- Christine MillerChristine MillerIllinois Institute of Technology
Design anthropology and the factors that converged to facilitate its emergence are examined. Design anthropology has been alternately described as a “fast-developing academic field” and “distinct style of knowing” (Otto and Smith), “an emerging transdisciplinary field” (Miller), and “as a distinct subfield of interdisciplinary research” (Clark). These descriptions have in common an agreement that design anthropology is a distinct form of knowledge production that integrates design and anthropological practice and theory that is supported by a growing network of proponents, both academic and practitioner. Design anthropology’s origins have been traced to several factors: the emergence of the participatory design movement in Scandinavia toward the end of the 1990s, the introduction of ethnography in design in the late 1970s, and the earlier influence of the work of designer and educator Victor Papanek in the early 1960s. In the United States, it is often categorized as a subdiscipline of business anthropology. Within Europe and Scandinavia, it is accepted as a field in its own right with a “distinct style and practice of knowledge production.” In spite of these differences and amidst the creative tension resulting from the convergence of anthropological and design methods, concepts, theory, and practice, design anthropology has emerged as a new form of naturalistic inquiry that is based on rigorous empirical research and critical inquiry, a transdisciplinary field that is intentionally interventionist, participatory, and transformative.
Design anthropology reflects shifting attitudes and changing modes of engagement in its parent fields. Within anthropology, the concept of an interventionist, transformative, and future-oriented practice runs counter to deeply embedded attitudes around passive observation research and ethics. Likewise, in design where craft, “doing,” and “making” have dominated, there is a renewed surge of interest in more scholarly-based design research, emphasizing empirical research and a designerly version of theoretical reflection. Theory in design has traditionally been related to various aspects of form. Design theory is also “made through” design. Johan Redström refers to this form of theory as “transitional theory,” “a kind of design theory that is inherently unstable, fluid, and dynamic in nature.” This conceptualization of theory is similar to the grounded theory approach in the social sciences in which theory emerges from original data and is developed from the ground up.
Beginning with a summary of the conditions and forces that engendered the emergence of design anthropology, the field is described as evolving in ways that are provoking change in traditional forms of design and anthropology. Beyond the influence on its parent disciplines, design anthropology represents an evolving trajectory of emerging fields that open to the possibility of imagining, designing, and co-creating sustainable futures based on social justice and virtuous cycles of growth.
- Applied Anthropology
- Sociocultural Anthropology