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date: 10 April 2021

Application of Space and Place Theories to Designfree

  • Denise Lawrence-ZúñigaDenise Lawrence-ZúñigaCalifornia State Polytechnic University, Pomona


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.

Humans have always interacted with the material aspects of their environments, both natural and built, to construct shelters for protection from the elements or to simply locate themselves in space. Humans have developed increasingly complex tools with which to manipulate the components of the natural environment, to transform them into serviceable products or express complex ideas. Humans have lived in their environments from earliest times and have learned that the environment can be friend or foe, and can either produce riches or harshly limit comforts. Humans have had to determine what they want and need from the environment and strategize about their place in it. In surveying the location of human groups across the planet, we can find them in the frozen tundra of polar regions, the hot and humid forests of the equator, and the hot dry deserts where wheat grows on riverbanks. Since humans in these locations are all classified as Homo sapiens sapiens—as genetically similar by species—then their adaptations to different locales can only be explained by their different cultural adaptations to different environments, that is by humans creating and employing materially different tools in each place to aid in their survival. These distinct cultural strategies and forms of living are summarized here as basic to the understanding of the relationship between human desires and the design of material forms and focus primarily on Western cultures.

What kinds of interactions do people living in cold places have with their environments that encourage them to produce insulated shelters to guard against wind, snow, and ice? What kinds of interactions do people living in hot, humid environments have that encourage them to produce homes with ample protection against rain but that permit airflow? These architectural innovations depend on detailed human knowledge of local environments and creativity that aims to make the best use of local materials in the application to solving problems (Oliver 1987; Rapoport 1969a). The shared intellectual repertoire of human groups includes knowledge of materials, methods of construction, and strategies to cope with changing conditions, but also a curiosity about the world around them. It makes us ask, does the environment speak to them? Does it make clear the right path, or does one have to wait for painstaking research to find out? Does finding success in environmental problem-solving require time to evaluate the results, or do people always “know” the right way? Finally, can the material solution to a building problem produce the desired effect for the human community?

Historical Antecedents

The 19th century marked a turning point for professional designers interested in the potential power of material forms to accommodate institutional spatial requirements and to serve people’s needs. Urban treatments for poor patients often included incarceration, poor sanitary conditions, chaining patients to walls, and other practices long associated with earlier institutions in Europe and North America. When Dorothea Dix visited an American jail in 1841 to teach Sunday school, she encountered poor patients incarcerated in appalling conditions. She advocated for improving the treatment of the poor and mentally insane, and inspired a growing class of activists and designers who became reformers themselves dedicated to finding better and more economical ways to accommodate them. Research conducted by medical experts and contractors began to express some of those interests.

Influenced by Dix, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a psychiatrist from Philadelphia, believed that the architectural form of the asylum could have a positive influence on the patient’s well-being, perhaps even offering a “cure.” He developed his own “Kirkbride Plan” that consisted of two major architectural wings, separated by gender, and two or more floors which could be used to separate people according to the severity of their ailments. The patient wings had a parlor, bathroom, and infirmary in addition to private bedrooms. Other functions were centralized such as administration, food services, public and reception areas, and apartments for the supervisor’s family. The design of the patient wings was critical for facilitating environmental influences such as sunlight and fresh air, which Dr. Kirkbride argued were critical for curing mental illness. In addition to the asylum, Kirkbride hospitals sat on acres of open land, one hundred acres were recommended, so that patients could participate in gardening and other activities outside. In all, some fifty-nine hospitals were built utilizing Kirkbride’s plan.

Although the early 20th century saw the growth and expansion of other kinds of professional treatments for mental illness, Kirkbride’s plan had at least attracted attention to the importance of architectural form as a potential positive influence on patient care. Architectural design would not become important again until the middle of the 20th century when architects and environmental psychologists began to examine design for the populations their buildings served. One of the colossal failures of modern architecture that may have instigated critical attention to design is found in the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, a multistory public apartment building constructed to end poverty in the city of St. Louis in the late 1950s. It was much heralded because of design features specifically intended to provide residents with social spaces and adequate opportunities to form neighborly relations. Pruitt-Igoe was destroyed in 1976 as a design failure partly because the added security features and community spaces did not adequately support low-income residents’ behavior. Similar critiques of design features were later found in other institutions such as prisons, schools, and hospitals as well as work settings. Later, studies included housing, neighborhoods, parks, and plazas. Some of these studies emphasized the disabilities of special populations, including the aged and very young, as opposed to the design of the particular building itself. As architectural and planning education programs learned about these approaches, they incorporated them in their curricula so that designs could incorporate the findings by researchers. And, in many universities and design schools, organizations that promoted research-based design were established, often in psychology programs, but also in design and planning departments.

Environmental psychologist Robert Bechtel’s (1997) summary of environment-behavior studies found examples of workplaces, nursing homes and hospitals, bathrooms, high-rise buildings, and streets, where discrepancies between forms and user behavior suggested important design research issues. He created the journal Environment & Behavior, and supported the writing of a Handbook of Environmental Psychology (Stokols and Altman 1987). Bechtel also mentioned the growth of post-occupancy evaluation (P.O.E.) that evaluates the effectiveness of research-based design techniques, and he reported the founding of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in 1968 which holds meetings every year. While much of the research was based in psychology and sociology, Bechtel noted that anthropology contributed to the literature through the works of Edward T. Hall (1966) and Amos Rapoport (1969a).

Methods of Anthropological Research

Ethnography, the one unifying research approach anthropologists employ, is a holistic description of a culture from the perspective of its members. Basic to producing ethnography is the data collection technique of “participant observation,” which describes a researcher’s long-term commitment to patient but persistent collection of anthropological knowledge through interviews and observations. Interviews are conducted that could be focused on cognitive mapping, kinship charts, life histories, and other issues. While observations can also be very general, they often focus on particular elements such as spatial organization, interpersonal interactions, technical actions, and other cultural practices. Observations may frame research questions and interview probes, with interview data driving the orientation of the observations. Interviews and observations are often coupled in a reciprocally reinforcing manner to strengthen the points of view developed (Bernard 2011).

Anthropology’s guiding concept is culture, the learned shared knowledge acquired by individuals as members of social groups, which allows for the generation of appropriate behavior. Culture traits include language and customs; beliefs, values, and worldviews; institutional practices including family, law, economy, and religion; and material objects such as domestic equipment and architecture. Cultural repertoires consist of centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience that a group applies to resolving problems, including environmental issues. Anthropological schemes describing a local culture situate the group within its natural and built environments, followed by an account of kinship and social organization, settlement patterns and economic activity, political and religious organization, and worldview and values. An ethnographic description of such a culture would be considered “holistic” to the extent that it tries to capture all the interrelated parts and how they contribute to the whole. Ethnographic descriptions can be produced for cultures residing in rural places and urban ones, locations that can play a dynamic role, and the multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-class connections and interactions that can also change the constitution of behaviors and values.

The kinds of ethnographic thinking anthropologists employ in researching design problems tend to be holistic and focused on both intended and unintended consequences of particular cultural features. The challenge of designing new office spaces for workers or new spaces to accommodate elderly residents provides a window into the ethnographic project. Anthropologists imagine the description of the subject populations in a holistic way, as a system of interdependent social relationships that are held more or less in equilibrium. Moving to a new space disturbs the equilibrium, but that may be the intention. Thus, anticipating the impacts of a new space on the people who will occupy it helps the researcher, the designer, and the manager to plan for the intended and unintended consequences of a move to new spaces. The researcher can help the client to understand the specific impact of certain design moves on the population’s perception and behavior and perhaps suggest other design strategies.

Major Theories and Examples

The development of theoretical approaches used in the study of human-environment research has been broad, although much of it is known more by association with particular spaces and places. For example, theories of perception and cognition have been developed around stark differences in the ways rural tribal people and urban dwellers perceive space, especially three-dimensional spaces (Segall, Campbell, and Herskovits 1963). The interests of researchers in housing have elevated contrasts in the size, organization, and domestic dynamics of families, which has spatial implications. Workplaces and office spaces have been studied for worker practices with an idea of increasing efficiency and effectiveness. And special settings, such as prisons, hospitals, and schools, have also been examined for ways to decrease costs and ensure competent care for dependent populations. Outdoor spaces in neighborhoods, parks, and plazas and hardscape (design elements such as staircases, pathways, and planters that support landscape elements) offer opportunities for research. Finally, new “participatory” or collaborative approaches to evaluating the effectiveness of “design anthropology” have become a critical direction in the newly emergent anthropology business model.


The capacity of humans to identify useful elements in their environments such as food resources or components for construction depends in part on their culture’s perceptual framework. Perception varies within cultures and from one culture to another, even in similar environments (Hall 1966; Rapoport 1969b; Segall, Campbell, and Herskovits 1966). One dominant question is whether that variation is a function of the environment or of culture, or some combination of the two. Learning is conditioned by different ecological and cultural environments; for example, northern Inuit recognize many forms of snow and ice while forest dwellers recognize multiple species of trees and shrubs (Hall 1966; Segall et al. 1966). Each group recognizes the components of their respective environments for survival purposes, such as building shelters, although by the late 20th century, their original base of environmental knowledge had been altered by migrations, mass communication, and technology.

Drawing on a range of mid-century studies, a group of multidisciplinary researchers took on the question of how people in Western and non-Western cultures “see” optical illusions. Their main hypothesis emphasized how local environments shape habits of inference, but their findings show that inferences made by largely urban-dwelling Westerners contrast with non-Western people. In the horizontal-vertical illusion, their findings showed that plains dwellers are strongly influenced by horizontality while forest dwellers were not influenced. Likewise, non-Westerners’ perception of the Müller-Lyer illusion could be traced to whether or not they lived in “carpentered” environments such as those found in urban settings with rectangularly shaped, built forms (Segall et al. 1963, 1966). The authors concluded that rather than being a function of some kind of “primitive” condition, the cultural features of some built environments conditioned learning while natural features of the environment dominated learning for people outside the cities.

Another important study done around the same time was Edward T. Hall’s research on “proxemics,” the term he coined for the study of people’s use of space as an aspect of culture (1966). Hall’s contribution to anthropology focused on spatial behavior as a form of communication—he would say “nonverbal communication.” Hall postulated that humans have an innate distancing mechanism, modified by culture, that helps regulate contact in social settings. He proposed a conceptual bubble that encloses each person, the levels of which are defined by social interactions and situations. The first level is the intimate distance of mother and child or lovers. The second level is personal space. The third level is social space. Finally, the fourth level is public space. Although the space of the bubble is tacit, actors only become aware of the bubble when the levels are violated or breached; sometimes people say that another person has gotten too close. However, individuals may grant permission to or negotiate with different types of people to enter into the bubble.

Hall suggested that proxemic features are also found in material environments in the form of furnishings and architecture. Although built forms are less flexible in terms of their formal envelopes, furnishings and interior partitions are more malleable. Hall provided detailed profiles of several European cultures including the Germans, English, and French, and then also two non-European cultures, the Japanese and Arabs. In these portrayals, he argued that cultural aspects of behavior are made manifest in material forms meant to express ideas about privacy and territory. For example, Hall suggested that Germans hold attitudes about spatial order that Americans interpret as rigid. For instance, Americans do not generally object to visitors to the office moving their chairs closer to the principal’s desk, but Germans are inclined to think that a visitor who makes such an attempt is destroying “the order of things, including intrusions on the ‘private sphere’” (Hall 1966, 137). Hall mentioned a German colleague who bolted his visitor’s chair to the floor of his American office to maintain the “proper” (privacy) distance.

In descriptions of Japanese and Arab cultures, Hall portrayed issues such as the perception of “crowding” as a function of cultural knowledge developed in different environments, an island or large expanses of desert. Hall concluded that cultural concepts about boundaries and spaces are not always analogous to Western concepts and sought ways to portray these differences in comprehensible ways. In Arab conceptions of space relations, for example, “territorial” concepts seem to be extended within a closed social system hierarchically outward from the body that provide cues for appropriate behavior—self, kinsmen, townsman, co-religionist, and countryman (Hall 1966, 163). Of course, some types of spaces are universal such as those based on age or the importance of a person, or sex or gender, but specialized roles always assume the complementary roles of others. Segregated gendered spaces are often part of a larger public and private space scheme, for instance, that women should be restricted to spaces that men are prohibited from entering and vice versa (Gilmore 2012; Spain 1992). Even though gender-neutral spaces may exist in these cases, gendered segregation of spaces is often associated with asymmetrical power relations and domination of one gender, usually female, by the other (Arjmand 2016).

Gendered Spaces

Gendered spaces, both domestic and private as opposed to public, are culturally widespread and varied. In any single culture, men’s and women’s spatial behavior may be circumscribed and limited, but not in the same ways. One region of the world that merits attention for its gendered spaces is the Middle East, which includes countries from North Africa east toward Saudi Arabia and farther east to include Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Another culture not to be ignored is Spain, which was occupied by the Moors from the 8th century until 1492; gendered spaces also appear in non-Islamic Japan and other Asian countries that have a different history. Sobh and Belk (2012) report that Qatari houses are designed and used to protect the privacy of the interior spaces, and especially women who may be secluded within. The home is divided into private spaces for the family, close male relatives, and female visitors, and public or communal spaces are for males and male visitors; each has a separate entrance from the street, and views into the most private spaces are blocked architecturally. The authors suggest that women who are restrained in public spaces often feel quite “liberated” at home to show their “ostentatious outfits, hair styles, jewelry and beauty to female guests to ‘provoke their envy’ and make statements about their status, taste and affinity for fashion” (Sobh and Belk 2012, 318). In the home’s communal spaces, however, males pursue Bedouin customs by eating together with their guests, serving coffee, and permitting guests to display falconry skills as a way to demonstrate honor and pride. Tensions between traditionally gendered-space preferences are challenged by the contemporary influences of modernity that penetrate old ways of doing things suggestive of offering new approaches, for instance, for males and females increasingly sharing space.

While the use of public spaces in Middle Eastern urban areas is often acknowledged to be gender separated or segregated, and is generally considered “male” dominated, home is the “female” domain (Bourdieu 1977). In Iran, however, the government has attempted to designate and design some public parks as specialized gendered spaces to give women opportunities to interact and as a tool for the Islamization of everyday life (Arjmand 2016). Using critical ethnography, Arjmand crosses disciplinary borders to analyze ideology, urban planning, and gender and present an interpretation of gendered power relations for planning public and semi-public spaces. From Japan, in decidedly more gender-neutral circumstances, ethnographic evidence of gendered behavior on local trains suggest that female riders are judged differently from male riders. As a gender-neutral space, female riders must protect their virtue and honor by adopting sleeping poses that counter the perception as solicitous of unwanted sexual attention (Steger 2013). Even in gender-neutral public spaces, “appropriate” gender-specific behavior is characterized and anticipated differently.

Sacred Spaces

The creation and marking of sacred spaces that typify religious institutions and spiritual places usually adopt similar forms and patterns. Following Van Gennep’s rites de passage, Victor Turner (1969) argues that ritual processes are always dynamic and include liminal spaces defined by a threshold or limen, symbolic or actual, that requires ritual adherents to cross. Crossing the boundary invokes an ambiguous array of symbols and enables the collective transcendence of ordinary reality and passage into communitas, a temporary collective state of total unity. Thus, the material qualities of the threshold are critical to the experience of ritual transcendence. Thresholds must be marked and recognized as marking and dividing up “universal space” into sacred and non-sacred, or profane, spaces. Some material forms marking liminal boundaries are common such as doorways (with the threshold marking the actual transition) or open gateways or fences. Experiencing a sacred or liminal space, however, is not necessarily specific to any one religion because multiple religions can claim the liminal gift of sacredness to further their own beliefs. In fact, spaces that were originally created for Muslim practices and later occupied by Christian faiths dot the Southern Iberian landscape, in Mertola and Cordoba for instance, and act as attractive tourist sites.

The peaceful coexistence of multiple religions necessarily requires tolerance by local populations, especially for different material expressions of sacred space including synagogues, churches, and/or mosques. Day-to-day acceptance of church spires or mosque minarets is not a given but expresses a symbolic statement of religious preference and power. As Muslims have settled in Germany, and other European countries, local conflicts over the construction of religious buildings has created challenges. In the German city of Stuttgart, for example, where a sizable concentration of Muslims is found, Kuppinger (2014) tells of urban-planning processes that reveal conflicts over building a minaret attached to a mosque. The conflict at city hall centered on the visibility of the minaret and challenged local residents’ long-held views of Stuttgart as a homogeneously German or Christian culture. However, the “invisibility” of the Muslim presence had helped keep relations between them and locals amicable. The self-consciously created invisibility of an alternative religion, Judaism, is a strategy used to maintain peaceful relations in Christian society. In the town of Belmonte, Portugal, along the border with Spain, are several synagogues that have remained hidden for hundreds of years. Initially providing a home to Jews escaping the pro-Christian policies of the Spanish monarchs, synagogues were “built” or adapted from preexisting structures and then hidden from public recognition until the 20th century. Thus, the visibility of different religious institutions is a key marker of the presence of a population; the more visible, the more that presence challenges the neighbors.

Institutional and Organizational Holistic Spatial Concepts

Anthropological ethnographies holistically describe organizations integrating features of culture such as physical or material conditions; social organization; economic, political, and religious features; and values and mores. These models often contain some of the important features for drawing inferences in the design process and can serve to inform inquiries into home, office, and special settings such as prisons, hospitals, and schools. One of the most important challenges is anticipating the mindset—the cultural repertoire—that the designer brings to the design task. Most designers have been educated in a Western system of thought and thus bring with them specific assumptions about the “proper” interpretation of psycho-cultural features, such as privacy and territory, into formal design elements. Even in North American and Western European settings, there can be large differences within populations in terms of spatial preferences that are affected by class and ethnicity. The challenge is to avoid substituting one’s own preferences for those of the client.


Studies of households constitute the best way to characterize domestic behavior. Household studies describe the numbers of residents, relative ages, economic conditions, and their social relations (including kinship), although not all households include kin. Such studies may also describe class and ethnicity, how groups—families and others—inhabit the house, including the bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and living spaces, and how they (re)organize their lives and spaces to accommodate one another. Studies are also concerned with understanding how the occupants perceive and use indoor and outdoor spaces. A number of ethnographic studies conducted by architects and social scientists illuminate some of these issues.

John Zeisel, trained as a sociologist, is known for writing an excellent book (Inquiry by Design 2006) on methods of data collection to inform the design process, outlining key techniques, observations, and the questions they pose. Zeisel describes one ethnographic account of a Puerto Rican family living in a turn-of-the-century “dumbbell” tenement that organized limited spaces in a predetermined manner. The front door entered into the living room, which was followed down a hallway that passed two bedrooms into the kitchen, which had another door to the outside hall, and a bathroom. Zeisel described the family’s adaptation to the apartment plan, which included a closed-off entry into the living room while using the secondary entry into the kitchen as the primary one. The living room space still had the television and sofas arranged around its edges. Zeisel noted that pictures of John Kennedy and the Last Supper adorned the walls, prompting him to speculate about its use as a sacred space. Further, the kitchen seemed to be the place where everyone gathered—where the gatekeeping was conducted—and where “mom” ruled the house. This portrayal illustrates the contrast between how the home spaces were originally designed and how a different family with a different lifestyle rearranged the use and meaning of those spaces for their own purposes. Would a designer consider redesigning apartment spaces to accommodate different lifestyles?

Most ethnographic portrayals of home have been done in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. In many of these places, the role of “design” is not practiced as a specialized profession but is revealed as owners build their own houses. In my own research in a small agro-town in southern Portugal, I discovered that people gradually incorporated new technologies and spatial concepts as they remodeled or built new homes (Lawrence-Zúñiga 2001). One of the most important observations I made was that these renovation strategies have been taking place over the last 100–150 years and that during the late 19th and into the 20th century, visible changes in house plans began to appear. For example, a typical but modest house had two or three rooms, a cozinha (kitchen), a quarto (bedroom), and a storage room or cavalariça (stable) in which to put the family mule.

Figure 1. Image of a modest peasant house and to the right a two-story house of a wealthy family.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

Figure 1 shows an image of a modest peasant house and to its right a two-story house of a wealthy family. As families began to earn more money by engaging in entrepreneurial and service activities, they added more rooms such as an entry hall and adjacent sala de jantar (dining room), and they moved the kitchen from the front of the house to the rear, as far from the sala de jantar as possible to avoid “cooking smells” (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Newer houses built at the turn of the 19th century that reorient the position of the kitchen to the rear to make space for the entryway.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

By the middle of the century, people began building houses in a new housing development that used an urbanized form built with more mass-produced industrialized materials. These houses had a central corridor, a sala de estar (living room) or sala de jantar, cozinha, quartos de dormir (bedrooms), and casa de banho (bathroom). The design of the new kitchen eliminated the old chaminé (fireplace) where cooking was traditionally done, and where hams and sausages were smoked, and installed a modern stove with a vent above . The kitchen, too, was relocated to the rear of the house, while the chaminé alentejana (Alentejan kitchen) was moved to an outside location around which was built a large structure for smoking pork, and where people gathered for meals. As with other domestic architectural innovations, these ideas spread throughout the town.

In the late 20th century, when residents began to remodel their older houses in the oldest part of town, they looked to these newer design ideas. For instance, owners of houses with the traditional chaminés and cozinhas in the front of the house cannot easily remove or relocate them because the original construction materials of rammed earth or brick and stone prohibit inexpensive reconstruction. Moreover, these older houses originally had no indoor plumbing so finding space to locate a bathroom was also a challenge. An accommodation was made, however, for the new bathroom to be installed inside the old chaminé, and the modern kitchen was fit into the remaining space or relocated outside in the garden or across the street (see figure 3).

Figure 3. New kitchen or cozinha alentejana built outside and across the street in the quintal.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

Figure 4. Interior of the cozinha alentejana with a newly constructed chaminé.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

Figure 5. Interior of sala in which the sofa is pushed against the wall to enable the occupant to sit, sew, and engage with passersby.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

Afterward, it was not unusual to see families in the morning crossing the road from home in their nightclothes to make coffee or breakfast. Myriad design questions materialized elsewhere about the role of the modern kitchen and the outdoor cozinha (see figure 4). Was it more “proper” to cook in the traditional cozinha or the modern kitchen, and where would guests be served? One house had a modern kitchen and dining room upstairs in their new house but also had an outdoor kitchen (cozinha alentejana) with a large dining area in the garden where the family always cooked and ate. Sometimes they served guests in the upstairs kitchen, and then on other occasions served guests outside in the cozinha alentejana, but they never served guests food in the interior dining room located upstairs. These behavior patterns are adaptations to changing built forms, but also to the limitations of previous forms to accommodate new spatial configurations (see figure 5). Moreover, while these design solutions do not provide the optimal “fit” or congruence between people’s preferences and built forms, they do reveal, given resource limitations, the “best” outcomes available to homeowners. The challenge remains: can the problems be resolved in another fashion?

Work and Office Spaces

The design of everyday spaces in which people work is important for a variety of reasons—comfort, efficiency, facilitation of contacts between workers, advancement of company goals—yet it is often difficult to achieve because neither designers nor owners typically ask workers for their input (e.g., Becker 1981). Moreover, offices are organized not only by psychological principles that emphasize individual differences in behavior but also by social dynamics, an agreed-upon set of interactions or cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values that guide the behavior of individuals in a group (e.g., Wright 2004). Ongoing research on office workers’ spatial needs has contributed to the design and redesign of office work components—desks, chairs, filing cabinets, meeting tables, accessory units, and partitions—to make them more usable and combinable than before. Indeed, many of the innovations in modern office furniture began to appear in the postwar period and have continued to evolve since then. In the last decades of the 20th century, new demands for “green” architecture that would complicate design strategies emerged, and, in addition, the changing nature of worker roles and demands for flexibility influenced the office space design. Each new concern begs the question of how much control over the environment should be allocated to workers as opposed to management (Leaman and Bordass 1999).

Studies conducted on postwar office life began to document the emergence of social and spatial structures, evolving from traditional “closed” private spaces to increasingly “open” ones (Manning 1965; Sundstrom 1986; Wineman 1986). The most significant design innovation was the arrival of the open plan with workstations arranged in a helter-skelter pattern without walls forming private offices, as if they were thrown onto the office landscape. These plans coincided with the development of office furniture systems manufactured and sold by major office furniture companies such as Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Haworth. It was believed that removing walls made worker communication more efficient. Studies conducted by company social scientists of worker satisfaction with the new arrangements, however, produced complaints from workers, which focused on the lack of privacy, especially from upper-level management, who said there was no door to close to gain privacy for meetings or phone calls. In essence, the reaction to the open plan revealed a hierarchy among office workers in terms of needs for privacy with clerical workers needing the least amount of privacy, technical workers needing some privacy to help with concentration on technical tasks, and managers needing the most privacy to protect confidential conversations (Sundstrom 1986). The all-purpose solution to these needs, the Action Office module, i.e. the “office cubicle,” was often criticized for its monotonous and repetitive office landscape effect, and now appears everywhere (see figure 6).

Figure 6. Cubicles in the modern office.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

In the meantime, office space design has become more flexible and experimental to accommodate a variety of worker needs, from temporary workstations and remote work, to design innovations of hotspots and diverse meeting spaces. In addition, the demands for climate considerations in the use of heating and cooling systems have led to different techniques to try to reduce energy consumption (Leaman and Bordass 1999; Leaman, Stevensen, and Bordass 2010). In some recent green building designs, temperature controls are centralized so that energy consumption can be uniformly limited, while in others more control is given to individual workers; often the latter is the workers’ preference. In some designs, access to ventilation from the outdoors is provided with worker-operated openable windows, while other buildings depend on management to “fix” the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system temperatures when workers have complaints. The role of facility managers is to help bridge this relationship between designer and workers; sometimes they know far more about the social and ergonomic dynamics of the workplace than do the owners. They can also build trust with the workers and can work with them in developing future plans.

Many companies and agencies experimenting with innovative office designs, for example, are reappropriating older buildings and converting them to new technologies and ways of working. Some of these newer designs do not provide permanent workspaces for everyone. Others provide large but flexible meeting spaces, thus inverting traditional work organization structures. Heralded as innovative for worker relationships, the strategy focuses on using office furniture and spatial organization to impose social changes in the workplace. Having to work next to someone new can challenge old ways of communicating and thinking. More importantly, office settings are ultimately concerned with increasing productivity and efficiency. Open office innovations removed walls to increase communication, although with many complaints. New innovations experiment with increasing productivity in other ways, for example, to give office workers control over their comfort in the workspace. Many of the contemporary studies of office design pay particular attention to feedback from workers in the form of surveys, which are attached to the publication of studies (e.g., Duffy and Powell 1997; Heerwagen and Zagreus 2005; Meerwarth, Trotter, and Briody 2008). These studies are worth consulting for anthropologists who wish to do this kind of work.

Special Settings—Prisons, Hospitals, Schools, and Eldercare

Institutions and organizations that house or specialize in treating dependent populations, such as children and the elderly; those who are ill or mentally challenged; and prisoners, clergy, and the military, are often accommodated in specially designed facilities (Goffman 1961). They are unique because they house people 24/7 and often do not permit their occupants to leave the facility, sometimes because the occupants are not physically able to leave. Designs often address the specific programs for the population and the specialized approach to the subjects’ condition; after all, not all the inmates are “dependent” in the same way. Educational curricula programs in the United States, such as Common Core, or a diagnosis and treatment plan for specific mental illnesses are generally standardized and overseen by large-scale organizations such as state departments of education or the National Institute of Mental Health. Sometimes larger institutions overseeing these facilities such as the Department of Justice for prisons or the US Armed Forces for military facilities are just as concerned with dependable designs that optimize outcomes and save them money. Their interests are reflected in investments they make in systematic research on specific issues such as surveillance and safety for prison guards, maintaining hygiene and preventing disease, or maximizing educational outcomes. Each of these general organizations has a body of research information that builds on previous studies (Cunha 2014; Schneider and Schneider 2008).

One of the most important emerging areas of research is around the construction of specific facilities for the care of the elderly. As a dependent population, the elderly are often incapacitated by physical ailments and mental decline in the form of senility or dementia that can impair both perception and movement. Although some elderly would prefer “aging in place” where modifications are made to their own homes, others will eventually have to move to “assisted living” where support services increase over time to accommodate declining capabilities, or to a more specialized facility for the treatment of dementia or Alzheimer’s. As people age, their declining mental acuity requires memory help in the form of design features—for instance, a window box next to the resident’s door containing photographs—to help the occupant remember which room is theirs. In addition, dementia and Alzheimer’s patients tend to “wander” and can get lost when they leave their place of residence. To accommodate this tendency, new facilities are often built with a “never-ending path” that makes a circuitous route around the interior of the facility and provides locks on doors and windows that residents might otherwise use to escape (Calkins 1989, 1991, 2001).

Julia W. Robinson (1989), an architect also trained in anthropology, took a broader approach to designing facilities that house Alzheimer’s or mental patients. She argued that the essential problem confronted in designing group housing often derives from treating the facility as an “institution” for large numbers of residents, which contrasts with “vernacular housing” that houses far fewer residents. In a design case study focused on the developmentally disabled, Robinson proposed using a linguistic or semiotic approach to reveal the symbolic meanings communicated to the residents, staff, and visitors. Architecture, indicated Robinson, was an expression of a cultural pattern that communicates and produces cultural expectations.

Robinson set out to contrast features of the institution and vernacular housing in regards to scale (suggesting institutions had an average of twelve to forty people while vernacular houses had six to eight people); materials (selected by houses for comfort, aesthetics, and durability while institutions chose durable and safe); and context and image (houses mixed in with multiple housing types but institutions located in isolated areas). The interior organization of house spaces was graded from most public to most private, while institutions organized their spaces by room size and fire egress. Circulation in houses was diffuse while institutions had a designated elevator and staircases and used corridors. Rooms in houses tended to have distinctive shapes and furnishings while rooms in institutions had different names and furnishings that were bought in bulk. The institutional tendency to standardize spaces and furnishings resisted the imprint of the individual. Robinson said that the institution, as a generalized public building, was inimical to the development and expression of individual identity. She called for the creation of a different type of building—the community residence—that would provide spaces necessary for growth and development (1989, 272).

In another exercise, Robinson put forth a strategy for “programming” a facility that drew directly on her background as an anthropologist. Programming is a widespread professional architectural process by which information is gleaned from owners, users, and experts on a facility to enumerate the spaces and adjacencies needed in design and construction. She and her coauthor, J. Stephen Weeks, proposed a process for data collection and analysis that produced a holistic program to guide design (1983). As a teaching tool, Robinson and Weeks argued that programming ought to lead to a design—the rationale for which is deeply documented and embedded in the program. In a series of exercises, her students were asked to state their preconceptions about ideas, images, assumptions, and hypotheses, and reflect on their significance for the project. Typically, research included a literature search and analysis, and another exercise asked about the project’s past. She suggested four approaches to the past: the analogue, problem solving, historical, and typology approaches. All require consultation with archival architectural materials. Robinson and Weeks also suggested that referring to standards found in building codes, using analogies in problem exploration, creating places for activities, and using site-, context-, or energy-appropriate technology to explore possible answers were also helpful (Robinson and Weeks 1983, 10). It goes without saying that programming and evaluation are architectural processes with a highly developed literature (e.g., Farbstein 1978; Gregory 2018; Hershberger 1999; Low, Taplin, and Scheld 2005). It is recommended that anthropologists examine these texts for an orientation to “knowledge-based” design and evaluation.

Open (Public) Spaces

The contemporary creation and use of open public spaces involve concerns for the accessibility, with some exceptions, of all people in all circumstances. Anthropologists’ concerns for inclusivity, as opposed to exclusivity, have long focused on how some spaces might be tacitly interpreted to exclude certain members of the public just because the dominant users are from one group. An inclusive space might be open to multiracial or multi-class occupation or might be equally open to LGBQT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgendered) or other specialized communities but lacking any explicit exclusion of a specific group. The concern seems focused on whether this way of welcoming some user groups of people should, by definition, be read also to exclude others permanently. Generally, these interests focus in and around urban planning and design practices that have fascinated authors with settlement patterns and the social order (Perin 1970, 1977). But after some examination, urban settlement patterns seem at least as much a result of cultural incentives as they are natural geography. At least one approach has classified and categorized certain extra domestic spaces as “third places” where community can be built by the repeated actions of specific groups (Gagne 2011; Moore, Hakinson Gathman, and Ducheneaut 2009; Oldenberg 1989). Neighborhood spaces, plazas and hardscape, and parks are the foci of social interests in the public sphere.


Urban and suburban neighborhoods are spaces with more formal definition and regulation than spaces in surrounding rural areas, and therefore warrant legal and social scrutiny. Perin (1977) suggested that settlement patterns were tied to concepts such as land use, zoning, and development practices administered by the local city planning department. In an extended discussion of land-use practices, Perin raised the issue of exclusion around the common law concept of “nuisance,” which basically refers to not mixing widely divergent land uses together in the same zone. For instance, mixing residential with agricultural or industrial uses would create a nuisance because the smells or noises of one use would not be compatible with the quiet residential needs in the other. Rather, she seemed concerned with land-use zones created primarily for single uses, like residential, which include strict limitations on building types and density issues. Historically, however, land-use zones have been created as an exclusionary vehicle to segregate populations by race and class. Contemporary residents of these neighborhoods, however, care about their neighbors and their practices, and sometimes contest neighbors’ practices by arguing zoning incompatibilities at city hall.

Tensions of race and class played out in an urban environment and were illustrated in a newly designed housing project, South Commons, that experimentally brought together multiple classes and races in Chicago during the early 1970s. Pellow (1981) reported that for the upper-middle and low-income residents in the project, who moved into high- and low-rise rental units and for-sale townhouses, that ambiguous conceptions of territoriality about the spaces surrounding their homes soon emerged. Black and white resident groups expressed sentiments of class and race relations, although neither race was exclusively associated with one class. Pellow described South Commons as conceived on the (predigital) drafting table by developers and designers, and pursued a critique drawing attention to design assumptions and the resulting outcomes. She posed the question of “congruence” about the design—was there congruence between design intentions, design forms, and behavioral outcomes? Although the original homogeneous low-income neighborhood population already thought of the area as “theirs,” the developer sought to drop into it a roughly thirty acre redevelopment project that would appeal to the new residents. Outside design development agencies, such as the local lending bank and Department of Urban Renewal, argued that income-based house types should not be scattered, and consulting sociologists suggested the construction of a school on-site. Following completion of construction, residents began to assert their “control” over territories in the quadrants surrounding their homes, and they disputed who should have control of exterior spaces. When conflicts with organizers of a larger-community swimming program arose, black residents objected and white homeowners began moving out. Pellow suggested that if the designers had considered cultural biases and paid more attention to flexible adaptations when conflicts did arise, the new project would have had better congruence in responding to residents’ needs.

The ubiquity of the suburban residential neighborhoods as a setting has attracted the interest of researchers seeking to understand how architectural forms and barriers can affect patterns of inclusion or exclusion in local communities. In part because of the long history of racial and class segregation in the United States, many researchers are interested in material forms—single-family houses and apartment/condo complexes—that invite segregated living patterns. In Setha Low’s ethnography of “gated communities,” residents seek to escape the perceived high crime rates and the ethnic diversity in the cities from which they moved (2001, 2003). Residents say they are looking for “tranquility,” a residential environment that has a predictable order, that is “nice” and safe for children, and that keeps crime and diverse others out. They want an environment that they can control, which means that they want to share space with neighbors who have common goals regarding architecture and landscape, amenities and services. Although they do not necessarily want to serve on a homeowners’ association, residents want to feel confident that neighbors who do serve will keep their interests in mind when making decisions for the entire community. Gated communities appear from the outside to be homogeneous in terms of class and, to a certain extent, ethnicity, but residents also seek gating as a vehicle and symbol to reinforce sentiments about sharing certain values, especially safety, among themselves and about “others” they encounter outside the gates.

Other kinds of neighborhoods, however, are not nearly as “controlled” by fences and gates; rather, their boundaries are generally open, and residents voluntarily come together to buy or rent houses. Although racial exclusivity was written into the law of zoning practices early in the 20th century, by the middle of the century it had become an obsolete, indeed a taboo, practice. Thus, neighborhoods originally built for white people had given way to owners from other ethnic groups such as Latinos or blacks, or even newer immigrant groups such as Chinese and East Indians. Merry (1981) described such a multiethnic and multi-class American community in her ethnography of an inner-city, crime-filled setting. Describing the dangerous and unstable social order of the neighborhood, Merry argued that a dominant ethnic group could take responsibility and bring order to the public sphere, but if there was no dominant group because the neighborhood was in transition, the instability could not be quelled. However, Merry noted that the physical design of the neighborhood she studied employed “defensible space” features recommended by Oscar Newman (1973) for the prevention of crime. These features emphasized a hierarchy of physical spaces differentiating public and private areas that residents might take control of and defend, windows for surveillance, and small enough clusters of residences that encouraged people to get to “know” one another. Although parts of Merry’s study site had these features, residents did not come together to act in a concerted fashion to stop burglaries, and many lacked the language or social skills to develop meaningful relationships with other residents. Merry called this phenomenon “fragmentation” of social relationships that undermined the common goal of control (1981, 233). Thus, the successful operation of architectural features to bring social control requires the operation of a socially stable and “unfragmented” extra domestic neighborhood (e.g., Low 2006; Miller 2015; Nonini 2013).

Western suburbs originally built for white families gradually became more ethnically diverse during the 20th century as the original white owners died or moved out and families of varied ethnicities and immigrants moved in. In Southern California, for instance, many early- and mid-20th-century suburbs witnessed a transition from white-dominated to Latino-dominated to Chinese-dominated. Some writers have called these “ethnoburbs” (Li 2009), a term that describes a community where no one ethnic group dominates. What ethnoburbs mean for civic life is that different ethnic groups, each with a conflicting value system, often contest the way the neighbors propose to build or renovate a house, or how they think about being a good neighbor. These conflicts, frequently fought out at city hall, tend to affect property valuations over time. When home prices decline due to age and deterioration and become available to lower-income families, they are said to “filter down.” Thus, neighborhoods have life cycles of their own, and neighborhoods in transition exhibit an anthropological challenge to tolerance.

Some neighborhoods dominated over time by different ethnic groups may also express class domination through practices associated with gentrification. Most recently, gentrification appears in the form of younger, generally wealthier homeowners purchasing houses in areas that have been affected by down-cycling. House prices are low, but essential house qualities are good. Some of these purchases are focused on homeowners’ intentions to restore the older houses or, alternatively, to remodel and/or rebuild newer houses into large mansions. When the purchases occur in the same suburban neighborhoods, conflicting impulses tend to cause dissent and conflict at city hall as homeowners dispute zoning practices and the aesthetic preferences of their neighbors. When the conflicts center on the preferred remodeling strategy of restoration as opposed to mansionization, conservation-minded residents often seek to have their neighborhood declared a historic district (Lawrence-Zúñiga 2016). Historic districts are regulated by rules and prohibitions that prevent changes to the exterior of the houses that would make them vary in appearance from their “original” character (see figure 7).

Figure 7. Home tour of older houses in a historic district.

Credit: Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga.

However, proposals to create “mansions” out of humble single-family homes often provoke the ire of neighbors who protest their construction at city hall. These conflicts over architectural aesthetics create dissension among the residents of otherwise homogeneous and peaceful neighborhoods.

Plazas, Urban Hardscape, and Parks

The use of public plazas and parks attracts different ethnicities and classes of people in different parts of the city, and in different cities, although the users’ specific purposes may be diverse. Their roles as public arenas or theaters where visitor performances can attract public and media attention are important. Urban public spaces such as these also play a fundamental role in providing urban dwellers open spaces for recreation and enjoyment, and to engage in activities related to adjacent spaces. Miles Richardson (1982) contrasted “being-in-the-plaza” in terms of who visits and for what purpose in two sites in San José, Costa Rica, a marketplace and a central city plaza. Richardson argued that the activities in each public space are a function of what users can do near each site; behavior differed radically with marketplace users rushing around while central plaza users relaxed more. That is, the adjacent functions conditioned public space behavior. One major question that researchers posed was to what extent were the populations occupying the spaces and their types of activities specific to the place? Did any group dominate the space? Did any activity dominate? If so, why?

American urban plazas have been associated with elderly or retired folks who gather to play card games or engage in other diversions, while suburban parks tend to attract youth and families for competitive sports and picnicking. In inquiring about public-space users, a critical dimension is the extent to which the presence or numerical dominance of some users may cause other potential users to feel excluded and avoid the space. Other public spaces have also begun to emerge for specialized uses—dog parks (Burgess-Cady 2016; Tissot 2011), for example—which attract targeted groups and activities that may repel others. Dimensions of specialized-use public spaces may also include the site’s history found in monuments and buildings, its location near a beach or forest, or its size known through large meadows or specialized equipment for play. Does the appeal to cultural identity drive some users away? Another dimension of public spaces emphasizes their role in contributing to social justice by providing arenas for demonstrations and protests.

Anthropologists working in the Public Space Research Group (PSRG) at CUNY Graduate School and University Center have developed a research framework and have conducted research investigations on a series of parks and public spaces throughout New York and other cities (Low, Taplin, and Scheld 2005). Their case studies emphasized issues of cultural diversity, security, and fear of the “other” with the aim of proposing public policy about sustaining diverse users and activities in public places. The authors suggested that social sustainability could be achieved in six ways:


if people’s history or culture is erased from a site, they will not visit;


income and visitation patterns for all groups must be taken into account;


provision of adequate territories for all groups ensures their safe interactions;


accommodation of differences in how social groups use the space are important to their use;


restoration of scenic historic features should not crowd out consideration for the restoration of lesser features; and


symbolic communication of cultural meaning is important to fostering cultural diversity (2005, 196–200).

One of the most important contributions from this study of New York City and Philadelphia parks was the outline and assessment of data collection techniques under the rubric of REAP (Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Methods). The authors listed historical and archival documents; physical traces mapping; behavioral mapping; transect walks; individual interviews; expert interviews; impromptu group interviews; focus groups; participant observation; and analysis. Not all methods were used on each occasion (2005, 188–192).

In describing the larger context in which these public places were investigated, the authors cited the long development of concerns over surveillance, especially when multiple ethnicities and classes together used a public space. In each site analysis, the authors summarized their findings about usage and made some recommendations about features needing improvement. For instance, the urban beach called the Jacob Riis Park (built in 1936 during the art deco period by Robert Moses) was heavily used by visitors who were new immigrants as well as by long-term residents of New York City. Visitors also ranged from very poor to professional middle-class people and included multiple ethnicities from the adjacent neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. The park was divided into “bays” that had a variety of problems, such as lack of parking, restrooms, restaurants, and the like (2005, 126). Other ethnographic reports found that ethnic groups that visited Independence Park in Philadelphia (African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Italian Americans, and Jewish Americans) were patterns not replicated at Riis Park. Aside from Hispanic Americans, none of the ethnic groups identified said they visited frequently. Moreover, none of the groups identified said that the cultural artifacts such as the Liberty Bell spoke to them about the park’s significance (2005, 171).

A number of anthropologists have begun to question the concept of “publicness” in their investigations of public spaces such as the High Line in New York City (Brash 2017) or the dilemma of privatized public space in Los Angeles (Peterson 2012). These authors raise issues about neoliberal policies aimed at privatization of public spaces and their impact on the use and meaning of those spaces to the public. Brash (2017) argues that the High Line, designed and built as an elevated 1.45-mile-long linear park on the former New York Central Railroad track in Manhattan, has reconfigured concepts of public space. While “public” space traditionally referred to notions that everyone ought to have access to the space, “private” space suggested limitations or controls on that access imposed by owners or others who were in control. Brash suggests that neoliberal notions of inequality and individual responsibility in New York have given way to public discourse that seeks to define responsibilities about park equity more collectively. While the High Line guarantees access to everyone, Brash argues that conflicts over the meaning of “publicness” have actually given rise to the “park equity” movement of 2013/2014, which takes a critical view of financing public parks. The park equity movement seeks to redistribute private conservancy funds away from well-endowed parks toward those with fewer resources, thus “equalizing” the distribution of resources and qualities across the entire park system.

Marina Peterson (2012) argues that issues with private, corporately owned open spaces that serve the public as if they were public spaces constitute a different problem. Her concern for the publicness of public space has appeared in anthropological studies since the 1980s but reappears in her new study of the Los Angeles One California Plaza. Peterson asserts that the appearance of publicness is orchestrated through the coordination and manipulation of events by staff who carefully control access and the presence of visitors. This mythology of publicness is also promulgated in a long-held view of shopping malls as privatized public space which, for example, explains how diverse populations can be legally prevented from using a space seemingly open and welcoming to all. Why certain spaces should be kept accessible to all visitors has been discussed as an essential ingredient in maintaining a democracy. It is regarded as a social good because it helps foster awareness and tolerance of others. But private interests have discovered that their spaces could be more attractive if they are perceived as public—as inclusive of all visitors—even if they are private.

Professional Design Services

Beginning in the 1960s, research services developed to help professional designers do a better job at meeting the users’ needs and fulfilling program requirements. Designers’ desire to know how to evaluate the appropriateness of their design decisions in meeting user needs first emerged in the concept of the post-occupancy evaluation (P.O.E.). The P.O.E. is an architectural evaluation and operates as a kind of feedback loop, a reflexive consideration, to evaluate design outcomes in terms of user satisfaction and the specific design problems targeted and principles used. P.O.E.s also examine the kind of data and analysis the designer used to resolve the issue. Often these design problems are for large-scale institutions and have implications for operational costs. These P.O.E. studies consider any kind of built form in which the design has to meet some standard and the building type is rebuilt anew over and over. Their clients have been, for instance, universities interested in their dormitories, or the Justice Department building prisons. Some of the best-known researchers on these issues are architects who also have degrees in environmental psychology or sociology, but less frequently anthropology, and many have published books articulating their own approaches (Farbstein 1978; Graffam 2010; Hershberger 1999; Mallory-Hill, Preiser, and Watson 2012; Preiser 2015).

While many anthropologists have participated in data collection and analysis in P.O.E. research, the strategy does not engage in the full iterative possibilities of the feedback loop during the design and evaluation process. A group of anthropologists emerged in the 2010s who propose “design anthropology” as a new way of exploring the relation between data collection and modeling different design outcomes, as well as for examining the articulation of designed forms vis-à-vis the data that generated them (Clarke 2010; Gunn and Donavan 2012; Gunn, Otto, and Smith 2013). Keith Murphy (2016) suggests the analysis of anthropology and design can be considered in three ways: (a) anthropology of design, which examines the designed object; (b) anthropology for design, in which anthropological concepts and methods are used in design; and (c) design for anthropology, where anthropologists borrow concepts from design to enhance traditional ethnography. Murphy focuses on a “critical anthropology of design” (Suchman 2011) that acts to correct the public’s almost blind acceptance of designers’ promises. Murphy argues that design is often discussed as if it had no moral implications—as if design existed outside the normal world of everyday life when, in fact, there are “moral implications of intentional design intervention[s]” that we have not yet recognized (2016, 434).

Murphy’s account provides a historical overview of “design,” concentrating on its status in the 20th century as an object produced to be purchased for consumption. The anthropological treatment of designed objects as objects had earlier fixed anthropological analysis and interpretation in the way built form replicated cosmologies or power structures; this later gave way to the analysis of more complex configurations. In the 2010s, anthropological ethnographic investigations focused on design problems such as how poorly designed items have resulted in lawsuits (Jain 2006), and Murphy’s own work on Swedish design as an instrument “of social democratic governance” (2013). Murphy also draws attention to the examination of design processes informed by ethnographies that examine larger domains and reflexively examine relations of skills, practices, and materials used in designing objects. That is, the production side of making designed objects involves examination of the processes of making the object, not just the object itself. Murphy notes ethnographies of healthcare (Kilbourn 2013, museums (Smith 2013), and waste management (Halse 2013) as examples using these techniques. He also notes the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference that publishes recent research. Finally, Murphy notes that at the University of California, Irvine, Berkeley, and San Diego, anthropologists have begun to use design methods to improve ethnography. Each of these approaches emphasizes and explores collaborative and participatory approaches in ethnographic research and analysis.


With these new dimensions of inquiry opening up and the broadening perspectives and applications of anthropology to the world of built form, current and future anthropologists will have ample opportunities to explore their professional interests in the real world. The anthropology of perception and spatial dimensions of social interactions, and ethnographies of housing, workspaces, and institutional settings for the mentally ill, prisoners, or the elderly, are all examples for applying anthropological theories and methods to design issues. In open areas, including residential neighborhoods in a variety of urban and suburban settings, and parks and plazas, anthropological data collection is used both to inform design proposals and to validate the designs themselves. In fact, the use of anthropological methods of data collection serves to both generate design concepts and evaluate them. Finally, the utilization of anthropological insights into the expanding areas of “design anthropology” to ascertain the projection of architectural form in conventional and new emerging areas, as well as to question our understandings of design processes and products, seems to have opened new horizons to explore.

Further Reading

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Fennell, Catherine. 2015. Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: Routledge.
  • Lawrence-Zúñiga, Denise. 2015. “Residential Design Guidelines, Aesthetic Governmentality, and Contested Notions of Southern California Suburban Places.” Economic Anthropology 2 (1): 120–144.
  • Lawrence-Zúñiga, Denise. 2016. Protecting Suburban America: Gentrification Advocacy and the Historic Imaginary. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Low, Setha. 2000. On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Low, Setha. 2003. Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York: Routledge.
  • Low, Setha, and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga, eds. 2003. The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Low, Setha, Dana Taplin, and Suzanne Scheld, eds. 2005. Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Murphy, Keith. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Pellow, Deborah. 2002. Landlords and Lodgers: Socio-Spatial Organization in an Accra Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Schiller, Anne. 2019. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Saint Orsola?: Urban Space and Neighborood Renewal in Florence’s Historic Center.” Human Organization 78 (3): 288–297.
  • Spradley, James. 2016. The Ethnographic Interview. Long Grove, IL: Waveland. First published 1979.
  • Van der Hoorn, Melanie. 2009. Indispensible Eyesores: An Anthropology of Undesired Buildings. New York: Berghahn.
  • Wright, Susan, ed. 2004. The Anthropology of Organizations. London: Routledge.
  • Zeisel, John. 2006. Inquiry by Design: Environment/Behavior/Neuroscience in Architecture, Interiors, Landscape, and Planning. New York: W. W. Norton. First published 1984.
  • Zhang, Li. 2010. In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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  • Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor.
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  • Gregory, Siobhan. 2018. “Design Anthropology as a Social Design Process.” Journal of Business Anthropology 7 (2): 210–234.
  • Gunn, Wendy, and Jared Donovan, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology. London: Ashgate.
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  • Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.
  • Halse, Joachim. 2013. “Ethnographies of the Possible.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. Edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 180–196. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Heerwagen, Judith, and Leah Zagreus. 2005. The Human Factors of Sustainable Building Design: Post Occupancy of the Phillip Merrill Environmental Center. Prepared for Drury Crawley, US Department of Energy Building Technology Program.
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  • Jain, Sarah S. Lochlann. 2006. Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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  • Lawrence-Zúñiga, Denise. 2001. “From Bourgeois to Modern: Transforming Houses and Family Life in Rural Portugal.” In Architectural Anthropology. Edited by Mari-Jose Amerlinck, 171–200. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  • Lawrence-Zúñiga, Denise. 2016. Protecting Suburban America: Gentrification, Advocacy and the Historic Imaginary. London: Bloomsbury.
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