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.
Online archives to preserve and share Indigenous language and culture materials emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. They were, in part, a response to concerns about Indigenous language and culture loss that gained prominence during that time period, both in Indigenous communities and in fields such as anthropology and linguistics. From an Indigenous perspective, language and culture were central to community members’ identities and exercise of sovereignty. The development of online archives was also facilitated by technology advances in the 1990s and 2000s, including more sophisticated online platforms for storing and sharing information, broader access to the internet, and digital recording technologies. Prior to the development of online archives, traditional brick-and-mortar archives had a long history of collecting language and culture materials from Indigenous communities. However, they operated in a colonial context in which their practices contributed to the subjugation of Native peoples. In response, the 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in tribal archivists and Indigenous approaches to managing Indigenous materials and collections. Concerns to treat Indigenous materials appropriately and with respect have continued with the development of online archives. One focus has been Indigenous data sovereignty. Some online archives have focused more on language and some have focused more on cultural heritage. The field of documentary linguistics has been highly active in developing language archives, with a particular concern for endangered languages. For example, Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR), Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), and The Language Archive (TLA) all include data from a large number of different languages. A smaller group of anthropologists has engaged with the development of cultural heritage archives. Anthropologists have also critiqued the colonial logics of traditional archives and theorized what a “postcolonial archive” might look like. Some cultural heritage archives have started to enact these new principles. At the same time, Indigenous communities have developed their own community-based archives, often focused on meeting the needs of community members. Although Indigenous community-based archives have generally had a solid understanding of the needs of their users, archives that collect materials from a large number of communities have not always conducted user research. A user-centered design approach to archives was initiated through a 2016 workshop funded by the US National Science Foundation. In addition, there has been a trend to integrate language and culture materials into combined archives. Participatory design may be the most appropriate approach for archive development because it recognizes and honors the sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples whose materials are included in an archive. One example of an ongoing participatory design process for an archive is a collaboration between Christina Wasson’s research team and four Indigenous communities in Northeast India. Language and culture archives offer opportunities for design anthropologists to engage in a more participatory process than is possible in most private sector work. Many archives, museums, and libraries would be open to hiring people with this expertise.
Design anthropology is a dynamic interdisciplinary field of scholarship, research, and practice. Rather than a concern with highlighting divergences between design and anthropology, design anthropology is concerned with convergences and confluences in design and anthropology. One of the main aims of this emerging field is to link social and material practices of designing to the affects and effects that design processes and practices have on people who engage with different kinds of design outputs. Design anthropology in Europe has emerged in and through collaborations across universities and public and private sectors. The emerging field of design anthropology in Europe is expanding and has been influenced and continues to be influenced by developments in design anthropology internationally. Researchers in this field carry out research and collaborate with research partners both in Europe and globally. The field is characterized by conceptual reconfigurations, disciplinary dialogues, interdisciplinary research, multidisciplinary teams, and transdisciplinary practices involving collaborative methodologies and mixed methods, and engagement with public and private partners. Collaboration can occur offline, online, or a mixture of both, depending upon the research being carried out. Central issues are to identify anthropological methodologies and theoretical concepts that would support future-making practices in a diversity of design processes and practices; attune different kinds of design processes towards engagement with communities of practice; contribute to the design and critique of emerging technologies; enhance existing products, services, or experiences, strategies, and policies; and further develop aspects of visual and sensorial ethnography whereby designing is the process of collaborative research inquiry.
J.A. English-Lueck and Miriam Avery
Anticipatory anthropology can be variously seen as a mode of inquiry that occupies the space between the disciplines of applied anthropology and future studies. Philosophically, the anticipatory approach has deep roots in applied anthropology since the purpose of studying human experience is to improve the quality of human life in the future. Traditional anthropological approaches to data collection and analysis, however, have been much more focused on past life or present experiences. In the mid-20th century, anthropologists began to employ more explicit future orientations, paralleling efforts in other social sciences to make sense of the post-World War II milieu. Prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead was in the forefront of that effort. People engaged in cultural forecasting, thinking about human futures, resist making predictions. Prediction assumes that one cultural path will create the future, but anthropologists recognize human agency, and people’s ability to choose and make different futures. Academic or practicing anthropologists who actively consider future actions and consequences anticipate alternatives for various possible futures. These anthropologists map the implications of that flow logically or emotionally from observable practices. In the 1960s and 1970s, a cohort of scholars began to develop methodologies for exploring possible cultural futures. During the same period, an interdisciplinary endeavor, the emerging field of future studies, began to produce a body of literature, a series of conferences, and international organizations. While a minority were interested in the long-term survival of the species, most futures research was focused on near or midterm futures, ranging from five to thirty years into the future. Anthropologists made unique contributions to this larger body of future studies. Much of the literature generated in classic future studies was based on North American or European perspectives, often from an elite point of view. The logic of forecasting was largely quantitative and based on a set of assumptions that could be deeply culture bound. Anthropologists sought to decenter the presumption that the future could only be made by elite actors in developed and democratic nations. Anthropologists deliberately sought out non-elite people of diverse backgrounds, tapped into their imaginations, and delved into the choices they would make to shape the future. Research in anticipatory anthropology has been closely associated with the emerging field of user experience, as both sets of scholars seek to understand the consequences of technological change on ordinary people. Drawing on notions from cognitive anthropology, anthropologists who employed a futures orientation posited that individual cultural actors imagined different futures and acted to create or avoid those projections. If you asked people about the futures they hoped for and the futures they feared, they would reveal the underlying affective logic that shaped those visions. Much of the work in anticipatory anthropology has involved discerning the impacts of emerging technologies on social life. As interest in the anthropology of science and technology has grown, academic scholars and practitioners used the techniques of anticipatory anthropology to reveal both the intended and unintended consequences of technological use on social life. In particular, the interests of anticipatory anthropologists have converged with self-identified design anthropologists, since both look at present behaviors to imagine the future use of a service, product, architectural form, or landscape. In addition, the global social problems of environmental degradation and resource use, which so captivated the imaginations of futurists in the late 20th century, continue to be of concern. Sensitively documenting and forecasting the impacts of climate change, global disruption, automation, and biotechnologies on vulnerable populations comprised some of the emerging frontiers of anticipatory anthropology that will call to a new generation of scholars and practitioners.
Applied anthropology is increasing an alternative to academic anthropological contributing to innovations in a broad range of products and services including technology, office equipment and furniture, business organization, breakfast foods, automobiles, hand sanitizers, communication media, medical equipment, smartphones, and much, much more. When applied anthropologists began to work in business organizations, they first called themselves industrial anthropologists and, later, organizational anthropologists. The first industrial and organizational anthropologists were based in the academy. However, in the 1990s a growing number of anthropologists also began to be employed at private businesses, including the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), IDEO, E-Lab, GVO, and even General Motors. There they were instrumental in applying the theory and methods of anthropology to potential innovation. At these companies , many of early applied anthropologists became accidental innovators as a consequence of their role working in teams composed of differing disciplines. It was the anthropologist on the team who was responsible for contributing research-based insights that framed, directed, and/or inspired creative idea. In the process of conducting research on a problem, these anthropologists stumbled across new ways to frame issues and uncovered insights leading to novel solutions: innovation. As the value of applied anthropology has been recognized, and employment of anthropologists has expanded, specializations have emerged. No longer does the title of organizational or business anthropologist always provide an appropriate or sufficient level of description for many anthropologists although both continue to be used. New labels, such as design anthropologist, user experience researcher, and marketing and digital anthropology, have been created to distinguish among applied anthropologists working in differing sectors. Organizational anthropologists have continued to contribute to our understanding of organizational culture. Design anthropology is used primarily by anthropologists working in product and technology industries. Digital anthropologists study human interactions in virtual/digital spaces, or investigate how digital technology is impacting society. Marketing anthropologists have been in advertising and marketing for decades, and there is a substantial body of scholarly literature generated from this work. Despite the different titles these anthropologists hold, from design to marketing, the value of the theoretical and methodological contributions of anthropology are the key underpinning of their research. The innovations that have resulted from the work of these anthropologists cannot be underestimated. The theories and methods of anthropology, applied by anthropologists, provide a perspective that takes a unique in-depth systems approach that can map interconnections, challenges, and assumptions and open up wider landscapes. The true innovation anthropologists contribute to innovation is anthropology itself.
Anthropological inquiry about the reciprocal influence of human behavior on space and place primarily focuses on the production and use of built environments. Many questions about “design” began in the 19th century when medical doctors sought to “cure” schizophrenia through the architecture of mental hospitals. Vigorous renewed interest re-emerged, however, in the mid-20th century when designers and planners, sometimes also trained in psychological and social sciences, began focusing on designs that could accommodate users’ needs. Sociocultural anthropological research using ethnography has traditionally described the adaptation of native peoples to their physical environments that enable their survival. These investigations and findings are framed by the concept of culture—a holistic understanding of integrated, collectivized, and institutionalized systems and values. A variety of space and place theories emphasize notions of practical and symbolic foundations in place-making beginning with perception and proxemic dimensions of spatial recognition and interpersonal interaction. Ethnographic studies of holistic spatial concepts focus on houses, work environments, and prisons, hospitals, schools, and eldercare facilities. Out-of-door spaces include the consideration of neighborhoods and gated housing, and public plazas and parks. Some of these latter spaces are public, some are private, and some are ambiguous. Finally, in the world of professional design practices, anthropology contributes insights into P.O.E. (post-occupancy evaluation) and “design anthropology,” which emphasizes an engaged anthropological participation to consider reflexively not just design recommendations but anthropology itself.
Maryann McCabe and Rita Denny
Consumer research, an emergent field in applied anthropology, examines relationships between producers and consumers as mediated by the marketplace. The anthropological purpose of consumer research is to discover cultural meanings of products and services in people’s everyday lives and to identify societal practices and discourses that inform and perform these meanings. While consumer research is inspired by and draws on traditional anthropological theory, it has also made theoretical contributions to anthropology, including consumption practices as crafting identity, consumption activities generating and maintaining social relationships, and the transformative power of consumer goods instigating cultural change. Anthropologists engaged in consumer research work in three primary areas: (1) market-making to assist organizations in defining the environments in which they operate; (2) branding to differentiate an organization’s products and services from those of competitors by attaching to the brand a symbolic meaning from the lived experience of consumers; and (3) innovation to guide business growth by analyzing consumer practices, as well as client and other stakeholder suppositions about the nature of the problem to be solved. Anthropologists in consumer research not only represent consumer voices but are also mediators of stakeholder interests. Change occurs at minimal scale by reframing problems for clients and affecting how clients address target audiences through marketing and advertising strategies, communications, or innovation; and at broader scale, by simultaneously contesting cultural ideologies (e.g., gender, personhood, ethnicity) perpetuated by business practices.
Laurie Novak and Joyce Harris
Information technology increasingly figures into the activities of health-care workers, patients, and their informal caregivers. The growing intersection of anthropology and health informatics is reviewed, a field dedicated to the science of using data, information, and knowledge to improve human health and the delivery of health-care services. Health informatics as a discipline wrestles with complex issues of information collection, classification, and presentation to patients and working clinical personnel. Anthropologists are well-suited as collaborators in this work. Topics of collaborative work include the construction of health and illness, patient-focused research, the organization and delivery of health-care services, the design and implementation of electronic health records, and ethics, power, and surveillance. The application of technology to social roles, practices, and power relations that is inherent in health informatics provides a rich source of empirical data to advance anthropological theory and methods.
Ann T. Jordan
Business anthropology is a fast-evolving field. Social sciences such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology each have a unique set of constructs and theories for studying human behavior and each brings special insights to understanding business. Anthropologists are skilled in observing and learning from the rich interaction of social beings in their environment. With methods based in techniques for first-hand observation and interviewing of participants, and with theoretical knowledge gleaned from studying human societies across the world, anthropologists are the social scientists uniquely situated by training to analyze the social milieu and group-patterned interaction in any human setting. Simply, business anthropology is the use of anthropological constructs, theory, and methods to study its three subfields: organizations, marketing and consumer behavior, and design. Organizational anthropology is the study of complex organizations from an anthropological perspective to solve organizational problems or better understand the nature and functioning of the organizational form within and across organizations. In marketing and consumer behavior anthropology’s methods allow one to get close to consumers and understand their needs, while anthropology’s theoretical perspectives allow one to understand how human consumption plays out on the world stage. In the design field anthropologists use their methods to observe and learn from the detailed interaction of social beings in the designed environments in which we all live. They use their theoretical perspectives to develop a holistic analysis of the rich data to develop new products and evaluate and improve existing ones whether they be refrigerators or office buildings. The field of business anthropology is difficult to define because the moniker “business anthropology” is a misnomer. This field, as most anthropologists practice it, is not limited to work in for-profit businesses. Business anthropologists work with for-profit organizations, but also non-profit ones, government organizations and with supranational regulatory bodies. In addition to working for a business, an organizational anthropologist might be working in a non-profit hospital to improve patient safety, a design anthropologist might be working for an NGO to develop a less fuel-intensive cooking system for refugee camps and an anthropologist in marketing might be working in a government agency to develop ways to advertise new vaccines.