings they can’t fill, and they need more welders and machine tool operators. (Kalil, Extreme marshmellow canons, 2012)

Making has been embraced by the Obama administration and the recent White House Maker Faire hosted “students, entrepreneurs, and everyday citizens who are using new tools and techniques to launch businesses, learn vital skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and lead a grassroots renaissance in American manufacturing” (Office of the Press Secretary, 2014). Kalil and Miller also stated that,

The rise of the Maker Movement represents a huge opportunity for the United States. Nationwide, new tools for democratized production are boosting innovation and entrepreneurship in manufacturing, in the same way that the Internet and cloud computing have lowered the barriers to entry for digital startups, creating the foundation for new products and processes that can help to revitalize American manufacturing. (Kalil & Miller, 2014)

Makerspaces are operating as independent entities, in schools, as well as folded into legacy institutions, such as libraries and museums.  Major funding agencies, including the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are funding grants to support and develop maker initiatives (IMLS, 2014; National Science Foundation, 2014; Dougherty, 2012).  In addition to mass media and politicians, academics have studied making from a number of disciplines and perspectives, including the social sciences, education, and STEM fields (ex: Honey & Kantor, 2013; Ratto & Boler, 2014; Norris, 2014).

Make Magazine, described as the bible of the Maker Movement (Hatch, 2014, p. 5), has published statistics for both readership of the magazine and Maker Faire Attendance. Of Make Magazines 300,000 total readership, 81% are male, median age is 44, median household income is $106,000, 73% own their own home, 97% attended college, 80% have post-graduate education (Make Media, 2012).  Of the attendees at the 2012 Bay Area and New York Maker Faires, 66% were male, median age was 46.5, median household income was $117,000, 87% graduated college + post graduate work (Make Media, 2012).  These statistics suggest that those participating in the maker movement are a homogeneous segment of the American population and that there is a disconnect between the discourse and actual participants that we believe is worth exploring.

A number of organizations, including Make Media, are starting to reach out to other demographics.  Make Media started a nonprofit foundation called Maker Education Initiative, whose mission is, “to create more opportunities for all young people to develop confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, math, art, and learning as a whole through making” (Make Media).  Further, in a blog post from 2013, Dougherty said,

I’d like to see makerspaces reach new audiences — it’s not just a “guy thing” or a “geek thing”. We need more women and people of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds to participate.  We should not just be open and welcoming to new people but we should also export what goes on in a makerspace into other locations in the community such as libraries, schools and museums. We are all makers of spaces, and these spaces are makers of makers. (Dougherty, Makers of Spaces, Makers of Makers, 2013)

Public libraries across the country are reaching out to their communities to engage in making (Fayetteville Free Library, Detroit Public Library, Cleveland Public Library, Chicago Public Library) and these initiatives and organizations might provide a platform and entry point for making for all community members.  As the Maker Movement spreads beyond the US border (Maker Faire Africa is coming soon) TASCHA hopes that this blog series will start conversations about these issues.  Making is not just about manufacturing, STEM, and jobs, as Ron Deibert notes, “DIY means taking matters into your own hands, not leaving it for others to do it for you.  It means making decisions without the gaze of those in power saying what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s allowed or what’s not” (Ratto & Boler, 2014).

TASCHA has begun looking at innovation spaces that support making activities and how they may provide communities with unique opportunities through fostering innovation and creativity, but there are challenges that must be addressed before “every child a maker” becomes a reality.  In the MacArthur Foundation report, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins cites an article from the Chronicle of Education, where Bill Ivey and J. Tepper write,

Increasingly, those who have the education, skills, financial resources, and time required to navigate the sea of cultural choice will gain access to new cultural opportunities…At the same time, those citizens who have fewer resources—less time, less money, and less knowledge about how to navigate the cultural system—will increasingly rely on the cultural fare offered to them by consolidated media and entertainment conglomerates…Finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage of the pro-am revolution, such citizens will be trapped on the wrong side of the cultural divide.  So technology and economic change are conspiring to create a new cultural elite—and a new cultural underclass. (Ivey & Tepper, 2009)

TASCHA is particularly interested in the maker movement as it relates to resource-constrained communities, both in developing and countries. .  The maker movement creates a hybrid of digital and face-to-face community interaction and has been cited to empower individuals by creating access to tools and technology that democratize the means of production. The spaces have been identified as enabling communities facing social and economic challenges with the ability to create jobs, innovate, and grow small businesses. For TASCHA, Innovation Spaces and the Future of Libraries is a growing area of our research.  Our goal through this project is to bring awareness to the less visible aspects of the maker movement in order to help community organizations developing innovation spaces better understand both the benefits and challenges.

A note about me: I am Lauren Britton, doctoral student at Syracuse University in Information Science and Technology, leader in the library maker space movement, and TASCHA research partner.

This blog post is the first of 5 of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?”

Access the works cited for this blog post

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