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Teaching: Design Anthropology

A question was recently posted to the anthrodesign list about courses in design anthropology/ethnography, and people were quick to point out the growing number of postgraduate programmes including Design Ethnography at University of Dundee, Design Anthropology at University of Aberdeen, Design Anthropology at Swinburne University, and Culture, Materials and Design at University College London. But no one seemed to know of any undergraduate courses.

Since I’ll be teaching my second-year undergraduate course DSDN 283: Design Anthropology for the third time next term, and since it’s finally becoming the course I envisioned, I thought it might be a good time to post about it.

I work in a school with a rather artistic, exploratory and experimental approach to design, and teaching anthropology in this environment requires a different approach than what I was taught as an anthropologist, and from the more business- or industry-oriented approaches to ethnography that I’ve seen elsewhere. At its core, my introductory course uses design to understand social and cultural experience, and takes people’s everyday lives as inspiration for design.

Here are some snippets from the course outline:

Course synopsis

Anthropology can be defined as the study of similarities and differences between peoples of the world, or all the ways we make sense of ourselves, each other and the places in which we live, work and play. As designers work for—and with—a wide range of people around the world, the knowledge and skills of anthropology can be seen as increasingly relevant to a situated and adaptable practice. This course will explore how design shapes, and is shaped by, people’s cultural values and social practices, and help students use anthropological concepts and methods to enhance their design practice and understanding.

Aims of the course

Building on students’ previous studies of discursive, visual and material culture, this course introduces students to major themes from anthropology and their relevance to the understanding and practice of design. The primary aims of this course are to 1) ensure that students can critically and creatively assess the role that design and culture play in everyday life; and 2) enable students to use fieldwork and cross-cultural awareness to improve the quality of their designs.

Course content

This course’s exploration of design and culture will be framed by a number of scales and contexts, including individuals, social groups and cultures from different locations and points in history. Particular emphasis will be placed on what people believe, say, do and make.

Through theoretical concepts, cross-cultural examples, and field-based research methods, students will be introduced to the ways in which symbolic, visual and material culture both shape, and are shaped by, different people in different ways.

The required textbook for this course is Keri Smith‘s How To Be An Explorer of the World.

Course assignments

Project 1: Words

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, conduct library research, and submit a 2000-word essay.

Project 2: Images

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original 10-image photo-essay, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Project 3: Objects

Students are required to complete assigned field-exercises from the course textbook, and submit an original design object, along with a 500-word curatorial statement.

Lectures, tutorials and projects are based around discursive, visual and material culture–all things that are familiar to design students but rarely presented in terms of everyday life or lived experience as the social sciences understand them. The choice to use Keri Smith’s workbook reflects my desire to present fieldwork as an integral practice that ethnographers and artists/designers already share–although my primary challenge remains to help students look outwards, to other people, with the same attention and skill they use to look inwards.

Using anthropological concepts to help students make sense of what they experience or find in the field is the distinguishing element of this course–a goal that I placed at the top of my agenda once I realised that my design students were often much better at conducting and documenting fieldwork than my sociology and anthropology students were, but they almost completely lacked the tools to make sense of it and apply it to the tasks they faced.

This approach is only one of many, but I’ve found it very helpful in preparing students for more advanced studies that require a firm knowledge of the cultural contexts of design, and in extending the range of jobs for which they are prepared, and in which they are interested.

It may also just be a personal preference–I did end up in a design school after all–but I often wish I had been exposed to these ways of doing anthropology and ethnography in my undergraduate years. And although I no longer refer to myself as an anthropologist, and highly doubt I will ever consider myself a designer, I certainly feel as though I’ve become a better social and cultural researcher because of my time with artists and designers, and now I get to do cool things like this upcoming workshop on object ethnographies. This course is my space to share with students what these experiences have been like for me.

@NotTildaSwinton fills me with awe

Highlights from a 200 tweet (art ?) project, currently half-way through:


What I Read, 2nd Ed

Recent pieces that caught my fancy:

Naomi Alderman argues that “zombies are all the things that will not lie down and die, the truth we cannot repress, the thing that will rise up until it overwhelms us all. Whatever you want to forget is stumbling, dead-eyed and open-mouthed towards you.”

Is it enough to describe complex sociotechnical systems, or should there be a new and prescriptive field of study?

The space between memory and invention, writes Mavis Gallant, creates fiction that “resists analysis, all but the most shallow and humdrum, and cannot be tested or measured or, really, classified and contained.”

A story of the extraordinary medical and scientific research that ultimately gave Dallas Weins a new face.

In a country where all prisoners will someday be released, Halden high-security prison is Norway’s new model for rehabilitation instead of punishment.

Samuel Fromartz travels to Paris to learn how baguettes are being made to sing again.

“What can be learned from the Unabomber?” David Skrbina’s correspondence with Ted Kaczynski revives the philosophical question of whether a person’s ideas can be separated from their actions.

First domesticated for cockfighting instead of eating, how chicken became the most “ubiquitous food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease.”

On “thin places,” or those wondrous locales, both sacred and profane, that “offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.”

On writing the self

A year ago, Microsoft Research Cambridge and Microsoft Office commissioned the RCA to look at how authorship may change in the future and to help design the Future of Writing, and you can read about all the interesting projects in depth (pdf).

But it’s Koby (Yaacov) Barhad‘s Thoughts You May Have that stuck with me the most because it made me think about writing (and) the self. Barhad’s project began with his “desire…to reintroduce writing as a form of thinking” and explore writing as the “externalisation of thought.” Psychologist Lev Vygotsky claimed that “words die as they bring forth thoughts” and Barhad developed a word processor that immediately deleted each word as it appeared on screen — try it out! — thereby forcing the writer to constantly stay in the “now” and type whatever comes to mind. Meanwhile, “all the data that is being typed is constantly saved and processed so that users can read it as soon as they close the application.” Barhad’s exploration of how these “private” conversations can be made “public” — in a shared Cogitos space — is also interesting in terms of how the tool can be used to promote reflexivity and perhaps even reciprocity, and the project raises questions about access to, and control over, one’s stream of thought.

Unfortunately, I read the project documentation several times and couldn’t clearly identify the research questions or methods of analysis, and I think the final result actually suffers from trying to be too many things at once. While not precisely answering the brief, to focus just on writing in the “now” would have made a valuable contribution to understanding how writing works, especially as a form of self-inquiry and self-construction — and I would have liked to know more about that.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, suggests an activity or tool she calls Morning Pages, which involves starting each day by writing three pages on anything and everything that crosses your mind. This kind of stream-of-consciousness writing has been suggested by many practitioners as a great way to empty out the mind, get unstuck, and otherwise understand things better so that we can get on with other stuff. In fact, Buster Benson created 750 Words as a place online where you can “write 3-pages privately every day, and learn about yourself in the process.”

What makes Barhad’s word processor so interesting, I think, is that it goes beyond writing for ourselves to actually write the self. This difference seems to arise because his tool doesn’t allow the writer to reflect on what is written until after the fact. In other words, the writer is always already in the process of becoming.

It seems like I should have more to say about this but I don’t. All I can say is that this makes me think about writing as a form of inquiry, and about the rise of auto- or self-ethnography in qualitative research. It makes me wonder how different stories — my stories — would be if they were written first on Barhad’s word processor. And I wonder how editing stories would work.

What does it make you think about?

Sweet Darkness

“Sweet Darkness”

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

~ David Whyte

Thanks to Sienna for the pointer.


What I Read, 1st Ed

Don’t tell anyone, but it’s my super secret dream to one day have Rafil Kroll-Zaidi‘s skill and writing gig. Yes, I can already imagine how glorious my life will be when each month I search far and wide for the world’s most fascinating or peculiar research, and pull it all together with exceptional verve.

In the meantime, I’ll keep renewing my Harper’s subscription just for the Findings feature, and here’s what else I read this week:

Susan J Matt explains how social media doesn’t cause loneliness, but rather that Americans have been lonely “for at least two centuries” and that contemporary society has become intolerant of those who are not “cheerfully independent.”

Vienna gets its first cat café and Kate Miltner submits a thesis on LOLCats that proves, once and for all, how “seemingly trivial pieces of media — pictures of cats with captions — can act as meaningful conduits to central elements of our humanity.”

Images of soldiers being “led to slaughter” have long represented the tragedy of war, but today’s conflict casualties are more often civilians who suffer brutal, and repeated, rape. Usually treated as a women’s issue, the use of rape during war effects men in different but no less profound ways.

Miranda Trimmier reminds us why we dissect things, and how to do it well.

If selkies are the new heroes of paranormal romance, let’s hope they smell better than seals.

There comes a stage when all researchers find ourselves in the Valley of Shit. When this happens, remember what Winston Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Apparently, not everyone is excited about in-vitro meat.

Maurice Sendak, “who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche,” is dead.

Consumer “infolust” will soon be satisfied by smart-phone apps that make it easy for shoppers to POINT, KNOW and BUY. Cue Austin Powers: “Smashing! Groovy! Yay capitalism!”

Cassie Gonzales wins Granta’s “Fleeing Complexity” competition with this tweetable short story: “It was my turn to wear the dead boy’s glasses.”

Primatologists ask can animals keep pets, and orangutans use iPads to communicate.


Looking, Walking, Being

Looking, Walking, Being

“The World is not something to
look at, it is something to be in.”
- Mark Rudman

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,
sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.

The eyes
dig and burrow into the world.
They touch
fanfare, howl, madrigal, clamor.
World and the past of it,
not only
visible present, solid and shadow
that looks at one looking.

And language? Rhythms
of echo and interruption?
a way of breathing.

breathing to sustain
walking and looking,
through the world,
in it.

~ Denise Levertov

Thanks to Virginia for sharing.

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