Ethnography Looks Back at Design

CDL member Cassandra Hartblay discusses new work in design ethnography, including her co-edited series, Keywords in Ethnography and Design

-Cassandra Hartblay-

In recent years, artists, writers, and design-thinkers have turned to ethnography as a methodology for unpacking an insider’s point of view about a space, social issue, or moment in time. Ethnography, in derivation, is the flagship research method of cultural anthropology. Its principles have been adapted to a wide variety of qualitative research practices, including Human Centered Design. As it is practiced by anthropologists today, ethnography remains unique in that it involves long-term fieldwork in which the researcher lives in or as part of the community of study for months or years at a time. For example, for my current book project on disability in Russia, I spent about 12 months total living and conducting research in the city that is my fieldsite. This is a very different approach to research than the kind of rapid qualitative work that many design researchers do – even though techniques like participant observation, card sorting, or asking research participants to draw maps or describe photos were originally developed by ethnographers. And recently, there’s been a growing interest in the ethnographic as a genre of fictional or semi-fictional writing in literature, in auto-ethnographic writing in ethnic studies, disability studies, and gender studies. An interest in ethnography as a technique for documenting practices and processes has emerged in the fine arts. While theater (in the Euro-American tradition) has recognized the importance of “the ethnographic” – that element of realist theater in which playwright, actor, and director focus their artistry on the reproducing some truth of the minutiae of daily life on stage, new kinds of collaboration are emerging between ethnographers and theatrical designers.

With all of these ways in which ethnography has been exported to design-related disciplines, recently some anthropologists have turned this question back to anthropology. Can anthropology also learn something from design practice? How ought cultural anthropologists think about design? Should ethnographers follow designers? Critically trace the complicity of design in systems of global capitalism? Or think about the design of ethnography as a social practice? These questions, in seeking to speak back to the cultural anthropology space, are different from the work that many cultural anthropologists are already doing in the design field itself. The UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design, a research network for which I worked as a postdoc from 2015-2017, represents a range of very different kinds of thinking about and collaborating with design embraced by cultural anthropologists.

Building on an international conference hosted at UC San Diego in the fall of 2017, we recently published a subset of the ideas to come out of the first two years of the research network. Keywords for Ethnography and Design, a collection of short essays on an open source series of the journal Cultural Anthropology, explore issues facing ethnographers working on or in collaboration with design as a field. It begins from the proposition that the intersection of ethnography and design is not merely a topical convergence of subject matter, but a provocative point from which to theorize what it is that ethnographers do. After all, as coeditors Joe Hankins, Lissa Caldwell, and I write in the introduction to the series:

Humans are bricoleurs. By improvising with that which is at hand to make the worlds in which they live, bricoleurs are designers, manipulating the material environment in intentional and meaningful ways. Both ethnographers and designers have observed that these relationships are coconstitutive: “We shape objects, and objects shape and transform our practices and us in return,” write Elisa Giaccardi and colleagues. And, both ethnographers and designers understand the project of making as being fundamentally future-oriented, even imbricated in the changing of things over time. Perhaps more so than design, anthropology has been invested in thinking with and about differences across cultural, vernacular, or ontological worlds, which fundamentally shape what is thinkable and define the possibilities of the real.

Featuring essays by Lucy Suchman, George Marcus, Keith M. Murphy, Joe Dumit and coauthors Kevin O’Connor, Duskin Drum, and Sarah McCullough, and more, the series demonstrates the range of different critical engagements with design that cultural anthropologists are thinking with today. In conversation with Arturo Escobar’s new book Designs for the Pluriverse, and with the diverse works of our contributors, we see the collection as reflecting a new moment in thinking about design in cultural anthropology, not only as a human activity to study, but as a dialogic interlocutor of ethnography, and generative critical practice.

My coeditors, contributors, and I hope that the Keywords for Ethnography and Design series will be useful not only to cultural anthropologists, but to those thinking and making in critical design spaces.