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.


References:

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.


References:

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.

Things We Wish We Knew: Temporality

Studies of temporality consider experiences of time, and how experiences of time are mediated. This mediation could be variously through objects, materials, institutions, interactions and categories. With this list alone, you already start to sense how most anything can be studied in temporal terms. This is why temporality is an crucial concept: it pervades the social world.

I’ll start sketching temporality with a concrete example. The example comes from design anthropology, an area often foregrounding temporality. But keep in mind you can attend to temporality in almost every anthropological analysis.

Making Time

Contrasting a product design studio with eco-home builders, Anusas and Harkness (2016) show how ways of making things ‘invoke or at least encourage’ different temporalities (p. 55).

The design studio was in a large UK city, with many projects running at once (Ibid. p. 57). Due to pressure from clients, faster design methods were favoured (Ibid., 61). Getting projects ‘off the books’ quickly also meant sustaining the business (Ibid.). Designers focused on what was about to occur or would soon occur. Rarely did they think in time frames greater than weeks (Ibid. p. 58). Coping with projects this way, the designers’ experience of the present can be called ‘close-present’ (Ibid.).

Close-present temporality could be seen in ‘much of the verbal, bodily and material sociality’ of the studio (Ibid. p. 59). For example, the designers often said ‘time is in short supply’, gesticulating to convey this shortage, and leading them to favour speedy design tools such as 3D printing (Ibid. p. 61). Note that a preference for certain tools also means a certain relationship with those tools.

Harkness’ fieldwork was with Earthship builders in Scotland and New Mexico. For these builders, temporality wasn’t sensed as either close-present, nor in short supply (Ibid. p. 61). Earthship builders seek to create sustainable new dwellings, taking a preference for ‘natural’ and recycled materials, along with renewable energy. In turn, these builders make new ways of living, with ‘impulses towards creating alternative futures’, ‘to bring change to the world, to shift the ground, to alter the rules’ (Ibid. p. 62).

An Earthship in construction.

Anusas and Harkness call the temporality made by Earthship building a ‘far reaching present’. Sustainable materials and a shared awareness of environmental issues gave a means to make this temporality ‘real or manifest’ (Ibid. p. 65). In other words, the action of building also made experiences of the present. This included relationships with humans, nonhumans and materials. Though the studio designers had similar environmental and ethical concerns, commercial restraints hindered an experience of the present as far-reaching (Ibid. p. 66).

Let’s look to the history of temporality in anthropology, to contextualise Anusas and Harkness’ approach. In the early 1990s, Nancy Munn (1992) gauged anthropological research on temporality. She found a neglect for one factor. Anthropologists had written too little about temporality as being constantly mediated through everyday life (Munn 1992, p. 116). For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1940) argued the Neur perceive time through local seasonal categories, the main two being tot and mai (p. 96). But this focus on abstract concepts led Evans-Pritchard to neglect how temporal experiences are mediated everyday through mundane social life (Ibid p. 96).

The design studio/Earthships contrast shows how temporal experiences are mediated through mundane practices like making and labouring, as well as through materials and things. Temporality does involve high-level abstraction. But it cannot be grasped only at an abstract level. Nor can it be grasped solely through obvious materials and things like clocks and calendars (Bear 2016 p. 48) or lunar cycles (Munn 1992 p.96).

Temporality pervades social life. Nurturing a sensitivity to the temporal will add nuance to your anthropological literacy, so start thinking temporally!


References:

Anusas, M and Harkness, R 2016 ‘Different Presents in the Making’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55-70.

Bear, L 2016, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 45, pp. 487-502.

Evans-Prichard, EE 1940, The Neur: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Munn, N 1992, ‘The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 93-123.

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

See also:

Can we think about the design studio/Earthships example in relation to the art/science debate? Is the art/science distinction helpful here? Can anthropologists study experience in a scientific way?

Rob mentions categories in his post on ontology. Is temporality a category?

Next time your ice-cream is melting, think about temporality!