September 3: Design <> Anthropology

“Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design” at Vitra Design Museum, 2018, via domus

What is design? Given the wide variety of design practices, can we speak about a generalized capital-D “Design”? What’s design have to do with anthropology? And vice versa?

There are four “units” of reading for today: (1) what is design? (short!); (2) surveys of design anthropology (long-ish!); (3) keywords for ethnography and design (short and skimmable!); and (4) two case studies (medium to long, but super-engaging!)

What follows are two overlapping surveys of the history, scope, methods, and stakes of design anthropology; there’s a good deal of repetition, but that’s okay! It’s like superimposing two different maps to help orient yourself within a new terrain. Plus, we can then compare how these authors sketch the contours of the same field for different audiences — and how those approaches resonate differently for you.

  • Keith M. Murphy, “Design and Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 45 (2016): 433-43 [Stop at “Why Design, and Why Now?”; pages 434-40, essentially a literature review of anthropological research on design, will be of most use — and will make most sense — to the anthropologists in the class 🙂 Again, you’ll be prompted to log in].
  • Ton Otto and Rachel Charlotte Smith, “Design Anthropology: A Distinct Style of Knowing” in Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds., Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury, 2013): 1-29.

I’m asking you to review the following primarily so you’re aware that these venues and communities exist!

  • Cassandra Hartblay, Joseph D. Hankins, and Melissa L. Caldwell, “Keywords for Ethnography and Design,” Fieldsights (Society for Cultural Anthropology, March 2018): please read the Introduction and Lucy Suchman on “Design” (we’ll encounter her again later), and any others that pique your interest.
  • Skim through recent tables of contents in Design & Culture.

Two Quotidian Case Studies: I’ve asked you to read these two texts because I want to encourage us, from the start of the semester, to think capaciously about design. These two case studies demonstrate how multiple modes of design converge in the field, and how designed sites and systems offer a material lens for investigating concepts that are germane to the social sciences and humanities — from kinship and gender, to the character of place and environmental justice. What’s more, these texts demonstrate the potential for stylish writing and public scholarship in our field of study.

Comedor Popular La Balanza, Lima. Photo: Anna Puigjaner, via e-flux architecture


  • Emeline Brulé (a French PhD student), “How I Learned Design Research and How I Teach It (Part 2 Becoming an Ethnographer,” Design and Society (July 18, 2019)>
  • Allison J. Clark, “Introduction” in Allison J. Clark, ed., Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition (Bloomsbury, 2018): xv-xxiii.
  • *Arturo Escobar, Excerpts from “Elements for a Cultural Studies of Design” in Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Duke University Press, 2017): 53-62.
  • Tim Ingold, “Toward an Ecology of Materials,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 427-42.
  • *Tim Ingold and Wendy Gunn, “Design Anthropology PhD Course” Syllabus, Soønderborg Participatory Innovation Center (2010).
  • Selena Kearney, “Defining Design: Is a Universal Definition Possible?Nomat (January 24, 2018).
  • Bruno Latour, “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design,” Keynote, Networks of Design, Design History Society, Cornwall (September, 2008): 13pp [I don’t quite understand why people cite this].
  • Brandon Meyer, “The Many Meanings of Design Anthropology,” OpenAnthCoop (n.d. 2019?).
  • Harvey Molotch, “Objects in Sociology” in Allison J. Clark, ed., Design Anthropology: Object Cultures in Transition (Bloomsbury 2018): 28, 30.
  • Keith Murphy, “Design and Temporality: Reaction,” Fieldsights (Society for Cultural Anthropology, 2016).
  • *Rachel Charlotte Smith and Mette Gislev Kjærsgaard, “Design Anthropology in Participatory Design,” ID&A Interaction Design & Architecture(s) 26 (Autumn 2015): 73-80.

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