experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

Teaching Reflections: Design Ethnography #1

This term I’m teaching two courses: CCDN233: Design Ethnography and CCDN384: Multispecies Design. I had originally planned to blog weekly reflections but the first three weeks of classes have been such a blur that I’ll have to start now and hope I can do it weekly from now on. I’ll also split my reflections into separate posts for each course.


This is a second year elective with just over 50 students from all three of our design specialisations. Last year the course was finally starting to come together, and I’ve made some minor adjustments to the content in order to better emphasise the development of ethnographic research skills. Each week we look at different aspects of ethnographic research, including doing fieldwork, analysing fieldwork, ethnographic writing, sensory ethnography, and multispecies ethnography–as well as visual culture, material culture, and collecting, curating and creating culture.  Students are required to conduct fieldwork (observation, interviews, etc.) for three assignments: WORDS produces a written ethnography, IMAGES produces a visual ethnography, and OBJECTS requires that students design a diorama that contextualises an object collected during fieldwork. Students are also required to give a brief presentation at the end of the course that explains their personal perspective on the relationship between design and ethnography.

I started the course by explaining design ethnography–not least because no one had heard the phrase before! For the purposes of this class, design ethnography uses ideas and methods from anthropology to understand people and how they make sense of the world. This helps us understand how people interact with material and digital designs, and it helps us design things that will be meaningful to people. It also uses design ideas and methods to share this cultural understanding with others. Backing up a bit, I then asked “What is anthropology?” and explained that it is the study of humanity in all its biological, material, linguistic, and cultural expressions across space and time. This means we try to understand all the practices and beliefs shared by people in a particular place and historical period. Or, put a bit differently, we try to make sense of ourselves in relation to other people, places, things, and ideas in the world. Ethnography is the primary method that anthropologists use to understand the world. We work with our heads, our hearts, our hands, and our feet. Ethnography can include many things, but for our purposes it requires fieldwork–observing other people and actively participating in the world around us–instead of only spending time in a lab or a library or a studio.

What do design ethnographers do?

1. We ask a lot of questions, and we listen very carefully to people’s answers.
2. We meticulously observe what people do, think about how and why they do it, and compare it to what they say.
3. We document everything so that we can create “thick descriptions” of the world and represent “webs of significance.”
4. We take this knowledge and we design for people’s actual needs, hopes, and desires.
5. We design with care and respect for people’s differences.
6. We don’t treat people as problems to solve or fix.

To this I added that, ultimately, the stories we tell can be considered “partial truths“–which for our purposes means that we try to understand as much as possible, but we can’t know and represent everything and that’s okay. Drawing on concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, I also said that it’s okay to have our own ideas about people and the world, but our job is always to see how other people understand the world (in their terms) and not worry about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Moving on to fieldwork, and the first assignment, I explained the process of applying for ethics approval (which I do at the course level), and creating the participant information sheets and consent forms they must use. We spent time going over fieldwork protocols, and the biggest challenge for students seems to be asking the “right” kind of questions. Despite going over how to avoid questions that elicit simple “yes” or “no” answers, they still struggled with trying to get people to answer direct questions. I explained that approaching face-to-face interviews as if they’re a survey is difficult, and it’s often much better–and easier!–to ask participants to share a story about the topic they’re interested in and then have a conversation with them about it. This way, the participant will let them know what’s important, or where the “real” story lies. We discussed how observation allows us to compare what we see and did to what people said, allowing for greater accuracy and improving the quality of our interpretation.

The following week, Dr Lorena Gibson gave an excellent guest lecture on her fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and India. She emphasised how difficult observation can be with this fun example:

(I counted the number of balls correctly, but was rather embarrassed to learn that I completely missed the gorilla!)

Lorena also beautifully illustrated how ethnocentrism and cultural relativism work with this clip from Tribal Wives:

But the real highlight came when she shared photos taken by schoolchildren at Talimi Haq School in Priya Manna Basti, Howrah (Kolkata). For this ethnographic research, Lorena used photovoice, “a collaborative participatory method where people in marginalised communities are encouraged to take photos of things they consider important in their lives, or that capture their lived experiences.” She provided cameras and training, and asked the students to work in pairs to photograph a ritual or activity that was important to them and arrange it as a photo essay or narrative. We then looked at the photos and Lorena asked the students what they suggest about the lives of the children and life in Priya Manna Basti. For example, the girls took photos of water–something that is very strictly controlled in the slum and integral to cooking and cleaning (considered women’s work). The boys took photos of school and street cricket, emphasising play (classes are voluntary and held after a full day of work). The students were very good at noticing gender differences, spatial contexts like domestic and public space, as well as the different poses of people pictured (i.e. some looked directly at the camera, but most did not).

This exercise sets up our second assignment quite well, but for now we still have to concentrate on practicing observation and interview skills, and then interpreting what was seen, done and heard. Students are still struggling with making assumptions about what they see and hear, although I’m very impressed by how few have got stuck on making judgements. The students are bright and sensitive, but I think it can be difficult to understand a point of view that we’ve never before encountered or with which we disagree. I had hoped that limiting their fieldwork to family and friends would reduce the amount of cultural dissonance encountered, but it seems to also make it harder for them to get past the taken for granted.

Next: Week 4 reflections

Also: Multispecies Design (Weeks 1-3)

Posted: August 5th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ordinary Madness of Academia | No Comments »

Teaching reflections: Multispecies Design #1

This term I’m teaching two courses: CCDN233: Design Ethnography and CCDN384: Multispecies Design. I had originally planned to blog weekly reflections but the first three weeks of classes have been such a blur that I’ll have to start now and hope I can do it weekly from now on. I’ll also split my reflections into separate posts for each course.


This is a new third-year class of 21 students from all three of our design specialisations, and they’re all quite attached to animals through personal experience and intellectual interest. The course lecture content is organised according to types of human-animal relations such as people & pets, people & livestock, people & wildlife, experimental animals, pest animals, etc., and how different kinds of design have intervened to maintain and/or challenge these relations and interactions. There are two main assignments, each submitted as concept proposals and as final designs. The first is a visual narrative of an existing human-animal relationship (done independently) and the second is a product/service design that supports animals and/or ecological well-being, or intervenes in a particular human-animal relationship (done in small groups).

I’ve also set up a tumblr for my research and things related to this course: more-than-human design. In addition to the books cited below, you can find links to additional sources and readings on our first two lectures: human-animal relations and people & pets. But otherwise, it’s really just a huge jumble of content without much, or any, commentary; part of what we do in our tutorials is ask and try to answer questions about all of it.

When it comes to understanding human-animal relations, the challenge for design students seems to involve getting beyond the personal to more actively engage with, and interrogate, social interactions as well as broader cultural implications. By the end of the first week I wished I had called the course more-than-human design instead of multispecies design; I think it might have better helped orient us towards these concerns. I also find that the primary pedagogical challenge of teaching content from other disciplines is figuring out how much detail is necessary. I’m constantly afraid that I’m doing a disservice to the complexity of the field, but I also have specific learning objectives for these students and even if everything is interesting, not everything can be equally relevant.

The first full lecture allowed me 80 minutes to sum up the why’s, what’s and how’s of human-animal studies. Following Margo DeMello’s Animals and Society, I described the field as concerned with the varied relations people have with all kinds of animals, and with assessing the costs and gains (cultural, environmental, economic, ethical, etc.) of these relationships. Focussing on the contributions of posthumanism, science studies, multispecies ethnography, and more-than-human geography, I talked about understanding how animals serve people’s needs and desires. I explained that the most commonly given reason to study human-animal relations is the potential for learning more about ourselves. Modernism has tended to privilege the human and the technological, and human-animal studies offer us the opportunity to assess the consequences of these decisions. A related reason to study human-animal relations is because we do not live–and indeed never have lived–without nonhuman animals. Recognising this not only helps us understand ourselves, but also to question how much of our understanding of nonhuman animals is related to assumptions about ourselves. Another reason to study human-animal relations is because a lack of understanding and empathy may lead to antisocial behaviour. Research suggests that speciesism is linked to racism and sexism, and studies have indicated that people who abuse animals are more likely to abuse other people. We talked about the roles that anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism play in these matters of concern, and I identified three main (if not always clear-cut) ethical frameworks or perspectives for assessing these relations and interactions: animal welfare, animal rights, and animal abolitionism. Students were encouraged to start thinking carefully and critically about which positions they would take on human-animal relations, as they would inevitably become embedded in their designs.

In our first tutorial, I introduced the first assignment, which is to independently research and propose a visual narrative (illustration, photography or video) and draft a supporting creative non-fiction essay on the cultural (symbolic, political, economic, ethical, etc.) and/or environmental implications of a particular human-animal relationship. And we looked at Jo-Anne McArthur’s We Animals photography project, asking what kind of stories her photos and captions tell, as well as which stories are absent or under-represented.

“Living with an animal forces a rethinking of some of the most important issues involved in what it means to live.”

– Erika Fudge, Pets

The next lecture looked at people and pets. I chose this as the first topic because it is the most intimate and familiar human-animal bond that most of the students would have. I started with the observation that poverty, social and political instability, and other obstacles make pet ownership less likely in some places, but it is high—and growing—amongst the middle classes and above in all industrialised nations. In fact, the global pet care industry is predicted to reach a value of $97 billion this year. We also talked about the prevalence of companion animals in New Zealand, including the fact that NZers keep more cats than any other country in the world. But the majority of the lecture focussed on how one of the most familiar boundaries in Western culture is that between humans and animals, but our relationships with our pets do a great deal to break down those boundaries and challenge our assumptions about what makes us different from each other.

I introduced the concept of domestication in both biological and cultural terms. Because so many people choose to live with pets, these animals can tell us a lot about domestic spaces, or what “home” means. Unlike most animals, pets are given individual names, share our interior home spaces, are fed human or human- like food, and are generally not eaten. As such, they’re treated more like kin, or family, than as “others.” While this is generally more accurate when describing dogs, cats and other mammals, it is also true for less common pets including birds, fishes, and reptiles. Dogs are descended from grey wolves and were originally kept as guard animals, hunting companions, beasts of burden, and as sources of food and fur. The dog is humanity’s oldest domesticated animal. However, some researchers argue that it was dogs that domesticated people, by facilitating more permanent settlement and eventually agriculture. We’ve been breeding dogs for at least 15,000 years and have lived together for as long as 30,000 years. Cats have only been domesticated for around 5000 years, although there is evidence we have lived together for at least 9000 years. Evidence also suggests that cats historically served primarily as pest-control in human settlements and houses, allowing people to store food for long periods. They are also generally considered to have been self-domesticated or not even fully domesticated, as they are genetically closer to their wild predecessors and less genetically diverse than dogs.

The emotionally close relationship we now associate with pets is a relatively new phenomenon associated with the rise of industrialised, urbanised life. As Fudge explains, some reasons for keeping pets since the 19th century have been to make up for a (perceived and real) lack of closeness and affection in human social relationships; to satisfy our desire for stability and predictability; to help us maintain control of some boundaries in the face of boundaries lost, (e.g. meat-eating vs. vegetarianism and interior vs. exterior space); and to help us live with ambiguity and uncertainty, (e.g. by standing in for humans but remaining animals).

“Dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”

– Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets

We looked at cultural attitudes and practices around missing pets; few things indicate the integration of pets into our ideas of home more than what we do when we lose one. If we say someone is “missing,” we mean that they are not where we expect them, or where they’re supposed to be. And if we “miss” someone, we mean that we feel their absence or loss. Extending these sentiments, we looked at “saving” pets, and grieving pets (e.g. pet cemeteries and pet taxidermy), and we watched Eliot Rausch’s beautiful and heartbreaking short film, Last Minutes with Oden. And, of course, we looked at pressing social and cultural issues related to human-pet relations, including pet control (e.g. identification and licensing); overbreeding (e.g. health problems, puppy & kitten “mills”); overpopulation (e.g. abandoned animals, strays & ferals, mass euthanasia); animal hoarding; animal cruelty and abuse; and the often overlooked phenomenon of veterinarian and shelter worker “burnout” and PTSD.

This week’s tutorial was focussed on the students’ visual narratives, and how they would position both people and animals. Deciding what kind of story they want to tell is a real–and wonderful–challenge for them because it requires an explicit wrangling of their beliefs and assumptions, and not “simply” aesthetic choices.

“In the stories [about pets] we tell and are told can be found some of the hopes and anxieties of our lives … Imagination permits us to anthropomorphize: to make pets into pseudo-humans. This is a transformation that allows for a conversation between the species … Imagination offers us the opportunity of thinking about other lives (both human and non-human) and exploring the possibility of other modes of perception.”

– Erica Fudge, Pets

As a final thought, I’m not quite sure how to capture the parts of class that are, I think, most valuable and fruitful: our tutorial discussions. I want to respect my students’ privacy, and make sure that I provide a safe place to explore ideas that aren’t yet fully baked and sometimes rather emotionally-fraught. I’ll ask them about it next week, and see what they say. In any case, I do hope that they will be keen to share their design work and that I’ll be able to feature it here in due course.

Next: Week 4 reflections

Posted: August 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Ordinary Madness of Academia | No Comments »

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel
from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

– Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771)

Or, if you prefer, you can listen to it sung by Miranda Colchester. Thanks to @ashleigh_young for the poem link, and to @marpeck for the video link.

Posted: August 2nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life, People & Animals | No Comments »

Call for PhD Applications

It’s that time again! VUW is now accepting PhD applications for the 1 July round, and I’m looking for a few good people to come push the boundaries of design and cultural research with me.

Do you have a strong background in sociology, anthropology, humanities, or design?

Are you interested in critically evaluating what happens when you combine different ways of thinking, doing and making?

Would you like some experience tutoring undergraduate design ethnography, multispecies design, or speculative design?

Yes? Great!

I’m available to supervise doctoral studies in any of the following areas:

  • human-animal-technology studies & multispecies design
  • STS approaches to design processes & products
  • creative ethnographic methods & speculative design
  • technosocial controversies & public engagement

Still interested? Excellent!

Here’s everything you need to know about the PhD application process and don’t forget that Victoria Doctoral Scholarships of $23,500 annual stipend + tuition fees are available on a competitive basis. And if that’s still not enough, Wellington is an awesome place to live, work and study!

If you’re interested in applying, please send me a one page summary of your research interests, and don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions about working with me, or other opportunities in VUW’s School of Design.


Posted: June 3rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences, Workshops & CFPs | No Comments »

Interview on our Counting Sheep research

BoneKnitter Sara Hendren has published a thoughtful and kind review on Gizmodo’s Abler website of the BoneKnitter speculative design ethnography project with Dani Clode.

Not only is Sara the kind of generous interviewer who brings out the best in her subjects, but her insightful questions also taught me something about myself and my work–and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Read: “Knitting bones with fact and fiction: A conversation with Design Culture Lab’s Anne Galloway”

“Galloway’s work is aligned with what’s often called speculative design, or design fiction. It is essentially creative cultural research, rooted in designed artifacts. The designs aren’t intended to solve user-based problems or needs; they’re not meant to result in manufactured products. They’re created instead to ask provocative questions, to pose future scenarios that are partly fact and partly fiction, and to form bridges between academic and popular debate around important technological, cultural and socio-political issues. Because these visions are based on people’s lived experiences, and created for public engagement, Galloway refers to what she does as ‘speculative design ethnography’.”

In the interview section, I discuss the rationale behind the BoneKnitter, our design process and Dani’s exceptional craftwork, and the broader research goals that underpin the Counting Sheep project.

Thank you, Sara!

UPDATE: Thanks to Alexis Madrigal for including this interview in The Atlantic: Technology‘s list of 5 Intriguing Things for May 16, 2014.

Posted: May 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Research Methodologies | No Comments »