EASA, 2010: EASA2010: Crisis and imagination
Maynooth, 24/08/2010 – 27/08/2010
Design anthropology: intertwining different timelines, scales and movements
Location John Hume Lecture Theatre 4
Date and Start Time 25 Aug, 2010 at 11:30
Design anthropology is an emergent field and is practiced in different ways depending upon one's methodological positioning. Researchers follow dynamic situations and social relations and are concerned with how people during their everyday activities perceive, create and transform their environments. This view challenges the idea that innovation only refers to the generation of 'new' things as being central to processes of social and economic change.
In the moment-to-moment interaction between anthropologists and the people they work with, anthropologists make implicit understandings explicit. What the ethnographic method brings is contrast and relation and it opens up the taken for granted by bringing into the foreground what was in the background. Anthropological theory uses explicit contrast as a way of constructing meaningful difference. Design anthropology is a move to shift the focus from anthropological description to action. In methodological terms how does this influence the theory-practice relation in this emergent field? What role does anthropological theory play in Design Anthropology? and How is the validity of knowledge in Design Anthropology established?
The aim of the workshop is to expand the notion of ethnographic practice and contribute towards a research agenda in design anthropology. Four main areas: 1. Designing communication and identities 2. Building relations between designing and using 3. Transforming organizations and institutions 4. Imagining possibilities instead of certainty. An outcome of the workshop is to develop a Design Anthropology anthology. The volume will provide an overview of the emergent field and be of interest to anthropology, design and engineering.
Chair: Wendy Gunn
Discussant: Tim Ingold
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.
Anthropological resources for design: concepts and tools, translations and engagement
Design Anthropology has emerged mainly outside the academy, or at least outside anthropology as a University based practice. What then can anthropology based in a research University setting offer for design processes? While ‘ethnographic method’ has come to mean little more than listening to focus groups, or observing ‘users’, academic anthropology offers an imaginative, comparative, reflexive and robust approach to understanding the processes by which things, meanings and persons are constituted. This paper explores the specific contributions that an anthropology straddling the useful divisions between academic and other contexts, through attention to collaboration and ethnographic engagement, can offer. Focussing on the contribution that elements of an anthropological approach generates, the paper will examine contemporary anthropological thinking, and examine how anthropology provides resources for these creative engagements. Examples are taken as pointers to the wider potential of a broadly conceived Design Anthropology.
The social life of concepts in Design Anthropology
Anthropology's turn to the material in recent decades has problematised notions of knowledge as abstract, and engagements with design (which can imply progress) are confronting a reticence to engage with causality in anthropological understandings. I elaborate on the material culture of design concepts, and rituals of creativity, in an EU-funded design programme, HP Labs, and Intel. An exaggerated interest with artefactuality characterises the treatment of ethnographic knowledge. Concept is here the name given to knowledge at the interface of the material and immaterial, existing as a flux whose social life is given momentum by an iterative oscillation between research group and field site in which each alternately assumes the role of critical subject. Such processes can lead to different understandings of social practice from traditional ethnographic processes. I advocate a renewed attention to using iterative design processes for the anthropological process, and theoretical attention to new critical materialist approaches.
A crafting of potentials
In the movement from understanding the past towards creating the future, design anthropology as a discipline will turn from one with archival qualities to one endowed with potentials for change. One challenge facing design anthropology is how to show relevance for theory generation while also incorporating critique as a way to open up the design space in meaningful ways. To consider theory as a form of practice is to explore how one practices theory. Instead of a textual form that reframes our perceptions, theory becomes experiential and in this way changes our actions. The Schönian notion of seeing-as is complemented by designing-for as design anthropologists stage design workshops, span knowledge traditions, and make design moves. Reflecting on my own research process, I trace a few research tools that underline the craft of design anthropology.
The abduction of Danish labour market policy: on the interdependency of knowing and acting; what pragmatism teaches us about the validity of our beliefs
Danish government commissioners rely heavily on statistical material and generalized notions of the persons and societal constellations they aim to affect through employment policies. This paper argues that 'fixed beliefs' about the relevance and validity of certain kinds of knowledge significantly limit the way these commissioners know the world in the moments of crafting their policies and, further, that this reduces or stabilizes the scope of actions they might instigate.
Based on empirical examples from ethnographic research focusing on the realization of a policy addressing recipients of sickness benefits, this paper aims to demonstrate that a pragmatic analytical framework (especially C.S. Peirce and G.H. Mead) can not only help us explain the fixation of beliefs about relevance and validity, but furthermore offers a method for destabilizing such beliefs, thereby broadening the scope of knowing and acting through simple techniques of bringing together what was before separate; the technique of juxtaposition.
The significance of fresh air
In a qualitative study on the use and significance of fresh air in private homes, the situations and times in which fresh air was used, several interesting social aspects relating to this practice came forward, challenging to some extent the practice theories focusing on skills & competencies as a major domain of the practice performed (a.o. Shove 2003, Shove & Pantzar 2005). Actions relating to the use of fresh air appeared as an integrative practice, constituting particular social domains. Deconstructing the use of fresh air highlighted 3 main dimensions relating to its significance:
a functional (practical features);
an aesthetic (bodily and sensory features); and
a social dimension (care and impression management).
The findings encourage to step away slightly from the current focus in design anthropology on action, moving towards a more phenomenological perspective of 'being' rather than 'acting' (realizing, of course, their interrelationship).
Imagining anatomy: making and using three-dimensional models of the human body
This paper explores understandings of design in one particular field of social practice - that of anatomical modelling in contemporary Britain. It examines perceptions of designs and processes of designing as they emerge through the making and use of three-dimensional anatomical models of the human body. Such models are constructed in order to generate anatomical knowledge, especially to aid medical students in visualising - or accurately imagining - human anatomy. But the difficulties encountered in learning anatomy often highlight the limitations of models, leading to their modification and the instigation of new ones. Asking how anatomical designs and designing operate in particular contexts, this paper discusses the uses of plastic models produced by commercial firms as well as models made in-house in medical-school workshops. This provides insight with regard to relationships between standardised plastic models and those improvised using diverse materials, such as wood, wire, perspex, paper and recycled objects.
Innovation and uncertainty: a new bridge in the highlands of Borneo
Fieldwork in Malaysian Borneo in 2008-2010 by the author, an engineer turned anthropologist, provides the data for an examination of the relationship between innovation and uncertainty in design. With limited resources and knowledge, a Kelabit community set out to build a new type of bridge in the rural highlands of northern Borneo. Skills and knowledge of something familiar (such as housebuilding) were used as the basis for the production of something ostensibly new. In this way uncertainty is constrained but so then is the scope for innovation: Coping with surprise is done through practices 'in-the-hand' rather than 'in-the-mind'. Uncertainty is seen as centrally important, despite the methodological difficulties inherent in recording something so fleeting, and its potential association with failure. This paper argues that innovation requires the generation of uncertainty, and that a successful design means overcoming those uncertainties through the skills of competent producers.
Architecture and anthropology: thresholds and crossings between disciplines
In this paper, I intend to discuss the relationship between architecture and anthropology as disciplines. There is, in this question, a point of threshold: a transition between one condition and another might be observed.
The key difference between the disciplines remains the operational nature of design disciplines as opposed to the descriptive nature of anthropology. In order to understand the relationship between these obviously related disciplines, this fundamental difference must be clearly understood and expressed. Anthropologists are often uneasy with the relative ease with which architects propose change to a situation, imposing their will onto a site. Architects, on the other hand, are commonly confounded at the complication found in the simplest act by the anthropologist: the problematisation of everyday life sometimes jarring with their entrenched desire to act first and theorise later.
This paper charts the development of a new studio and lecture course for architects in Manchester.
From studying 'users' to generating 'publics' in design research: mutual accountability as a generative force
The personal nature of the fieldwork encounter between researcher and research participant has long been hailed as the productive drive of ethnography. Researchers in product and service design projects both in commercial practice and public service increasingly draw on anthropological theory and methods for short-term and long-term fieldwork. Time-pressed commercial projects seek control over the research process often preferring the predictability of professional recruiting and paid research relationships, while others, especially in university-based projects, favor open-ended research processes that rely upon participation as a result of personal interests and mutual accountability. This paper draws on examples from three recent design projects to look critically at the framing of the researcher / research participant encounter in product and service design with special attention to the recruitment, maintenance and termination of research relationships.
Ethnographies of the possible
One particular anthropologically inspired approach to exploratory design seeks to create new design opportunities through small ethnographic experiments with everyday life situations. The immediate purpose of these experiments is to establish and explore a credible and meaningful practice around a particular idea in the environment and by the people it addresses, before the idea is fully developed.
My colleagues and I propose the theatrical notion of rehearsing the future to describe a playful mode of trying out how everyday life might play out differently in a way that is meaningful to all the involved participants, given the potential availability of alternative resources (for example new technologies, processes, or organizations).
From a position within this field of practice, I am concerned with concrete performances of the imaginary. In this paper I will reflect on what it implies to appropriate an ethnographic methodological heritage for this proactive orientation towards possible futures.
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.