Week 9: October 26: Ethnographies of Design

Examining Kente cloth in the Longyear Museum of Anthropology Collection (AF2008.18, Gift of Tim and Bobbi Hamill. Photo: Megan Meier ’18), Fashioning Africa, via Colgate University

This week builds on our discussion from two weeks ago. Some anthropological research about design is “meta,” in the sense that it uses ethnography to examine the use of ethnography as a design research method. Still other ethnographers study the creation, distribution, use, and disposal of designed objects; the development and inhabitation of designed spaces; how communities navigate through various designed systems, and so forth. What can this work reveal about designed objects, sites, and systems; about design processes and their contextual values and politics? What does ethnography of design teach us about ethnography as it’s commonly applied in design? 



  • Lilly Irani, “Introduction” and “Seeing Like an Entrepreneur, Feeling Out Opportunity” and an excerpt from “Can the Subaltern Innovate?” in Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2019): 1-22, 141-188 [stop at “Grassroots Innovation”] [please recall that you’ll be prompted to log in to access our copyrighted readings].
  • Please skim through the supplemental resources below; acknowledge the range of designed objects, sites, systems, and processes that have been examined through ethnographic research. If you’ve got time, read or skim a few of these resources.
  • Consider: what could be gained by conducting a long-term ethnographic study of your central areas of designerly interest – or by examining the designerly aspects of your subjects of ethnographic inquiry? What specific questions would ethnography be particularly well equipped to address? Designers: what might you learn about your own practices, or its products and broader implications, if an anthropologist were to study them for a year?
  • Post a response to our slide deck if you’ve signed up to do so.

Via Present & Correct


  • To compare / contrast with the design processes described in Irani’s book, check out some of the recent work published in CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts; skim the tables of contents. 
  • Burcu Baykurt, The City as Data Machine: Local Governance in the Age of Big Data, Dissertation, Columbia University, 2019.
  • Jacob Culbertson, “Recombinant Indigeneities: Maori Environmental Design and the Architecture of Bioculturalism,” PhD Dissertation, University of California, Davis, 2015 [video].
  • Paul Dourish, “Responsibilities and Implications: Further Thoughts on Ethnography and Design,” Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on Designing for User Experiences, Chicago, November 5-7, 2007.  
  • Paul Dourish, “Implications for Design” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Quebec, April 22-27, 2006. 
  • Christina Dunbar-Hester, Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures (Princeton University Press, 2020). 
  • Christina Dunar-Hester, with Jasmine McNealy, “Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures,” New Books Network (July 20, 2020) < podcast: 35:25 >.
  • Amah M. Edoh, “Redrawing Power? Dutch Wax Cloth and the Politics of ‘Good Design,’ Journal of Design History 29:3 (2016): 258-72. 
  • Ignacio Farías and Alex Wilkie, Studio Stories: Operations, Topologies & Displacements (Routledge, 2016). 
  • Maura Finkelstein, The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai (Duke University Press, 2019). 
  • David Garcia, Mapmaker [his dissertation is an ethnography of cartography]. 
  • Siobhan Gregory, “Design Anthropology as Social Design Practice,” Jrnl of Business Anthropology 7:2 (2018): 210-34. 
  • Aimi Hamraie’s ongoing work on permaculture. 
  • Cassandra Hartblay, “Good Ramps, Bad Ramps: Centralized Design Standards and Disability Access in Urban Russian Infrastructure,” American Ethnologist 44:1 (2017): 9-22. 
  • Lilly Irani, “‘Design Thinking’: Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 4:1 (2018). 
  • Lilly Irani on Her Book, Chasing Innovation,” Interview with Christopher Kelty, CaMP Anthropology (May 15, 2019). 
  • Silvia M. Lindtner, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020). 
  • Sarah S. Lochlann Jain, Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States (Princeton University Press, 2006). 
  • Francis Jervis, Eating the World: A Political Economy of Silicon Valley, Dissertation, Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University (in progress) [thanks to Francis for recommending this]. 
  • Christopher Kelty, The Participant: A Century of Participation in Four Stories (University of Chicago Press, 2020). 
  • Christopher Kelty, “The Participant,” Interstitial (March 10, 2020) < podcast: 11:46 >. 
  • Christopher Kelty, “The Participant in Troubled Times,” Deakin Science & Society Network (June 22, 2020) < video: 1:00:45 >. 
  • Dorinne Kondo, About  Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater (Routledge, 1997).
  • Crystal Lee, dissertation is an ethnography of data visualization @ MIT
  • Cindy Lin, “Programming Earth as System in Indonesia,” dissertation research @ University of Michigan
  • Cindy Lin, “How to Make a Forest,” e-flux architecture (April 10, 2020) [ethnography of mapping / dataviz].
  • Sylvia Lintner, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020).  
  • Kathryn Mariner, “Fertile Ground” (ongoing research project). 
  • Shannon Mattern, “Just How Public Is the Seattle Public Library? Journal of Architectural Education 57:1 (2003): 5-18. 
  • Shannon Mattern, “Paju Bookcity: The Next Chapter,” Places Journal (January 2013). 
  • Shannon Mattern, “Post-It Note City,” Places Journal (February 2020). 
  • Clapperton C. Mavhunga, ed., What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? (MIT Press, 2017). 
  • Daniel Miller’s work — e.g., Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward, “Manifesto for a Study of Denim,” Social Anthropology 15:3 (October 2007) — and my own 2010-12 “Media and Materiality” class
  • Keith Murphy,  Swedish Design: An Ethnography (Cornell University Press, 2015). 
  • Leonore Phillips, “The Messiness of Ethnography,” Platypus (July 2, 2019).
  • Ashanté M. Reese, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). 
  • Lozana Rossenova, “Model-Database-Interface: A Study of the Redesign of the ArtBase, and the Role of User Agency in Born-Digital Archives,” Dissertation, London South Bank University, 2021. 
  • Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton University Press, 2012). 
  • Harris Solomon, “Living on Borrowed Breath: Respiratory Distress, Social Breathing, and the Vital Movement of Ventilators,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly (August 2020) [check out this Arena channel for additional resources on the theme].
  • Lucy A. Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Action, 2nd ed (Cambridge UP, 2007). 
  • Brandi Summers, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). 
  • Brandi Thompson Summers and Kathryn Howell, “Fear and Loathing (of Others): Race, Class, and Contestation of Space in Washington, DC,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 43:6 (2019) [more on race + architecture and urban planning].
  • Lee Vinsell, “Design Thinking Is a Boondoggle,” Chronicle Review (May 21, 2018). 
  • Eitan Y. Wilf, “The Ubiquity and Ambiguity of Routinized Business Innovation” and “The Post-It Note Economy: Understanding Post-Fordist Business Innovation” in Creativity on Demand: The Dilemma of Innovation in an Accelerated Age (University of Chicago Press, 2019): 1-27, 101-123.
  • Albena Yaneva, Crafting History: Archiving and the Quest for Architectural Legacy (Cornell University Press, 2020). 
  • *Albena Yaneva, Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design (010 Publishers, 2009).