The term, “design anthropology,” is often used to simply describe the anthropology of design, or applied anthropology in design – such as conducting ethnographic research to establish design requirements. However, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard and other leading figures in the development of design anthropology argue that the anthropological contribution to design depends less on detailed accounts from the field, and more on a continuous involvement with and a reframing of field and design practices throughout the design process (2013:51). From these objectives design anthropology emerges as a transdisciplinary field between anthropology and design, formalizing the relationship and developing new insights and opportunities for how they are each practiced and conceptualized within social design processes.
Design anthropology essentially proposes ways to expand the anthropological purview throughout the entire design process. This is accomplished by redefining the anthropological practice of participant observation within the traditions of participatory design, co-design, and social innovation. That is, co-design workshops, probes, and events are conceived as speculative field sites, organized as sociocultural experiments of potential futures. In doing so, it follows an actor-network theory approach to design in order to explore the implications of resultant configurations of socio-material collectives that are drawn together by the design “thing,” and importantly to mold the design “thing” through an iterative engagement and analysis of emerging practices, meaning-making, issue formation, and socio-material assemblages as matters of concern in these rich moments of situated, and collaboratively-driven, change and innovation.
Beyond just adopting the participatory and collaborative practices of design as more inclusive design processes, design anthropology conceptualizes participatory design events as interventions by situating and engaging them within lived contexts and existing practices in order to critically assess and contextualize the socio-cultural and political dynamics that inevitably arise from even democratic and participatory explorations into possible futures. Thereby engaging design with everyday life not only as a resource for the design process, but also as an outcome of the design process through a speculative exploration of the possible through a performative present.
It then becomes clear that design anthropology departs from traditional forms of anthropology as well, which focuses on descriptive accounts of past and present beliefs, practices, customs, and traditions as shared systems of meaning that are used to generate behavior and interpret life experiences. The future-oriented, interventionist, and collaborative nature of design, not to mention the overriding objective to produce a design concept, is taken up as an epistemological priority in design anthropology. Extending what is knowable and observable within the present to speculate on and even attempt to peer into possible futures.
Traditionally, the mere interrupting presence of an anthropologist in a field site and the potential transformative repercussions of their ethnographic monographs has been a reflexive and ethical matter of concern within the field of anthropology, even while it has become more or less accepting of its supportive role within the larger change agendas of other fields such as design – and colonial expeditions of the past. Taken as a whole, Smith and Otto explain in Design Anthropological Futures that design anthropology “represent a shift from predictability in the design practice and taxonomical understandings of culture towards the enabling and becoming of potential futures and of situated future making that can be negotiated and performed through socio-material processes of design anthropological intervention” (2016:27).
The mantle and traditional role of anthropologists in design has been to serve as cultural interlocutors that can inform design through ethnography, but if craft works by opportunistically pursuing moments of cultural breakdown and uncertainty in order to reframe what exists, culture itself is informed through the performance of designing. Therefore, anthropology’s productive role within design can and should extend to the event of the design process. Design anthropology is an attempt to resolve these disconnections by extending the theoretical trajectories of the field of anthropology into the future through design by conceiving of participatory, speculative, and critical design events together as a pliant, actuating field site.
Kjaersgaard, Mette Gislev. 2013. “(Trans)forming Knowledge and Design Concepts in the Design Workshop.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by W. Gunn et al., 51. New York: Bloomsbury.
Smith, Rachel Charlotte and Ton Otto. 2016. “Cultures of the Future: Emergence and Intervention in Design Anthropology.” In Design Anthropological Futures, edited by R. Smith et al., 27. New York: Bloomsbury.