Tag Archives: anthropology

A very stimulating two days it was with the Research Network for Design Anthropology (DA) meeting that ended with a set of musings from Irvine’s George Marcus.

Some years ago he had expected that design and anthropological research would fuse. His view was shared, he recalled, with that other US-based pioneer of a design-anthropological-style, Paul Rabinow. Yesterday, however, Marcus took a provocative step back: anthropology remains scholarship while designers make things…

At their core they certainly do, but the discussions and exercises of the meeting demonstrated a more dynamic situation. There are many strands to the domain of design anthropology but I think I recognised a whole: a collective imagining drawing together professional roles, personal biographies and embodied experiences and much, much expertise into a particular, significant conversation.

Empirically grounded work where innovation is what people do – making things to change the world – jostled comfortably with conceptual contributions. In this group of 100 people it was easy (kind of) and productive to interweave teaching literacy to autistic children and questioning the ontological status of an algorithm (and much more) into one session.

Sticky Note 2015What gives DA, and design itself, a perhaps less serious image is the ubiquitous post-it-note of the design workshop. These were part of the conference too. I am waiting for someone to write a paper on the post-it note and knowledge practices.

The dominance of the usual consumer-capitalist colour palette notwithstanding, the workshops were highly productive.

The conference distilled an important conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, there is a significant domain of practice – design in its most diffuse sense – that really is crying out loud for critical commentary. It’s not just the design critique Alison Clarke called for, but a critique of algorithm (if I could put it like that). Important too is the fact that, as Alison also pointed out, the network works from Europe, relatively free of the corporate strings attached to much innovation research (as compared to the EPIC network).

Marcus noted that design is not as “scholarly” as anthropology. But in-depth expertise was not lacking anywhere. And the incisive interjections of some of the younger participants were testament to an emerging conceptual framework that is neither anthropology nor design, but design anthropology.

That’s not to say that this DA thing is fully formed. And that was a point I made (without arguing) in my own position paper for the conference. This, and all the other texts are now available on the conference website.

So what was a little surprising was how few people there were from Finland! Apart from myself – and I describe myself these days as “very adjunct” – there were just two PhD students from Aalto.

Fortunately Ramia Maze, whose contribution to the network has certainly inspired me (her text is available here) is starting a professorship at Aalto this month.

Looking forward!

Design anthropology is not yet quite an established subdiscipline, but it’s getting there. Alison Clarke’s wonderful collection Design Anthropology was published back in 2011 and the conversation continues.Design for Real world cover

Tomorrow I head for Copenhagen for the conference on Design Anthropological Futures hosted by the Research Network for Design Anthropology. I’ve followed their work at a distance, now I’ll get to be immersed in it for over two days.

So some one and a half thousand words of pre-conference thoughts.

Anthropologists – who study people wherever they are whatever they might be doing – were bound to become interested in design if only because in so many ways we live in an age of design. We’ve done so really since Papanek’s influential book (right) first published in 1971.

Today value, especially economic value, but also public good, is imagined to accrue from good design. Design in turn is imagined increasingly as emerging locally and interactively, but always also as part of globalization and profit making.

These days “everybody” designs, not just the experts. Or at least change today is being produced by potentially anybody. Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs, shows that alongside professional or expert design, which has roots in industrial design, we already have a significant arena of what he calls diffuse design, where people do what they can to address problems themselves that corporations and governments either ignore or contribute to.

That’s what the urban environmentalists (whose activities I’ve been following on and off for a very long time, and whom I’ve written about a bit) are engaged in.

Not only is it the case that everyone designs, everything is being designed: so this is also the age of creating environments. The Anthropocene debate is a good indication of this, however contested the term itself may be.

Design anthropology is particularly focussed on the problem of change. Specifically it focuses on the creation of new artefacts together with shifts in social relations and shared expectations. It draws attention to the links between material objects and ways of living, and nurtures curiosity about changing conceptions of the normal.Adbusters Are We Happy Yet

Copenhagen’s conference is organised on the theme of futures. Indeed, at first glance, because of design’s goal of intervening in the world, it might seem like an odd partner for anthropology. Design engages in efforts to change the world, to make it better (creating novelty gadgets or solving “wicked problems”). By contrast, anthropology is about documenting what exists, curious about the variety of what passes for common sense and, indeed, good design.

Design and unsustainability

Design has particular salience in an age of crisis. Facing scary futures is perhaps what makes “everybody” so interested in how they are being designed.

It’s not just the practical efforts of those who want to drop out of the rat race that are important. Design’s entire conceptual apparatus and its vocabularies are potentially useful for facing planetary ill health. Designing opens up tools for thinking (my argument in the position paper I prepared for the conference, uploaded to Design in its critical mode – or design anthropological mode – after all attends rather precisely to the many different dimensions of future making. And it doesn’t buy into the romance of “innovation” and believe in designing ex nihilo, rather it recognises the importance of the past as creator of existing infrastructures, problem definitions and techniques as well as ideals.

All this makes design anthropology well suited to addressing a key challenge for all institutions these days, the overlap between concept and materialisation. It’s always interested in the relationship between the possible and the actual. The point is made over and over again in the work of the Research Network for Design Anthropology (e.g. here on the web).

Design and environmental anthropology

Arturo Escobar, an anthropologist with a long-term interest in environment and technological possibilities, and latterly also in design (as I wrote back in 2012), suggests that the contemporary world is a design failure. Indeed.

Having recognised this, and with help from anthropology, we are well placed to analyse the mindlessness of projects based on stuff rather than on human experience. We can robustly question the wisdom of idealising both economic growth and western science.

Escobar sees signs that design (diffuse or professional) is becoming more mindful and certainly more aware of the embodied and local everyday experiences of ordinary people. When it combines with an anthropological sensibility, it attends to the textures created as life is woven in and out of material and immaterial conditions – to use typically design-anthropological language popularised for instance by Tim Ingold.

Mike Anusas and Rachel Harkness have written a paper for one of the network’s seminars from 2014 is titled simply, ‘Things Could be Different’. It picks up fruitfully on the convergence of anthropology, environmentalism and design.

Anusas and Harkness argue that what we term ‘the environmental’ best opens up understandings of the limits as well as the possibilities of designing feasible future lives. Dealing with stuff (design) and dealing with each other (anthropology) are inextricably linked, and everything potentially comes up against obduracy, that is, resistance to change. Environmental change is where matter in general rather than innovations as discrete objects, pushes itself into view and calls attention to itself. In environmentalist thought design turns out often to have been socially problematic simply because once discarded from use stuff tends to become polluting. Yesterday’s design is thus tomorrow’s waste. The environmental then ‘crystallises the importance of [a …] temporal approach’ (2014: 10).


Reflecting on all these questions is exciting and hopeful, but it also makes me sad about just how much design there is to do.

I see the future as cluttered with competing dystopias and utopias. I’m not sure I want to participate in any of them. Yet I look back with nostalgia at a more hopeful past.

I have found a word for this. Solastalgia, distress caused by environmental change. Environment in this context appears to be interpreted much as it is in anthropology, as what surrounds. Solastalgia is thus not quite a home-sickness or a nostalgia, but close.

In a paper in Australasian Psychiatry, it is defined as the “pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation”.

The word is usually attributed to Glenn Albrech, an Australian philosopher, but its career as a term has not been particularly lively. Yet.

But it has been something like solastalgia that has forced itself into my consciousness this summer, not design futures. In fact I have pondered timelessness. Once – in my childhood of the 1960s and 70s – I took a certain timelessness for granted even though, like most people, I was educated into a belief in almost automatic progress. Though it’s clear that my interest in environmental anthropology and hence design futures was shaped above all by my recognition, as a child, that change happens, including bad change.

I spent much of the summer on a perfect paradise island, the same one where I spent my childhood summers. Off the coast of Finland lie thousands of them, a ready-made playground for sailing and enjoying cottage life. Just like in the 1960s, the naturalness of the environment is what delights most.We watched swans glide across still waters in couples and as families parading their young. Two deer had made themselves so at home in our neighbourhood, that our human presence barely fazed them. We got to see them from very close up. Flight practice ara moonlit nightound a wagtail’s nest was a captivating sight. Very poor weather notwithstanding, the sky and the sea were as lively as always.

The sea has been so cold all summer that our old favourite pastime, swimming, did not appeal much. Twenty and even ten years ago, it was routine to have a morning swim. This year I only managed one in my more than thirty days on the island. We admired the sea then more for its looks.

If only it had been the temperature alone that affected my routine. Unfortunately, blue-green algae that produce various skin irritations and kill marine organisms, have been abundant. A true sign of a deterioration. Besides, the Baltic is now so filthy, we no longer think as we used to that swim equals getting clean.

It feels important in approaching the topic of design futures to keep in mind that I owe it to this island environment to have become curious about environmental change generally. I recall being perplexed as a teenager that adults were allowing what seemed to be a brilliantly designed environment to turn into something nasty. (Earlier this year there was a children’s protest demanding that adults save the sea).

So I read the Pope’s Encyclical that inspired me to blog while on the island with a feeling of gratitude that someone with some clout was finally saying what had needed to be said for so long.

I look forward to the conference as a place to learn how to articulate futures and pasts, designs and documents with the help of design anthropology. It’s certainly an enquiry that will aid my teaching, my activism and my research.

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.