Thinking with Tim Ingold

Sometimes when talking about anthropology, we can tend to talk about the discipline as though it is singular. Perhaps this is shorthand: we need a generalised ‘anthropology’ to make possible a general debate.

It’s also crucial not to obfuscate the diverse range of research methods, concepts, and ethical stances. So, what can we do to keep the anthropology’s diversity in mind?

One option: looking to thinkers whose style of doing anthropology diverges so much that some would wonder whether we can still call it anthropology. In this regard, I think Tim Ingold is helpful.

For some time now, Ingold has been trying to decouple anthropology and ethnography. For a discipline often defined through its use of ethnography, this decoupling presents a serious epistemological affront. 

For Ingold, ‘the collapse of anthropology into ethnography has deflected the discipline from its proper purpose’ (Ingold 2017, p. 21). What ‘proper purpose’? He offers a definition: ‘anthropology, I maintain, is a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the one world we inhabit’ (Ibid., 22). Ingold claims:

‘in finding ways to carry on… no specialist science, no indigenous group, no doctrine or philosophy already holds the key to the future if only we could find it. We have to make that future together, for ourselves, and this can only be done through dialogue. Anthropology exists to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself’ (Ibid.).

To qualify this statement, I should stress that such a conversation could come in many forms. It could be between a student and the anthropology of gender, focused on alternatives and possibilities. A conversation can also happen on a much larger scale. In the Unites States during late 1920s, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa started a large-scale conversation around the perceived difficulties of adolescence (Shankman 2009, p. 116). It’s imperative, in holding such conversations, to think about who might be excluded or not listened to.

How can anthropology best contribute to discussions about the future?

So why Ingold is so down on ethnography, when he’s so hopeful about anthropology? What would anthropology be, if not for ethnography?

Ingold doesn’t want to banish ethnography from anthropology. His concern is with misuse of the word ‘ethnography’. He thinks its misuse has negative effects. Encounters with people are not intrinsically ‘ethnographic’, rather, ‘what we could call ‘ethnographicness’’ is cast retrospectively after encounters’ (Ingold 2014 p. 386). Herein lies a temporal distortion. Casting encounters as ethnographic ‘consign[s] the incipient – the about-to-happen in unfolding relationships – to the temporal past of the already over… it is though, on meeting others face-to-face, one’s back is already turned on them’ (p. 386).

Ingold argues that anthropologists in the ‘field’ don’t experience the present as ‘ethnographic’. He suggests anthropologists should instead think in terms of participant observation. The reason for this is because participant observation asks anthropologists ‘to join in correspondence with those whom we learn or among whom we study, in a movement that goes forward rather than back in time’ (p. 390). In this way, anthropology can participate in dialogues of making futures.


References:

Ingold, T 2014, ‘That’s Enough About Ethnography!’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 383-395.

Ingold, T 2017, ‘Anthropology Contra Ethnography’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 21-26.

Shankman, P 2009, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Concept, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

See also:

Want to further explore anthropology’s purpose? Check out Maddie’s post ‘So What’s the Point of it All?‘.

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.

Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

The late Ursula Le Guin could be called an interplanetary anthropologist, since her stories are the twilight zone between ethnography and science fiction. They include anthropologist characters, descriptions, and most importantly, glimpses of possibilities for our planet through the exploration of what appear to be faraway futuristic worlds.

There already are many similarities between works of fiction and ethnographic texts in general. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz even said that ethnographic texts are more-or-less fiction (1973), since they are inevitably shaped by the ethnographer. How about exploring the other side of the coin, that science fiction books could be anticipatory anthropology?

Le Guin’s worlds are so believable because her way of writing about culture is informed by ethnographic writing. Many of her stories include thick description and detailed accounts of cultural practices, so that they may be are accessible to readers who are outsiders to these ways of life.

Her utopias are also never depicted as perfect places, spaces, or social systems. Every society is challenged in different ways, but “the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is […]the act of self transcendence and cross cultural understanding” (Baker-Cristales 2012, 25). As anthropologists know, the endeavour to transcend bias is like the vision of a “utopia”, it is not a place that can ever be reached. But above all, it a task that is worth pursuing.

Le Guin’s writing goes beyond imagining exotic or magical worlds through rich language or fictional tropes, the stories experiment with social structures and human possibilities. Her books also appear realistic because they abandon the gender and race stereotypes that were standard in the fantastical novels in her era. They often portray people of colour and people who are gender fluid, which was fairly radical for the 1980s science fiction scene. The plots also stray from the fantasy and sci-fi tropes that revolve around great conquests and adventures and instead meander through the hum drum lives of inhabitants of other planes.

Latour made a grand claim that the “task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed” (2013, 274). Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia accounts the social structures of whole planets, it traces a scientist who leaves his anarchist home planet to visit an Earth-like planet. The Dispossessed is similar to a good ethnography in that it makes current social systems appear unusual, throwing our own world into question and experimentation. Viveiros de Castro says in Cannibal Metaphysics that fictions are alternate realities which should be taken seriously. He makes a departure from Latour’s claim, to say that task of anthropology “is not the task of explaining the world of the other, but that of multiplying our world” (2014, 196). Le Guin shows how nothing is permanent or universal, and that people have the power to shape the world.

It is this reason that Le Guin often worked with anthropologists such as Anna Tsing to create works such as Arts of Living On A Damaged Planet. This anthology weaves fictional texts with anthropological texts and works from other disciplines to confront the oncoming storm of our entangled world.

Anthropology is moving further away from trying to represent “realities”, and towards representing what exists in imagined worlds. What is the future of ethnography? Le Guin’s work can raise a lamp to the murky vision of anthropology, which will involve discipline and genre-blurring work in anticipation of the future. For an example of imagining how anthropologists might imagine future worlds, see Dyan’s post PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation.

What the literature of Le Guin and the discipline of anthropology both share is a they practice empathy and try overcome the barriers towards mutual understanding. Her work fulfils a vision of cultural anthropology, to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. How distant are Ursula Le Guin’s imagined worlds? They may be as distant as we want them to be.


References:

Baker-Cristales, B. 2012, “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin”. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.

Senior, W. 1996, Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea”. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 29(4), 101-113.

Viveiros de Castro, E B. 2014, Cannibal metaphysics : for a post-structural anthropology. Minneapolis, MN :Univocal, pp 196.

See also:

Maddie’s post on myth and storytelling in ethnography

Imo and my post on the Anthropo scene part II, which discusses Haraway, who was a friend of Le Guin and a fan of speculative anthropology.

Dyan’s article PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation