Serious designs on anthropology

I have just returned from a wonderful trip to the USA. I made the trip to pursue one of my main objects of interest: design as a cultural phenomenon. Through 2012, its year as “Design Capital of the World“, Helsinki has made design a visible element of the street scene and a part of local politics. I’ve written before about the bafflement this has caused.
But design does have constructive potential. This is something my old friend Arturo Escobar has been seriously working on in recent years. He is perhaps best known for articulating insightful alternatives to bankrupt ideas about “development” (see here for some thoughts on degrowth). Last week Arturo gathered together a wonderfully inspiring roomful of people – designers and anthropologists (scroll down for names) – for a panel (an “innovent” as the American Anthropological Association called it) held in San Francisco on November 14th 2012.
Together with his friend Debbora Battaglia, Arturo and I worked out a loose framework for the session which I then chaired. Here are my introductory notes:


The impetus for the innovent at an anthropology conference in SF came from our shared efforts to understand contemporary ways to challenge naïve realism and materialism through combining anthropological insight with important work elsewhere, particularly in design.  Arturo was trying to figure out how to make sense of the notion of ontological design, Eeva had been feeling overwhelmed by design as a form of urban policy in Helsinki – at the time anticipating becoming World Design Capital 2012, while Debbora invariably asked pointed questions about what it all meant for anthropology and social theory.  We were drawn further into trying to make sense of design-talk’s social impact. We realized that design, quite simply, had become a cultural and social phenomenon that anthropologists are having to attend to.  In the writings of critical designers, some of whom are here in our session, we found insights for the conversation between anthropology and design that we also thought should be brought into the discussion.

Another spur for the session was the new and enhanced potential role of anthropology as “insider” and “collaborator” in design projects. Anthropologists engage with design not just as methodologically more rigorous fieldworkers than the corporate ethnographer (who follows people around in order to figure out how best to design for a market niche), but as researchers with a sensibility that’s quite different: dialogic, curious, uncomfortable with disciplinary boundaries, critical of the mainstream. Anthropologists are no longer averse to intervening – they may be good at documenting, but that is never only what they do.

Design is everywhere, as a professional activity, a rhetorical flourish (a nice way to talk about technology?) and as a model or analogy for a non-dualist philosophy. There is a new alertness to the possibilities of designing and always redesigning new connections and relations. The semantic slipperiness (or simply scope) of the term design is perhaps an asset just at this point. It gives us the chance to track connections and associations, which “business-as-usual”, i.e. modernist, intellectual habits and institutions, have downplayed or ignored. There is no doubt much to be gained from understanding design as ingredient, tool and instruction for making change all at once. In an age of violent crises and spectacularly inadequate political as well as intellectual capacities to respond to them, design as a trope gives us models for questioning and for overcoming separations such as the chasm between the arts and the sciences, theory and practice, or science and policy.

As such, perhaps design really is moving towards a fundamental change in how reality can be perceived and represented. We know – particularly as ethnographers attuned to detail, drawn to shadowy places and interested in unspoken truths – that at the margins redesigned, re-connected worlds are already a reality; this realization comes, for instance, from working with  social movements, artistic and spiritual practices. Also, alternative worlds are a twinkle in many people’s eyes, for example the design activists whose visions of liveable futures are fuelling worldwide movements like maker-culture, urban farming and more broadly, experiments around transition or de-growth. These kinds of activities insist that design is politics, particularly in the sense that the design process begins from defining problems and this, as we know, is not a culturally or politically neutral act. And so it’s interesting to scholars like anthropologists that design is already being spelled out as a political, physical force, both by those who are doing it and those who, for one reason or another, want to document and theorize it. And it’s somewhat rewarding, to note that the world beyond the humanities and the social sciences appears to be taking note of our area of expertise: cultural and social context. Still, mainstream designers largely continue to proceed as if the questions that need answers have already been settled (that there is a need to design better security, that we require more efficient low-carbon vehicles and buildings etc.). Governments largely continue to proceed as if it were the cultural imperatives of late capitalism – mobility, flexibility, consumer choice etc. – that are non-negotiable. That a world could be designed to accommodate all those things is also part of the new promise of design.

Design’s increasing hold on philosophical imaginations and artistic reflections is generating change, but above all the empirical observation one can make is that design is politics, in fact culture in the broadest sense – the way a collective organizes its existence, from the most banal and unspectacular aids and tools for everyday living, to the aesthetic or monumental focal points of shared activity. The cultural history that’s created the “business-as-usual” models and values that feed into how “the normal” gets designed around the world, is crying out for empirical investigation.

The history of design by definition is about creating change. So perhaps there’s something to be gained from thinking – as the contributors’ blurbs implicitly all do – about what the motivations for change might be. Both criticaldesign practice and anthropology appear to be, or seek to be, at a distance from the mainstream, building their own sense of ethics and purpose on this. Is there something here to be explored regarding connections made and lost and remade again? Especially in the context of so much hype about keeping up with the present, and so much future-gazing, it’s salutary to be reminded that the dissatisfaction shared by many designers and anthropologists is not necessarily new (viz. Papanek and Clarke’s examples). What’s happening is that more and more collectives are making use of new notions and situations, especially collaboration, participation, interactivity, making efforts to go beyond the limiting arrangements of earlier modernities. The implication for scholarly work might be that the documentation, communication and bringing into relationship of both earlier efforts and contemporary examples could be an important task for one with the privilege to study other people’s lives and intellectual efforts.

This opens up an avenue for one kind of critical analysis too, which has to do with the question: why design now? This may have quite a bit to do with design’s role in policy, marketing, political activism. This needs to be understood but design scholars can teach anthropologists a lot about it. And it’s important, because there are implications to offering design instead of policy (or policy to encourage an entrepreneurial, spontaneous, eco-chic, do-it-yourself ethos to replace public services). It is actually quite a good fit with many neoliberal aims and so it’s important to have a sense of how design as an inspiration for alternatives to the mainstream has become so core to the mainstream, and to understand what has been going on, what is lost, what is gained, as design’s status continues to be strengthened. A little historical investigation quickly shows that design’s ascendancy is due to policy intervention and to market strategies that seek to squeeze value out of knowledge work i.e. design. The creative classes who are now the economy’s profit-creating class may be designing and prototyping at home, but the apple macs they do it on cost the lives and environments of the usual suspects. The depoliticizing force of global imperatives can also lead to turning design’s supposed politics into new imperatives and so into depoliticization. There are also scary moves to design not just the context of life but of redesigning better subjects. Better for what?

It’s too early to say, but it’s likely that design’s ubiquity will not leave anthropology – as a discipline – unchanged. To conceptualize the world as designed and to understand realities as multiple is challenging as well as intuitively right. Anthropology’s origins still inform its identity, but the arrival of design, whether as professional practice or as ontology, may mean that anthropology must cease to be a complement to sociology in the sense of being scholarship on the Rest as opposed to the urban West. Design may push academic anthropology to reaffirm some other distinguishing feature at its core – perhaps something like the feeling of alienation from what passes for dominant/mainstream, among so many anthropologists starting out (for instance, in the STS field). And in that sense, anthropologists and designers (at least what I call activist designers) might have quite a lot in common. Perhaps they are not the only ones trying to articulate, make sense of, and perhaps heal, the pathology of unrelatedness (a powerful term by Ashis Nandy)  that the last few centuries have generated, but the “blurbs” suggest considerable scope for vibrant discussion and generous sharing. On which note – the anthropologist outside the academy is quite likely to be working as or with designers.

Note, the design-hype is very complimentary to anthropology in saying “we need to take people/culture/society seriously” – and design is big on context. But there should be an explicit sense here of seeking constructive self-critique too. So we do want to draw on design’s histories, theories and experiences to inform anthropology, not just the other way around. Of course, self-critique should be welcome wherever it comes from.

Re. the innovent, we want to know “what’s going on?”

How does design’s ascendancy impact the way questions/problems are framed? Or is the framing of problems that has brought so many anthropologists but also politically motivated actors to design, which is now being used as an analogy?

How might activism in design be spelled out and investigated? At least grassroots experimentation is presented as a kind of anarchist response to entrenched pathologies of power: design just seems to make political and intellectual sense to many who would be change-makers. Is this what prototyping is about? At the very least it seems that engagements between designers and anthropologists could spell out and perhaps give a structure for abstracting and making comparisons, about phenomena around the world where the desire to remake the world is so palpable. This would require both anthropologists and designers maybe to push beyond their comfort zone to a place where they might not get away with simply saying “it depends on context”. (For anthropologists it also means becoming comfortable with intervening rather than describing only).

We want to begin to explore how engagements between anthropology and design can/do unfold, but do we also need to develop various ways to communicate about this. Here anthropology’s comparative task presumably will have to remain in tension with design’s productive foundations. Though of course it’s possible to design and not to produce – design is as much a way of thinking and conceptualising, an ontology. Which makes this innovent such an intellectually exciting forum.

I hope and believe that the session sparked off some generous-spirited collaboration and new ideas among the audience and, above all, the  participants:  Alison J. Clarke PhD (Professor Design History and Theory Director Victor J. Papanek Foundation University Applied Arts ), Ana M Ochoa (Columbia University), James Leach (University of Aberdeen), Cassandra Hartblay (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Ignacio Valero PhD (California College of the Arts), Lynda Grose (Fashion Design, California College of the Arts), Debbora Battaglia PhD (Mount Holyoke College), Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Spanish National Research Council), Kenneth Dewayne Bailey (Design Studio for Social Intervention), Michal Osterweil (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Brenda Laurel (California College of the Arts) and Mario Blaser (Memorial University), Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and Marisol de la Cadena (UC Davis).
p.s. check out this project by Ken Bailey and Boston-based Design Studio for Social Intervention  for an example of the kind of design intervention we heard about.
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