experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

Sheep signs

The scan above is from Sarah Franklin’s excellent 2007 book, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy.

I don’t know if her interpretation of the ASL sign for “sheep” makes sense to people who speak ASL (I have to assume she checked!) but I’m completely fascinated by the idea that it performs a hybrid: simultaneously human (the shearer), animal (the sheep) and technological (the shears).

So I decided to check if all English sign languages are the same and, as with all interesting research, found that I now have more questions than answers.

For example, the sign for “sheep” is the same in British Sign Language, Auslan and NZ Sign Language – it involves using the fingers to indicate curly horns on the sides of the head, like a ram – and is used to refer to both a wool-producing animal (sheep) and its meat (lamb/mutton).

First, I find it interesting that the sign performs the appearance of a ram and not a ewe, although they certainly are more visually distinctive. Are all animal signs based on appearance rather than behaviour, use, etc.?

Second, I have no idea why it is completely different from ASL for “sheep” — giving no indication of how people interact with the animal — but since all three sign languages also have separate signs for shearing/shearer, one possibility that comes to mind is that sheep in the UK, Australia and NZ are more “multi-purpose” animals and shearing is considered a culturally distinct activity and identity.

Third, Auslan has two additional signs for sheep, one regionally-specific, and NZSL has another two for lamb as well, although it is unclear if they’re referring to the animal or the meat. In any case, does this more extensive vocabulary indicate greater cultural significance?

Fourth, I was enjoying the (rather wishful) thought that one of the NZSL signs for lamb might be performing their notoriously cute “sproinging” action, but then I found out it’s very similar to the Auslan sign for “woolen” and wondered why would a lamb be more closely associated with wool than with meat?

Okay, okay. It’s clearly time to stop speculating and speak with the experts! I’ll update this with what I learn.

Posted: August 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals | No Comments »

On the ethnographic

I’m currently in Brisbane for the CCI Winter School, and was very pleased this morning to see that our object ethnography workshop next week will be filled to capacity with bright and interesting people–even though very few participants have identified ethnographic research as part of their projects.

I found that last point rather curious, and was reminded of a blog post on Savage Minds last month that asked “What makes something ethnographic?“. In the post, Carole McGranahan compares Marcus and Cushman‘s list of things that characterised early 1980s ethnographic writing, with a new list compiled by her students that describes ethnography today. There were many similarities between the two lists–check them out–but I’m most interested in the three new things they considered instrumental to successful ethnography:

1) a transparency of the ethnographer as researcher; by this they meant not gratuitous reflexivity, but a clear and communicated sense of how knowledge was accumulated, of what the scholar’s relationships with the community were;

2) the presence of people in the text as characters who you get to know, people who appear as themselves, as real people; and

3) clear demonstration that the topic being studied matters; by this they meant mattered not only in an anthropological sense, but mattered and was relevant to the people in the community.

First, I love the distinction between “gratuitous reflexivity” and the clear identification of located research or situated knowledge. Anyone who has taught ethnographic subjectivity and reflexivity to undergraduate students–or those outside social and cultural anthropology–will be familiar with cultural writing that is, at best, largely irrelevant and, at worst, inappropriately confessional. For some, it seems, the task of rendering transparent one’s interests and activities becomes a solipsistic practice of writing the self. If ethnographic research seeks to provide thick description (and I think that remains one of its central objectives) then I believe that reflexivity must explicitly help the audience understand the researcher in relation to other people, practices and ideas. In other words, one researcher’s realities (or mental states) cannot be used to represent all people’s realities (or mental states).

Second, I really appreciate the explicit acknowledgement of research participants as real people with real lives. A successful ethnographic account, then, might employ any number of narrative strategies that encourage the subjects to resonate with us just as our favourite novel and film characters (both human and non-human) do. As I’ve expressed before, fictional stories–even science fiction stories– work because they ring true, because we care what happens next. And one of the ways to do this is to use first-person perspective, not in some sort of self-righteous move to allow “our” subjects to speak for themselves instead of being spoken for, but as a simple means of showing rather than telling.

And third, I personally place a lot of value on research being relevant or significant to everyone involved. That doesn’t mean we all need to (or even can) get the same thing out of it, but I do believe that successful ethnographic research cannot result from studies that exclusively address the interests and whims of the researcher–or the funding body. On the other hand, I also don’t believe that ethnographic research needs to always be applied, in the sense that it only solves “problems.” (We all know about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.)

In addition to these students’ excellent points, I think we still need to reiterate that ethnographic research involves multiple embodied and material practices. What I mean is that words have only ever been one of our tools, and “an ethnography” (or ethnographic monograph) only one of our research outputs. Images, objects and performances are also fundamental parts of the ethnographic toolkit–both in terms of doing our work and how we present it to others–and in that sense we have always been multimedia practitioners.

And finally, I think that bringing all these qualities of ethnographic research to the foreground allows us to become less precious about who can be a ethnographer, or what constitutes an appropriate amount of fieldwork–and all without losing sight of what constitutes successful (thick, real, trustworthy) ethnography.

Posted: June 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs, Material & Visual Culture, Research Methodologies | No Comments »

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.

Posted: June 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life, Material & Visual Culture, Research Methodologies | 4 Comments »

More thoughts on writing and making

In the comments to my last post on writing as making, Peter Richardson wrote something that’s sticking with me:

“I suspect makers (and coders in particular, myself included) tend to view non-code text as an unstable, somewhat shifty medium.”

And Matt Jones later gave a similar reply to my original question about why writing isn’t Making:

"the fleshy machines you run your code on are notoriously unreliable"

Unstable. Shifty. Unreliable.

Yes please!

I love that people and our words are all those things. As I replied to Peter, and would say to Matt, I prefer the sense of potential that comes from this kind of material and making.

It’s less prescriptive. Less efficient. Less technological. Less machinic.

More space to become something, someone else.


“Here all is in life and motion; here we behold the true Poet or Maker.”

– J. Warton, Essays on Pope (1782)

Starting in the 1400s, and for four hundred-odd years, the title of “maker” (and especially the Scottish “makar”) was given to those we later called “poet.” This sense of making comes from “poiesis” or “poesis” (from the ancient Greek ποίησις creation, production, poetry, a poem; ποιεῖν to make, create, produce). We still use this sense of poetics whenever we speak of people who imaginatively synthesise existing things in order to create other, new things. Behold the Poet Hacker!

Along these lines, my friend Virginia pointed me to Robert Creeley’s essay, “From the Language Poets,” which begins:

“Whatever poetry may prove to be at last, the very word (from the Greek poiein , ‘to make’) determines a made thing, a construct, a literal system of words. We are, of course, far more likely to think of a poem as a pleasing sentiment, a lyric impulse, an expression of feeling that can engage the reader or listener in some intensive manner. But, whatever our disposition, it is well to remember that there is a diversity of ‘poetries’ in our world.”

And my friend Courtney currently has me reading Patrick Ness’ very good YA novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which has this lovely passage:

“Cuz all I know about Viola is what she says. The only truth I got is what comes outta her mouth and so for a second back there, when she said she was Hildy and I was Ben and we were from Farbranch and she spoke just like Wilf (even tho he ain’t from Farbranch) it was like all those things became true, just for an instant the world changed, just for a second it became made of Viola’s voice and it wasn’t describing a thing, it was making a thing, it was making us different just by saying it.” (emphasis in original)

Language doesn’t just make things–it assembles, cobbles together, entire worlds and all the relations within.


I don’t mean to romanticise words and writing. And I don’t mean to suggest they are divorced from technology or machines or even code.

By identifying what is included in our definitions of making or Making–and asking what is excluded–we might, as Ben Highmore writes in the introduction to The Everyday Life Reader, be able to “find new commonalities and breathe new life into old differences.”

And I’m pretty sure there’s lots more to be thought and said about what gets made, how, when and where it gets made, and by whom it gets made.

Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, Science, Technology & Society | No Comments »

Hi. My name is Anne. I make stuff with words.

I know designers who would never agree that writing or speaking is as valuable as making things. Thinking about how much that bothered me, this afternoon I posed the following question on Twitter:

"Why is making things with words not included in the 'maker movement'? If computation/code can be material for design, why not words too?"

I got some great responses – thanks everyone! – and I’d like to round up some of them here. (The time stamps will be out of order because I didn’t put this post together in one sitting – sorry.)

Anthropunk (Sally Applin) provided an academic take:

"@annegalloway It is. See anthropunk.com"

"@annegalloway also our talk about Meta Making, Culture Making and the Making of Making at 2011 @makerfaire fora.tv/2011/05/22/Sal…"

Many were along the lines of Kio‘s and Erin‘s comments:

"@annegalloway when I started dating Bre and hanging out at his hacker space I would intro self thusly: hi I'm Kio I make stuff with words."

"@kiostark @annegalloway I am so with you on this. Wordmakers and thingmakers unite."

Giovanni and Roberto brought up the matter of labour:

"@annegalloway Not only that, but I'll take into my grave the conviction that writing is a form of manual labour."

"@gtiso @annegalloway Word. Wordsmithery."

"@rogre @annegalloway it's also, in the vast majority of cases, literally manual labour."

Tom took up the matter of code as dialogue,  à la “how to do things with words“:

"@kissane @kiostark @annegalloway Code is just dialogue for digital actors."

And last, but certainly not least, Barry took up my question with more rigour and dedication than I think I was prepared to deal with this late on a Sunday! For example, he suggested that writing has more in common with art than design, because design is a problem-solving activity and writers don’t use design methodologies. And, if I understood correctly, he took issue with me lumping code in with making because the Maker movement deals in hardware hacking, distinguishable from general DIY. For Barry, again if I understood him, the desire (i.e. my attempt) to mush all these things together only results in making all DIY equal and flattening it all into some kind of generic creative practice.

My first thought (and repeated concern) was that we were talking about separate, and maybe even incompatible, things. I mean, the main reason I asked my question in the first place was because I don’t think that Maker culture should only celebrate the creation of physical objects. There is something elitist and exclusionary about that that doesn’t sit well with me.

Alternatively, Sally Applin’s recent talk at Maker Faire focusses on making knowledge and making culture as part of, along with, the things that makers make–this is the basic premise of all social and cultural studies of science and technology (my own academic field)–and how that necessarily includes words. But my concerns go beyond this too, I think.

I’m interested in words as materials for making, and in the written word as an artefact or thing that has been made. I’m also interested in why words (or the written word as distinguished from books) are generally not considered part of “Maker culture.”

Barry’s point was that Maker culture is specifically concerned with hardware, and since I think this definition is generally accepted then words-as-materials have no place there. If Making is about problem-solving, then creative writing has no place there either.

But maybe Glen is getting closer to what the most important difference is; the goals of Making rely on language but not as an expressive force or aesthetic move:

the goals of making do not focus on expression

So, does this mean that if the primary goal of (creative) writing is expression, the only way it can be incorporated into Maker culture is to use words explicitly for problem-solving, or the production of (cultural) solutions? How, exactly, does that differ from aesthetic goals–and especially if we do not distinguish between aesthetics and ethics?

I’m afraid I’m too tired now to continue but I’d really love to hear what others think!

What have I missed? Did I get anything right? What’s next?

P.S. My favourite response to my question came from Peter. (Thanks @meetar and @kissane!) To be honest, I’m not sure how it relates to my question (something about design and repetition and stories and iteration and…) but I love this game review so much I’m going to repost the entire thing and keep thinking about it for days and days and days!

“Infinity Blade is a game about iteration, about retreading old ground, about the small changes that surface across endless repetitions.

It operates around a simple conceit: the God King, the game’s strange central figure, has seeded a bloodline of warriors. A warrior approaches the God King’s fortress, fights his way to the throne room, and dies at the God King’s blade. He never leaves the castle. His son comes to avenge him, and the process repeats.

Each repetition ends the same way: with a son, wearing his father’s armor, carrying his father’s weapon, approaching the place of his father’s death.

The gameplay is predictable. Each bloodline is a series of fights. Each fight is a series of gestures. The enemies are variations on a theme. The spells are incremental improvements. We do the same things, over and over.

Infinity Blade may be a commentary on the grind of gaming, the relentless churn of killing and harvesting to gain new equipment so that we can kill and harvest more effectively.

But to continue playing is to live the same life a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit longer than the time before.”


Posted: February 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, Science, Technology & Society | 3 Comments »