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Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY It would be like murder! A

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Abstract

Kombucha fermentation is a multispecies activity guided by human-microbe interactions. This study investigates kombucha fermentation practices as a platform to recognize relationality with nonhuman microbes. For this, relational theories enable reframing human-microbe relations by focusing on reciprocity and interconnectedness within multispecies relations. The empirical research consists of interviews, a design probing task, and a collective reflection workshop with kombucha brewers. The empirical research delivers insights into the agency of microbes, sensory experiences, and embodied knowledge in kombucha fermentation practices. Findings investigate how humans attune to the needs of microbes, and the role of embeddedness in ethical doings. In this way, the study explores alternative ways of relating to nonhumans beyond prevalent human exceptionalist mindsets in design and sustainability. By interpreting the research findings, the research proposes methodological and theoretical implications for designers to enable recognition of relationality with nonhumans.
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Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder! Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
Attuning to nonhumans through kombucha fermentation Attuning to nonhumans through kombucha fermentation
practices practices
Aybars Senyildiz
Department of Design, Aalto University, Finland
Emilija Veselova
NODUS Sustainable Design Research Group, Department of Design, Aalto University, Finland
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Citation Citation
Senyildiz, A., and Veselova, E. (2022) Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
Attuning to nonhumans through kombucha fermentation practices, in Lockton, D., Lloyd, P., Lenzi, S.
(eds.),
DRS2022: Bilbao
, 25 June - 3 July, Bilbao, Spain. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2022.318
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Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be
like murder! Attuning to nonhumans through
kombucha fermentation practices
Aybars Senyildiza,*, Emilija Veselovab
a Department of Design Aalto University, Finland
b NODUS Sustainable Design Research Group, Department of Design, Aalto University, Finland
*corresponding e-mail: aybarssenyildiz@gmail.com
doi.org/10.21606/drs.2022.318
Abstract: Kombucha fermentation is a multispecies activity guided by human-microbe
interactions. This study investigates kombucha fermentation practices as a platform to
recognize relationality with nonhuman microbes. For this, relational theories enable
reframing human-microbe relations by focusing on reciprocity and interconnectedness
within multispecies relations. The empirical research consists of interviews, a design
probing task, and a collective reflection workshop with kombucha brewers. The
empirical research delivers insights into the agency of microbes, sensory experiences,
and embodied knowledge in kombucha fermentation practices. Findings investigate
how humans attune to the needs of microbes, and the role of embeddedness in ethical
doings. In this way, the study explores alternative ways of relating to nonhumans
beyond prevalent human exceptionalist mindsets in design and sustainability. By
interpreting the research findings, the research proposes methodological and
theoretical implications for designers to enable recognition of relationality with
nonhumans.
Keywords: kombucha fermentation; relationality; design for sustainability, more-than-
human design
1. Introduction
Current environmental issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, indicate the
need for reconsidering human relationships with the natural environment (Ripple et al.,
2017). Human relationships with the environment have been guided by the pervasive
mindset in which human traits, such as rationality and autonomy, make humans exceptional
and superior to nature (Drichel, 2019). In this way, human exceptionalism postulated human
superiority over nature and justified the use of nonhuman nature as a resource for human
use (Rupprecht et al., 2020). However, human exceptionalist assumptions have been linked
to unsustainability (Rupprecht et al., 2020) by disintegrating humans from the other natural
beings and ecological processes, which will be referred to as nonhumans hereafter. The term
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
2
nonhuman is, of course, rooted in the divide between human and nonhuman stemming from
human exceptionalism. However, in this paper, I
1
choose to use the term nonhuman because
it enables discussion of human exceptionalism and because of the lack of widely accepted
alternatives. Human-centeredness has been a major mindset in design that has considered
nonhumans as passive. The tradition of human-centered and solution-oriented design
remained inadequate for studying the complex relationships within social-ecological
entanglements (Boehnert, 2014). Therefore, designers and researchers have been exploring
and materializing alternative ways of relating to nonhumans beyond human exceptionalism.
This paper is part of this exploration.
This paper aims to enable recognizing relationality with nonhumans through everyday
practices of kombucha fermentation. Since kombucha fermentation is a multispecies activity
guided by the symbiotic interactions between human and microbial bodies, I approached
kombucha fermentation practices as a platform to blur the human-nonhuman divide and
conceptualize relationality with microbes. I strived to adopt a narrative based on kinship
with nonhumans (Braidotti, 2006) rather than operating on prevailing human exceptionalist
assumptions. I approached kombucha fermentation practices through the lens of relational
theories, which focus on relations rather than entities to explain lively processes (introduced
in more detail in Section 2.1.). The empirical learnings emerged from interviews and a
collective kombucha fermentation activity with brewers, as well as from my kombucha
fermentation experiences. This study addressed the research question of how humans could
attune to nonhumans through kombucha fermentation practices.
The next section presents the theoretical background of relational approaches and the
practice of kombucha fermentation. Section 3 describes the research design and the
methods used. Section 4 introduces the findings that emerged from empirical research.
Finally, Section 5 discusses the ethical aspects, adapted research methods, and explorative
implications for studying multispecies relations in design for sustainability.
2. Theoretical and practical background
2.1 Towards relationality with nonhumans
Human exceptionalism has a long history associated with the worldviews of humanism,
which prioritizes human welfare and social justice (Kopnina, 2017). Since the Enlightenment,
human exceptionalism has been a functional worldview for social and economic
development in the Western tradition (Kopnina, 2017). This mindset views nonhumans in an
instrumental manner, and, therefore, it has confined sustainability research to human needs
by ignoring human-nonhuman interconnectedness (Rupprecht et al., 2020). Similar to
sustainability research, design research had shortcomings in exploring human-nonhuman
1
While the first author conceptualized and conducted this study, the second author contributed to the conceptualization
and the integrity of the research findings. Although the study has two authors, the first author will be referred to as "I", in
the first-person singular pronoun. In this way, we aim for the consistency of language by acknowledging the kombucha
fermentation experiences of the first author and the relationship between the first author and the research participants.
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
3
interconnectedness. Human-centered design defined human as a "discrete and individual
subject" and focused on human needs under the influence of the neoliberal market model
(Forlano, 2017, pp. 17-18). However, a reductionist and excessive focus on human needs
likely incites neglecting the impacts on the nonhuman environment (Veselova & Gaziulusoy,
2022; Rupprecht et al., 2020).
Contrary to human exceptionalism, some sustainability researchers advocated hybrid
perspectives of nature and culture by putting forward relational approaches toward human-
nonhuman relations (e.g., see Mancilla García et al., 2020; Walsh et al., 2020; West et al.,
2020). Relational approaches focus on relations rather than entities or essences (Walsh et
al., 2020). Colebrook (2019) argues that relationality is based on processes rather than
unchanging essences.
Rather than think of distinct essences and fixed beings, we now acknowledge that
nothing is an island; we and the things around us become what we are through
encounters, with encounters and relations generating an openness, fluidity, and
dynamism of life and the world (Colebrook, 2019, p. 175).
Relational approaches describe “the whole not so much as a system of objects but a network
of relationships” (Lejano, 2019, pp. 1-2). The focus on relationships implies that humans and
nonhumans are inextricably interconnected (West et al., 2020) and mutually constituted
(Escobar, 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to recognize human-nonhuman relationality and
kinship with microorganisms, living beings, the Earth, and its ecosystems (Braidotti, 2006).
This paper inquires into relational approaches in the context of design for sustainability.
Design for sustainability intends to reconfigure social-ecological relations by increasingly
adopting systemic approaches to environmental issues (Ceschin & Gaziulusoy, 2020).
However, the dominant approaches to sustainability take environment, society, and
economy as distinct elements (Rupprecht et al., 2020), reduce human-nonhuman relations
to material exchanges between segregated domains (Lejano, 2019), and dismiss
interdependencies (West et al., 2020). On the contrary, this paper decenters human agency
to develop a narrative based on human-nonhuman interdependency and relationality.
2.2 Alternatives to the narrative of human-exceptionalism
There are many discourses that have provided relational approaches for exploring
alternative ways of relating to nonhuman environments beyond human exceptionalist
narratives that instrumentalize nonhumans. The relational approaches have been
manifested within the ethics of care tradition of feminism by putting forward the notion of
caring for nonhumans (Drichel, 2019). Moreover, new materialist discourses reflected on
how meanings contribute to the social and material production of human exceptionalism
(Fox & Alldred, 2014). These approaches focused on the vitality of nonhuman environments,
for example, by taking "soil as a living entity" rather than a resource material (Schlosberg,
2020). Another approach that articulated nonhuman agency has been the literary tradition
of multispecies ethnography, popularized by Anna Tsing's (2015) book "The Mushroom at
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
4
the End of the World". Multispecies ethnographers posited the term multispecies to
acknowledge the interconnectedness between humans, other species, and environments
(Locke & Muenster, 2015). With ethnographic inquiries into encounters between humans
and nonhumans (Gatto & McCardle, 2019), multispecies ethnography strives to create a
narrative of care and reciprocity to interpret nonhuman agency and presence in social
studies (Greeson, 2019).
Despite being incremental, relational approaches have been reflected in sustainability and
design by challenging human-centrism. Since human flourishing is dependent on other life
forms, the multispecies sustainability concept advocates for multispecies wellbeing and
broadens the ethical landscape of sustainability practice towards nonhumans (Rupprecht et
al., 2020). For example, human-bee encounters epitomize how species depend on each
other for their lively processes and how humans can attune their policies according to
nonhuman agents (Rupprecht et al., 2020). For understanding the nonhuman realm,
beekeepers are seen as partners and stewards for bridging human and nonhuman
stakeholders (Rupprecht et al., 2020). Similarly, Gatto & McCardle (2019) conceptualize the
agency of plants by following the multispecies political histories in contaminated zones and
perceiving relational processes in design. Some designers and researchers have been
exploring possible ways of including more-than-humans within design practice and research
(e.g., see Gatto & McCardle, 2019; Veselova & Gaziulusoy, 2022; Wilde et al., 2021; Nijs et
al., 2020; Clarke et al., 2019; Westerlaken, 2020; Roudavski, 2020). For challenging human-
centrism in design, researchers used the concept of more-than-human in which the term
nonhuman can refer to anything that is other than human: artificial intelligence, digital
systems, artifacts, and natural beings and systems (Veselova & Gaziulusoy, 2021).
Nevertheless, as stated above, I use nonhuman to refer only to natural entities within social-
ecological entanglements. Although these efforts remain in theoretical or speculative
domains, they are challenging the human-centric narrative within the discipline of design.
2.3 Kombucha fermentation as a multispecies practice
Fermentation practices are ancient practices for preserving, preparing food and beverages,
improving taste, and making food more digestible (Kårlund et al., 2020; Dimidi et al., 2019).
Although traditional fermentation practices are disappearing due to the dependence on
industrial production (Katz, 2012), kombucha fermentation has become popular and
commercialized in the Western markets because of its touted health benefits (Kapp &
Sumner, 2019). Since kombucha fermentation does not require special tools (see Figure 1), it
is an open practice that can be carried out with generic kitchen tools (Redzepi & Zilber,
2018). Having a starter culture and tools to prepare sweet tea is sufficient for brewing
kombucha. Furthermore, kombucha fermentation is a prosumer activity, in which the brewer
is a producer and consumer at the same time (Kohtala, 2015).
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
5
Figure 1. A jar containing fermenting kombucha tea (left), kombucha starter culture (i.e., biofilm,
SCOBY) stored in a container (middle), and a kombucha SCOBY (right) (images provided by
authors and participants)
As illustrated in Figure 2, a generic kombucha recipe begins with preparing a sweetened
starter tea. After cooling the tea to room temperature, the starter culture is placed into a
jar. The microbial community of bacteria and yeast ferments sweetened tea into an acidic
and carbonated beverage in 8 to 12 days. The microbial relations within kombucha rely on
symbiotic biochemical processes among acetic acid bacteria and yeast (Redzepi & Zilber,
2018). While yeast consumes sugar for producing ethanol for the bacteria, bacteria produce
a floating biofilm that protects the microbial community from other microbes (May et al.,
2019). The biofilm is called the symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast, in short SCOBY
(Figure 3). The SCOBY grows and replicates itself during each fermentation cycle.
The touted health benefits of kombucha rely on the fact that kombucha is a probiotic
beverage (Kapp & Sumner, 2019). It includes living microorganisms that enrich the gut
microbiome (Dimidi et al., 2019). Recent microbiome research has revealed that the
diversity of microbes in the gut is essential for the immune system and metabolism
(Bloomfield et al., 2016). Although modern science has been framing microorganisms as
pathogens, recent research has identified the human body as biocultural (Fournier, 2020).
Thus, human well-being depends on microbes in the body (The Kilpisjärvi Collective, 2021).
The biocultural definition of the human body challenges the existing assumptions based on
eliminating microbial life from the human body and environments. Humans are relationally
bound to microbes, and human well-being is interconnected with microbes (The Kilpisjärvi
Collective, 2021). Therefore, the ‘border’ between humans and nonhumans is not pre-
defined, and dismantling this border has political, ecological, and ethical dimensions (Barad,
2003; Hey, 2019).
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
6
Figure 2. Schematic representation of a generic kombucha fermentation recipe
Some researchers (e.g. see Chen et al. 2021; Dolejšová & Kera 2016; Geleff Nielsen &
Almeida, 2021) have studied fermentation practices as a platform to reflect on multispecies
relations. For example, Fournier (2020) puts forward that fermentation can be considered a
multispecies practice that involves symbiotic relations among microbial and human bodies in
which both sides benefit from the sustained relation. In kombucha fermentation practices,
while microbes enhance the taste of tea and produce a probiotic beverage, humans provide
proper conditions and food for the microbial community. Therefore, fermentation practices
involve care practices, an ethical way of being together, and mutual interdependency on the
multispecies level (Fournier, 2020). Hey (2019) defines fermentation as interspecies
communication, which is based on embodied knowledge, relational ethics, and everyday
performatives. Fermentation decenters the human by becoming a ground to reflect on the
questions of power, ethics, and relationality (Hey, 2019).
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
7
Figure 3. Microscopy image of kombucha microbes (photographed by Mustafa Beter)
3. Methodology
Thanks to a SCOBY that I received at a food workshop, I had been brewing kombucha for
three years when this study began. Since SCOBY replicates itself, I have shared the baby
SCOBYs with people from my social sphere, regardless of this study. I have chosen the
participants of empirical research from the brewers who have received SCOBY from me,
either directly or indirectly. The participants had been brewing kombucha at home for two
months to two years. I conducted empirical research during the spring months of 2021 with
four participants based in Turkey and Germany. Online tools enabled communication for
conducting empirical research remotely, while the participants remained close to their
SCOBYs and kitchens. The research language was Turkish, the native language of the first
author and the participants. My personal experience in kombucha fermentation informed
the research design and supported the data analysis.
The empirical research was designed to understand the relationality between participants
and the microbial community of kombucha. Empirical learnings emerged from semi-
structured interviews, a design probing activity, and a collective reflection workshop with
brewers. The semi-structured interviews (Muratovski, 2015) explored the key aspects of
brewers' practices, such as habits, tools, and recipes. In the design probing activity
(Mattelmäki, 2006), participants self-documented recipe notes during a kombucha
fermentation cycle, which included fermentation steps and observations while interacting
with microbes. Thus, participants captured in-situ moments of interaction with microbes. In
the collective reflection workshop, participants collectively reflected on their recipe notes.
The workshop included guiding questions to explore how participants attuned to the needs
and wellbeing of microbes. I used research diaries and mindmaps for interpreting and
integrating findings. I adopted a material-semiotic approach, presented in Section 5. Since I
worked towards reframing multispecies relations, the design methods did not provide a
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
8
design of a new product or service as in a typical design process. In this way, this study was
process-driven, and exploratory research rather than generative or productive research.
Exploring a novel way of relating to nonhumans involved an ontological inquiry. Therefore,
this paper aims for learnings about methodological and conceptual tools for ontological
design (Willis, 2006). As the ontological design is interested in disclosing novel ways of being
(Escobar, 2018), and “designing relations between the world, things and human beings” (Fry,
2017), I explore kombucha fermentation practices for disclosing a relational way of relating
to microbes.
4. Results
4.1 The agency of microbes in kombucha fermentation practices
Both human-microbe relations and human sociality guide kombucha fermentation practices.
According to the interviews, the social relations of brewers were key to beginning kombucha
fermentation practices. Three participants of the study started brewing kombucha due to
touted health benefits that they learned from other kombucha brewers. While human
sociality mediated the circulation of kombucha fermentation practice, human-microbe
relations encouraged the sharing behavior of brewers. Since kombucha SCOBY grows and
replicates itself during each fermentation cycle, as one participant confirmed, brewers feel
the "urge to share SCOBY with others". The "urge to share" appears to be a behavioral
pattern resulting from the SCOBY being a "superfluous commodity" (Dolejšová & Kera, 2016,
p. 70) that can be shared without decreasing in amount. In this way, the microbial
community expands its area in the social-ecological landscape. Moreover, sharing behavior
makes the practice more resilient. In the event of SCOBY contamination, brewers may
retrieve SCOBY from the brewers they had previously shared with. Overall, the interplay of
microbial growth and the sharing behavior of brewers makes the practice more resilient and
widespread.
Kombucha fermentation practices manifest the liveliness and agency of microbes in several
ways. First, brewers can sense microbial activity thanks to the biochemical processes of
microbes. While bacteria consume sugar, the tea becomes sourer in taste and smell. Second,
the fermentation duration depends on the temperature, sugar level, and the characteristics
of the microbial community. Therefore, the brewer needs to collaborate with and
‘understand’ the microbial community to achieve the desired flavor. Third, the microbial
community shows liveliness by creating a biofilm on the surface. Since brewers can observe
the growth of biofilm, they sense the vitality of microbes. Therefore, the participants
attributed the property of liveliness to biofilm, which is the material outcome of microbial
metabolism. Consequently, in kombucha fermentation practices, microbes move beyond the
property of lifeless matter and turn into companion species.
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
9
4.2 Sensory experiences and embodied knowledge
Brewers aim to provide the proper conditions for the metabolic activities of the microbes.
Ensuring the wellbeing of kombucha SCOBY is the main driver throughout fermentation
steps. Brewers provide a starter tea with sugar and keep the fermentation jar in a dustless
place at room temperature. Brewers aim to avoid infecting the SCOBY with other microbes
and molds. This requires hygiene practices, such as keeping hands and tools clean.
Moreover, a participant expressed that kombucha might be difficult to touch for beginners
due to being ‘slimy’, ‘strange’, and ‘disgusting’. However, the brewers get used to touching
and being contaminated with microbes while carrying out fermentation steps, because the
brewers need to make interventions to the fermentation container for responding to
unexpected changes caused by microbial processes.
My findings revealed that brewers perfected their practices by relying on their senses and
embodied knowledge for ensuring the well-being of microbes. In their recipes, brewers
noted down how they carried out fermentation steps. For example, the thickness of SCOBY
indicated the progress of the fermentation process, while the overall appearance of the
fermenting liquid enabled troubleshooting SCOBY. Brewers smelled and tasted the tea to
understand its acidity during fermentation. I used the term sensory experiences to refer to
the experiences involving the use of senses to ensure the wellbeing of the SCOBY. Moreover,
the sensory experiences involved the overall enrichment of the beverage experience. Being
a prosumer activity, kombucha fermentation provided the capability to personalize taste. By
using different herbs and changing the amount of sugar, participants modified their recipes
to diversify the obtained taste, scent, and flavor. Moreover, kombucha fermentation
involved flavors changing from sweet to acidic throughout the process. In this way,
kombucha fermentation practices enriched the overall sensory experience of a beverage
experience.
Beginner brewers rely initially on the acquired knowledge that they receive with the SCOBY;
the brewer who shares the SCOBY typically explains the brewing process. After several
fermentation cycles, the brewers develop an understanding of the microbial processes of
fermentation and estimate probable outcomes of their actions. Then, they feel the inherent
capability to adapt their actions to existing environments, tools, and conditions. This
capability emerges from being embedded in the bodily relationship with microbes through
taste, scent, and sight. This constitutes embodied knowledge that guides, improves, and
perfects the practice. The recipe notes showed various instances of embodied knowledge.
Participants developed new skills, personalized tricks, custom recipes, gestures, and intuitive
knowledge about the fermentation process. They also learned to adapt to changing
conditions, the availability of tools, and changes caused by microbial activity. Experiential
learnings acquired through sensory experiences have supported embodied knowledge. In
this way, embodied knowledge and sensory experience worked together for ensuring the
well-being of microbes. Therefore, the activity of caring for nonhumans happens through
practice and bodily interactions.
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
10
4.3 Attunement as an alternative way of relating to nonhumans
The participants have reported a feeling of ownership that develops over time, which
indicated a feeling of attachment to microbes. After receiving a new SCOBY, one participant
expressed the need for time to call it "[her] own kombucha". The feeling of attachment also
manifests in the fear of causing the death of microbes. Although participants did not
discursively consider kombucha SCOBY as a living thing, they were afraid of causing its
death. After hearing about a recipe including a fried kombucha SCOBY, one participant
reacted negatively to the idea of frying and eating SCOBY since "it would be like murder".
These responses show that kombucha fermentation seems to involve ‘confusion’ about
whether to attribute the property of liveliness to microbes or not.
In recipe notes, participants expressed concerns about contaminating SCOBY. For example,
they carefully avoided contaminating it when touching it, and they were afraid of leaving it
to starve even if they had multiple spare starter cultures. As brewers had become more
attentive to the well-being of microbes, sensory experiences and embodied knowledge
underpinned the capabilities to care for nonhumans. Brewers could attune their senses and
actions to the well-being of microbes during repeated fermentation cycles. Therefore,
proximity and time seem to be necessary conditions for embodied knowledge and caring
capabilities to emerge. While relational approaches enabled understanding the dynamics of
proximate human-nonhuman relations, kombucha fermentation practices enabled
recognizing human-nonhuman interconnectedness. Therefore, I view the process of
attunement as an alternative way of relating to nonhumans that is relational and reciprocal
instead of being based on human-nonhuman separation.
5. Discussions
5.1 Relational ethics and the relation of sustainment
In kombucha fermentation, the symbiotic aspects of human-microbe relations and
proximate relations with microbes equipped brewers with the embodied knowledge and
capabilities to care for microbes. The attunement to nonhumans stemmed from the
mundane conditions of the fermentation practice; therefore, ethical doings — which actions
towards the kombucha would be ethical — were emergent and inherent in the kombucha
fermentation practice rather than being guided by principles. For example, kombucha
brewers did not discursively consider kombucha microbes as living beings and lacked ethical
codes; nevertheless, they could engage with ethical doings thanks to their senses and
feelings. Similarly, relational ethics put forward an emergent form of ethics and “situates
ethical action explicitly in relationships” (Austin, 2008).
Relational approaches to ethics have been articulated in different forms and contexts in
Western thought and also in orally-bound cultures of ubuntu philosophy in sub-Saharan
Africa, and Confucianism in East Asia (see Metz & Miller, 2016). Furthermore, the ethics of
care approach in feminist tradition represented a relational approach to ethics (Metz &
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
11
Miller, 2016). Ethics of care focused on human caring as a foundation for ethics (Caine et al.,
2020), and followed the notion that "personal actions have consequences for more than
ourselves and our kin" (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, p. 146). Moreover, ethics of care
eschewed ethical theories that relied on universal principles, abstract concepts, and
“disembodied rationality” (Mandalaki & Fotaki, 2020, p. 746). Relational feminist accounts
rejected the idea of a self-sufficient human being (Mandalaki & Fotaki, 2020), and praised a
new kinship system that includes nonhumans (Braidotti, 2006). For example, Puig de la
Bellacasa (2017) articulates that care ethics emerges from embeddedness in mundane
relations in permaculture practices. Nevertheless, a relational approach to ethics is not
exclusive to the ethics of care approach (Metz & Miller, 2016), and due to its association
with care relations in human sociality, care ethics might not carry the reciprocal meaning of
relational ethics. Therefore, I adopted the broader ethical framework of relational ethics to
delve into ethical doings in multispecies relations. Moreover, relational ethical values have
recently found interest within sustainability research. Relational values offered an
alternative to attributing instrumental or intrinsic value to nonhumans in environmental
ethics (Stålhammar & Thorén, 2019; Himes & Muraca, 2018). Relational values addressed
the value of bonds between environment and people, collective meaning, and heritage,
which might be overlooked within the dichotomy of intrinsic and instrumental values that
have dominated environmental ethics (Himes & Muraca 2018).
A relational approach to ethics enables conceptualizing attentiveness, embeddedness, and
attachments within relations between humans, nonhumans, and the environment.
Relational ethics regards humans as "participants in the web of Earth's living beings" rather
than masters or protectors of it (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, p. 129). Moreover, the relational
approach to multispecies relations could unfold ethical dilemmas in conceptualizing
proximate relations between humans and nonhumans. For example, while kombucha
brewers avoided contaminating kombucha SCOBY, they strived to exclude other microbes
and molds from the fermentation container by performing hygiene practices. This reveals
that exclusions and detachments of some might be needed for sustaining and opening space
for alternative relations with others (Ginn, 2014). Moreover, the frictions about disgust (see
Section 4.2), and the ambiguity of property of liveliness of microbes (see Section 4.3) are
likely linked to being attentive to exclusions in relations. While interpreting kombucha
fermentation practices, relational ethics enabled me to frame the relation of sustainment in
which humans and nonhumans flourish together. Therefore, I argue that relational
approaches could provide design for sustainability with the means to delve into ethical
aspects in multispecies relations.
5.2 Towards recognition of nonhumans within design
The empirical research involved the tension between the pervasive human exceptionalist
mindset and the goal of recognizing relationality with nonhumans. I have strived to interpret
research methods in more relational ways by moving beyond an insular focus on human
needs. The human mind — including mine — is conditioned to the existing tools and
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
12
narratives within reach, I outline the potential for future research by explaining how I
adapted the existing tools to recognize relationality with nonhumans.
Since relational approaches take entities as events and temporary nodes within dynamic
processes (West et al., 2020), I strived to adopt process-relational thinking instead of relying
on unchanging entities. For recognizing nonhuman agency, I mapped the fermentation
practice in a hierarchically flat manner rather than relying on human superiority over
nonhumans. I strived to place human-nonhuman relations at the center of the research
process. By mapping relations in a hierarchically flat way, I intended to blur prevailing
categories of human and nonhuman, decenter the human, conceptualize nonhuman agency,
and focus on how microbes manifest their vitality. At the same time, I did not use this
approach to flatten or remove the power asymmetries between humans, who have more
power in the process, and nonhumans, who have less power. Further research is needed to
identify how, if at all, such hierarchically flat mapping could also account for power
dynamics. In this way, I could explore how microbes affected the brewers and the practice.
For interpreting research findings, I prepared a concept map (Figure 4) that focused on the
aspects of human-nonhuman interaction rather than only focusing on human participants
and their needs. Thus, I could identify the sensory experiences, the process of attunement,
and multispecies interactions within the practice.
Mapping relations hierarchically flat was informed by a material-semiotic approach. Against
the solidified concepts of human and nonhuman, adopting a material-semiotic approach
enabled re-conceptualizing the practice in a relational way. Material-semiotic is a phrase
implying that the relations between meaning and matter are continuously weaved through
acts of communication, and they are not static (Law, 2019). Within this study, material-
semiotic tools referred to the conceptual tools that aimed to reconfigure the connections
between meanings and entities. Since this connection is relevant to the human-nonhuman
divide, I intended to use material-semiotic tools to reconfigure multispecies relations in a
reciprocal way rather than adopting an instrumentalizing approach toward nonhumans.
During empirical research, the material-semiotic approach informed the design probing task
and the collective fermentation activity. For the design probing task, the participants wrote
down their recipes for a week and recorded the moments of corporeal interaction with
microbes. The recipe notes involved the in-situ moments associated with everyday
materiality. With participants, we reinterpreted those moments of interaction with the help
of guiding questions during the final reflection workshop. The guiding questions for
facilitating the workshop investigated how brewers understood the needs and wellbeing of
microbes. As these guiding questions made participants more attentive to nonhuman needs,
we reconstructed moments of interaction so that they reveal the process of attunement and
relationality with microbes. In this way, the material-semiotic approach enabled
reconnecting meanings with the interaction moments during the workshop and enabled
identifying the process of attunement with microbes. In these activities, the role of the
designer-researcher has become the facilitator who reconfigures material-semiotic
connections for enabling humans to reconsider their relations with nonhumans. In this way,
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
13
recognizing nonhuman agency has been a research objective rather than an expected
outcome.
Figure 4. A section of the concept map used for interpreting learnings from the literature search, and
literature review
5.3 Reframing design relationally exploring relationality with nonhumans
Although nonhumans seem to be a marginal and emerging theme in design, relational
approaches provided a lens for tailoring existing design tools to explore alternative ways of
relating to nonhumans beyond human exceptionalism. Therefore, in the absence of
established methods, I adapted existing methods to explore relationality with nonhumans.
Drawing on the explorative insights I have acquired through theoretical and empirical
inquiry, I have expanded the research findings to seven applicable implications for designer-
researchers who explore nonhumans within social-ecological entanglements. The
implications below might support integrating nonhumans into design and facilitating
recognition of human-nonhuman relationality. The implications are:
Become attentive to the nonhuman agency by integrating nonhumans into
design processes;
Aybars Senyildiz, Emilija Veselova
14
Enable recognition of interconnectedness with nonhumans by locating
nonhumans and humans in multispecies relations through diverse knowledges
and experiences;
Understand emergence within multispecies relations for developing practical
and cultural interventions for multispecies flourishing;
Explore relational ethics and ethical doings that emerge from embeddedness in
sustained, proximate, and corporeal relations;
Explore frictions in relationships for being attentive to exclusions which are
necessary to sustain multispecies relationality;
Reconfigure material-semiotic connections to reconstruct concepts and
research tools in relational ways rather than operating on existing concepts
based on the human-nonhuman divide;
Define sustainability in processual-relational ways rather than confining
sustainability to unchanging entities and static systems.
As the implications inform, exploring alternative ways of relating to nonhumans that reject
human superiority is both a deconstructive and constructive endeavor. A designer-
researcher should not only dismantle prevailing mindsets but also facilitate materializing
novel ways of becoming with nonhumans. Similar to the implications of this study, previous
studies have suggested recognizing nonhuman agency and interconnectedness with
nonhumans in multispecies entanglements (West et al., 2020; Rupprecht et al., 2020).
Integrating nonhumans into design is necessary because design is relevant to social-
ecological entanglements that constitute livelihoods and material, energy, and food
provision networks (Gatto & McCardle, 2019; Roudavski, 2020). Additionally, emergence has
been a central theme in social-ecological entanglements that requires adapting a process-
relational approach (Mancilla García et al., 2020). Embeddedness within relations with
natural nonhumans has been a vital condition for relational ethics (Puig de la Bellacasa,
2017; Schlosberg, 2020). Moreover, Giraud (2019) reminds the role of exclusions which are
needed to sustain world-building relationalities. Some researchers argue that
embeddedness overrides the role of human rationality in ethical doings, and this
necessitates reconstructing concepts and tools on a grounded and relational basis (West et
al., 2020), and defining sustainability in processual-relational ways (Mancilla García et al.,
2020).
6. Conclusion
In this paper, I explored an alternative way of relating to nonhumans beyond a human
exceptionalist approach to nonhumans. For this, I adopted a relational approach to the
multispecies practice of kombucha fermentation. While relational theories provided a
narrative to identify nonhuman agency, kombucha fermentation practices acted as a
platform that epitomize human kinship with nonhumans. Thanks to perceiving the vitality of
Why would I ever fry and eat my SCOBY? It would be like murder!
15
kombucha SCOBY, participants became attached to kombucha over time and became
attentive to the needs of microbes. Because of proximate relations, sensory experiences and
embodied knowledge provided the knowledge and skills to understand the needs of
microbes. In this way, brewers could develop the capabilities to care for microbes.
Furthermore, relational ethics enabled identifying ethical doings that emerged from
embeddedness in proximate relations. Proximity offered an alternative to separation and
power asymmetry by affecting the body before language and knowledge, and enabling
ethical doings in relationships with nonhumans (Ceder, 2018). Since ethical doings made
kombucha fermentation practices more resilient and widespread, I propose relational ethics
as an appropriate framework for studying multispecies relationships.
During the empirical research, I adapted design research tools with a processual-relational
approach. The adapted design research methods enabled delving into human-nonhuman
relationality and conceptualizing relational ethics. The material-semiotic approach enabled
reconfiguring the connections between meanings and experiences based on everyday
interactions among humans and microbes. In this way, I could conceptualize how human
participants could attune to the wellbeing of nonhuman microbes. Furthermore, I
interpreted the research findings and methodological insights for providing implications to
study nonhumans in the context of design for sustainability.
This study involved the tensions between the prevailing human exceptionalist mindset and
the research goal of recognition of relationality with nonhumans. While focusing on human-
nonhuman relationality, human exceptionalism manifested itself in language and methods.
As the perspectives of researchers and participants shaped the learnings and discussions,
our imaginations unintentionally operated on human exceptionalism but also intended to
unsettle it. Nevertheless, an explorative approach to the topic of nonhumans requires taking
the initiative in the unsettling landscape of enormous assumptions defining what is human
and what is superior. Due to these tensions, recognizing nonhumans could be an unfolding
and incomplete process rather than an accomplished goal.
Acknowledgements: This work was realized within the open and creative atmosphere of
the Creative Sustainability master’s program at Aalto University. We are grateful for the
contribution of Eeva Berglund for providing insights and guidance in conceptualizing this
research. Moreover, we thank all research participants who documented and discussed
their relations with companion microbes.
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About the Authors:
Aybars Senyildiz is a recent graduate from Creative Sustainability
program at Aalto University. His master’s thesis explored kombucha
fermentation practices and relational theories in sustainability area.
His research interests also include food practices.
Emilija Veselova holds an MA in collaborative design and currently is
a doctoral candidate at NODUS Sustainable Design Research Group at
Aalto University, Finland. Her research focuses on developing a
conceptual framework for designing with natural stakeholders for
sustainability.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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