Design Anthropology Pt. 2: A New Style of Knowing

Design benefits from looking to anthropology, and vice versa, as noted in part one of this post. But how does can this meeting make for a new and distinct ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith 2013)?

A key reason is that design and anthropology have different temporal orientations (Kjaersgaard et al. 2016). Design is by definition concerned with the future, setting out to create new things and solutions (Ibid., p. 1). In contrast, anthropology has ‘traditionally been concerned with the analysis of past and present realities (Ibid., p. 4). As Pink (2014) notes, ‘designers address issues that, as anthropologists, we have conventionally been taught are beyond our (and perhaps anyone else’s) reach’ (p. 16).

Moving anthropology towards the future opens it up to design. But doing this requires altering and reinventing anthropology’s research styles (Kjaersgaard et. al. 2016, p. 5). Let’s look to an example.

Rachel Smith is a design anthropologist who worked on an exhibition experiment titled Digital Natives (Smith 2016). The exhibition focused on how young people use technology. At the same time, the project asked how museums might engage young people with cultural heritage in a digital era. Smith worked collaboratively in a team of curators, interaction designers, and young people aged 15-19. In order to grasp Smith’s work as being design anthropology, it is important to note at the outset that the process of mounting the exhibition was in many ways more important than the final exhibition.

Design activities and ethnographic research were embedded throughout the process of creating the exhibition (Ibid. p. 24). For instance, early in the project a mock-up exhibition allowed the teenagers to engage in conversations with the interaction designers. Contrary to the assumptions of the interaction designers and curators, the teenagers did not fit the popular mould of tech-savvy youth, instead using technology in fragmented ways specific to their personal interests. For instance, one girl was a keen Facebook user, though kept a clear separation between her social media use and her passion for film. She achieved this separation via practices of storing and organising data, and through organising her time and her interests (Ibid. p. 24).

Thus far, Smith’s project isn’t veering too far from regular ethnographic research, nor has the future come into the frame. We have something akin to ethnography being used for design, albeit in a museum context, and in a collaborative manner, rather than out in the ‘field’.

Again, focusing on process will be helpful. The mock-up allowed the teenagers to become more aware of their use of technology, through directed discussions, sketching and other activities. In this regard, the process was interventionist, asking the teenagers to explore their subject positions in relation to digital technology, at the same time as they imagined design solutions (Ibid., 26). Rather than focusing on the past/present, this interventionist approach saw Smith ‘moving forward with people in tandem with their desires and aspirations rather than looking back over times past’ (Ingold and Gatt 2013, p. 141).

Later, the team put together a list of principles for the project based on research insights. Moving away from ‘‘formal’ heritage [and] the ‘static’ and confined exhibition space’, the list directed the teams’ focus ‘towards a dialogic and open-ended conception of the exhibition as a ‘processual’ and ‘hybrid’ experience, that centrally engaged the audience and took point of departure in continually emerging cultural practices’ (Otto and Smith 2013, p. 25).

Fully outlining the process of the Digital Natives exhibition is beyond the scope of this post, but these details are enough to show how design and anthropology can transmute. Here, research and creation are not separate parts of a process (Gerber 2015 p. 1), as in anthropologies of design and anthropology for design. Being cyclical and collaborative, it is not that the future is made amenable to conventional ethnographic research methods. Of course, the future remains unknowable. Instead, emergent social forms cyclically inform design processes, making design anthropology more ‘present-emergent’ than ‘past-present’, as with most anthropology.


Gatt, W, and Ingold, T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in W Gunn, T Otto, and R Charlotte Smith (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Gerber, A 2015, ‘Exploring Anthropological Imagination’, Design Anthropological Futures, Copenhagen, Denmark, August 14th-15th 2015, The Research Network for Design Anthropology, 1-4.

Kjaersgaard, M, Halse, J, Smith, R, Vangkilde, K, Binder, T and Otto, T 2016, ‘Introduction: Design Anthropological Futures’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 19-36.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in W Gunn, T Otto, and R Charlotte Smith (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

Pink, S 2014, ‘Digital-Visual-Sensory-Design Anthropology: Ethnography, Imagination and Intervention’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 412-427.

See also:

Here’s a video of one of the exhibition installations, DJ Station.

If you want to read further, check out Uncertainty and Possibility: New Approaches to Future Making in Design Anthropology by Pink, Akama and Sumartojo. It’s available through the library as a PDF.

Cultural Anthropology has a great series of blog posts under ‘Keywords for Ethnography and Design’. Ton Otto discusses the emergent present, and Lucy Suchman asks ‘how we might design ethnographically’.

Design Anthropology Pt. 1: Anthropology of Design, and for Design

Maybe you just read the words ‘design anthropology’ for the first time. It might be easy to imagine what this new branch of anthropology involves. People design things like computers, buildings and cars, launching them out into social worlds. Ethnographic research seems like a rich way for learning about the social lives of these designed things. Or you might have imagined a designer reading anthropology texts, on topics like liminality or ontology, to inform or inspire their design practice.

These are indeed aspects of design anthropology. People and companies are using ethnography to inform design, including Volvo, which is using ethnography to inform the design of autonomous vehicles. And anthropological knowledge is being co-opted for design (for instance, Anastassakis and Szaniecki 2016), along with social theory more broadly (for instance, DiSalvo 2012; Fry 2012). Anthropologists are also taking cues from design – for instance, by creating new concepts using a design workshop ethos (Rabinow and Marcus, 2008).

A concept for an autonomous car, the Volvo 360c Exterior, released in 2018 by Volvo.

But design anthropology also goes a step further, shaking up the two disciplines. Design and anthropology transmute. For me, this is the most exciting aspect of design anthropology.

To get at this exciting and transmuting form of design anthropology, taken up in part two of this post, it’s helpful to first differentiate between anthropologies of design and design for anthropology (Murphy 2016).

Anthropologies of design take design as a research topic, following the ‘anthropology of x’ formula, like An Anthropology of Scientific Things. For Gatt and Ingold (2013), anthropologists have two options for doing an anthropology of design. Design can be taken as an innate human capacity, similar to language or symbolic thought (p. 139). Alternately, design can be approached as something done by people who identify professionally as designers. Murphy notes (2016) anthropologists have historically tended to focus on the ‘forms, meanings and social effects’ of designed things like buildings, spaces and clothing. This focus has led to a neglect of actual practices of designing, up until very recently (p. 437). Murphy’s recent (2015) Swedish Design: An Ethnography falls into the latter category. He shows that Swedish design practices are informed by social democratic thinking, with design seen as ‘the basic starting point for crafting a just society’ (p. 11).

A major aspect of anthropology for design involves using ethnography to ‘try to look into what people do, what tools they use, and how they think’ in order to design with more sensitivity to local contexts (Salvador et al. 1999, p. 35). Anthropology for design also involves using anthropological concepts and texts to inform the design process, including but not limited to the above-mentioned anthropologies of design.

This is part of what design anthropologists do: they use anthropology and ethnography to bolster design. But, as mentioned above, some design anthropologists take this a step further, mixing design and anthropology, and creating a new ‘style of knowing’ (Otto and Smith, 2013, p. 11). This is taken up in part two of this post.


Anastassakis Z and Szaniecki B 2016, ‘Conversation Dispotifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, pp. 121-139.

DiSalvo C 2012, Adversarial Design, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Fry T 2012, Becoming Human by Design, Berg, New York.

Gatt W and Ingold T 2013, ‘From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 139-159.

Murphy K 2016, ‘Design and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 45, pp. 443-449.

Murphy K 2015, Swedish Design: An Ethnography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Otto T and Smith R 2013, ‘Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing’, in Gunn W, Otto T and Charlotte Smith R (eds), Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 1-32.

Rabinow P and Marcus G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

Salvador T, Bell G and Anderson K 1999, ‘Design Ethnography’, Design Management Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 35-41.

See also:

Imo interviewed people about where your anthropology degree can take you, including Katie, who completed a Masters in Design Anthropology.

Here’s a short lecture about design ethnography from Sarah Pink, Director of the Emerging Technologies Lab at Monash University.

If you’re interested in ethnography outside academia, you could also check out EPIC, a member-based organisation which brings together ethnographers working outside academia. Looking at the EPIC job board might give you some ideas about where you can take your anthropology degree.

Ethics of applied anthropology

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a US military program that ran from February 2007 through until September 2014. Growing out of a ‘cultural turn’ in the US military, it enlisted social scientists, including anthropologists, to provide cultural knowledge during the counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (Forte, 2011). The argument was that cultural information would be used for military occupations anyway and, by at least engaging with the military, anthropologists could give better information for the military. This could lead to less violence by the military because of better understanding of how local cultures work (2011, p. 150).

While the program was greeted with favourable press at first, it quickly started receiving major criticism, particularly from anthropologists (2011). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) released statements stating that the HTS was incompatible with the AAA’s code of ethics on a range of fronts. In the end, partly because of the efforts of the AAA and others, there were very few anthropologists in the program.

Understandably a very large number of anthropologists were horrified by the concept of ‘embedded’ ethnographers working within the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Particularly given how the discipline sees itself in the wake of the Postcolonial and Marxist criticisms of the discipline in the 60s and 70s: that it was a ‘handmaiden’ to colonialism & imperialism (Forte, 2011, p. 150). While the relationship between anthropological research and colonial administration within colonised countries has been well documented, the complex relationships between anthropology and the military-industrial complex are not as widely discussed.

David H. Price is an American anthropologist who has a series of books looking at some of these varied connections, in the US context, from World War I and through the Cold War. Especially during the two world wars, there were anthropologists who were actively involved with the national intelligence organisations, including as spies, language instructors and strategic analysts (Price, 2008). During the McCarthy era of the Cold War (1940s and 50s), anthropologists were targeted and put under surveillance by the FBI, creating a difficult atmosphere for activist or radical anthropological writing (Price, 2004). As the Cold War developed, more subtle relationships between the CIA and anthropology evolved (Price, 2016),

In Cold War Anthropology (2016) Price discusses what he calls the dual use of anthropology, which has long been a term known to natural scientists (particularly chemists and physicists) in which ‘basic’ research is often used for military and commercial uses, and vice versa. He argues that such interconnection, witting or unwitting, is often not talked about in the case of anthropology. While he discusses one example of a CIA agent going undercover as an anthropologist in the field, a lot of the influence came through the funding opportunities that were shaped by Pentagon and CIA funds, often as gifts to universities channelled through ‘front organisations’ or well-known ‘neutral’ philanthropic organisations. Funding structures can easily shape the kinds of research being undertaken, sometimes to the advantage (or not) of the CIA and US military. In fact the AAA’s first code of ethics was developed in the wake of the ‘Thai Affair’ in which anthropologists contributed to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s (Price, 2016).

Obviously not all anthropologists were involved or complicit in the manoeuvring of the CIA and the Pentagon during the Cold War, but it is a good reminder that the political economy of knowledge production can have profound influences on academic research, including anthropology.


Forte, M.C., 2011. The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113, 149–153.

Price, D.H., 2016. Cold War anthropology: the CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham.

Price, D.H., 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Duke University Press.

Price, D.H., 2004. Threatening anthropology: Mccarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Duke University Press, Durham.

Beyond Academia: what else can you do with your anthropology degree?

The notion of what ‘the field’ is in anthropology has been expanding over the last few decades. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famously quoted saying: ‘The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages.’ (1973, p. 22). Even studying in villages is a bit antiquated in anthropology these days—many anthropologists study communities of practice that occur in many locations or studying the webs that link people and non-human beings across many locations.

But what do anthropologists do if they aren’t researchers in academia…? Not surprisingly, the work that anthropologists do is similarly diverse and expanding.

I interviewed (with Lani’s help) four anthropology graduates and asked them what kind of work they are doing now and how their anthropology degrees have helped them. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it says something about job opportunities available to anthropologists but two of the five people interviewed worked in user experience and two of the four worked in product design. Meet the interviewees:


Studied: a Masters in design anthropology (applied anthropology)

Works as: a consultant at a small consultancy Elabor8 on internal employee culture and engagement and product design.

Previously worked: doing user experience at Australia Post


Studied: Anthropology (Honours) and a post grad diploma in IT.

Works as: a user experience consultant at an IT company

Previously worked: in television


Studied: Anthropology and Media & Communications

Works as: a freelance digital marketer doing marketing and product design


Studied: Anthropology and Social Theory

Works as: a journalist, writer, university journalism teacher and a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences working on an argument about contemporary food culture

Previously worked: as an ESL teacher and freelance journalist and as a reporter for Fairfax Media (before it was taken over by Nine), the Polish Press Agency and the Guardian

A side note: I realise this is a bit of a long article, but the following are answers from each interview (either in audio format, transcribed, or notes that I took from a conversation that wasn’t recorded) and edited by myself to answer some broad questions that any job seeker may have. Feel free to skip through and follow the thread of a particular person who you find relatable to your interests, or read all the answers to a particular question that interests you! I hope you enjoy and feel a bit more comfy in your outlook for the future–I know it can be scary wondering what you will do after you finish your degree.

Why is anthropology useful in your work?

Overview: Generally anthropology was seen as useful to people’s work because it has taught them to listen and empathise with other people, to try to understand their behaviour and their lives. This understanding enables the interviewees to solve problems that their customers or clients identify themselves.


Pasquale: ‘Anthropology is really about learning how to understand people, how to understand behaviour, how to understand what’s happening. And more and more organisations now really want to know what’s going on, because they realise now that they haven’t been listening, that they haven’t understood about their clients, their customers, their users. They haven’t even really understood their business all that well. And the great thing about anthropology is it gives you tools like ethnography, and, you know, the way you think about bias and what you are bringing to the work, which I think actually helps companies a lot.’

‘The first step in a design thinking model is you’ve got to empathise with the people who are the target of your project. Well, how do you do that? That’s what people learn when you do anthropology: is how to empathise, how to understand what’s going on, how to make sure you’re not bringing your biases to your work, how to make sure you can get information even when you may not have proper access to people. All of that, they’re all things that anthropologists learn to do and work out on a regular basis…It’s also important at other points in the model when you are trying to define the problem. You want to define the problem with the people, not just make it up as you are going along. When you try to come up with other ideas, you want to bring the people along, so that you can brainstorm those ideas. When you are actually prototyping things, you want to make sure you are including them so they can give you a sense that this thing is going to work or not. So throughout that whole design thinking methodology there’s just anthropology at various points, as far as I’m concerned.


Paulina: ‘I think what anthropology taught me was to always analyse the categories we take for granted. Not everybody lives the same, not everybody eats the same and not everybody dies the same. I see over and over again how normative some journalism/writing/academia can be — constantly reaffirming the same structures and the same processes without looking for the differences and contradictions. I grew up bicultural and bilingual, so I already knew this on some level, but anthropology gave me the necessary disciplinary training to analyse it.’

Are there many other anthropologists in your field?

Overview: As anthropology graduates, the interviewees generally felt like they were quite unique in their fields, with the exception of user experience, IT, and marketing being growing fields for anthropologists because companies are seeking them out for the skills and knowledge that they bring. People with social work, legal, psychology, sociology, politics, and history backgrounds often do similar types of work to anthropologists. An anthropology degree can bring an advantageous edge that others don’t have because anthropologists ask different kinds of questions, use different sorts of methods and get different results.


Pasquale: ‘Early on I would have said there weren’t that many, but I think what’s happening now particularly in areas like IT, people are looking at anthropology and ethnography and they actually like what they see, because they want people that can be comfortable in planning and in going in and investigating what’s going on somewhere, or what people are thinking…There is a fast growing area of user research…or UX research (which is slightly different)’


Paulina: ‘I think most people writing about Poland for English-language publications — if I restrict it to this example — are politics or history majors. Many of them seem to have done PPE-style degrees at OxBridge-type institutions. They do really good work, but again, some of them seem to reaffirm structures instead of questioning them (reporting on the state and its institutions as if liberal democracy is the only thing to have ever existed), which during this period of political meltdown is more than a little problematic. Anthropologists ask different questions and I think the more they participate in public discourse, the better we will all be. So get to it!’

What are some thoughts and advice for finding the right work using your anthropology degree?

Pasquale: ‘In the mean time you may have to take up jobs that aren’t that funky. But I think once you’ve realised you want to go in a certain direction then you just keep trying to get into that area.’

Paulina: ‘While I was freelancing, I worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Australia, which was a great fall-back job (actually, teaching is probably the most useful thing I have ever done). And what better place to flex your anthropological muscles than in another country, in a cross-cultural context.’

A note on writing from Paulina: ‘Writing, on the other hand is a lifelong pursuit with no certain outcome. Being instrumental about it can kill it, being too idealistic about it can kill it too — you shouldn’t do it unless it’s something you feel you need to do. Definitely don’t do it if you want people to like you — they won’t.’

Some final advice from Katie

See more:

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

[Images my own from my travels around this continent – I hope they make you feel as calm as they make me feel.]