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Design Anthropology: Response to Yoko Akama

Yoko Akama has been in interesting critic of my work within design anthropology and Design for Democracy. I am at the point of my age where I don't mind critique because it allows me to re-articulate a position that perhaps I was not clear about or did not provide enough detail. So I thought I would elevate aspects Yoko's critique and my response. I encourage you to read Yoko's full critique in the comment's.

Yoko's critique "Design Anthropology, to me, is patronising and misguided."

On one level, I listened to you talk wondering 'what is the difference between what you do, and market research'? , especially where you discussed shampoo products and the men you studied. Is it the methodology? Agenda? Empowerment of the ones studied? ...

The other level, which to me is more concerning is the way I interpreted how you position yourself as a 'problem solver' - to solve the problem of others... My understanding of your position as a 'problem solver' seems to me to require an 'objective' stance to the problem solved. Subjects and their living contexts are studied and the problems are identified. The subjects are 'the other'. The problem is viewed at an arms distance, and steps are taken to resolve it to give 'order and clarity' to this world. In this model, the designer is perceived as the person who has the power to 'solve' other people's problems...Design Anthropology, in the way I have seen you present and write about previously, echoes the pre 80s era of anthropology, which then seemed to have been married to 'design' to reinforce this even further. Design Anthropology, to me, is patronising and misguided


My response was going to be quick, but I realized the depth of miscommunication on my part perhaps or misunderstanding on Yoko's part. But in any regards, I thought it important to try to communicate more clearly about design anthropology.

I am super exhausted tonight, but let me briefly try to address your responses, which I find rather interesting. I am always curious to how people respond to things because it exposes the gaps in your communication.

What makes Design Anthropology different from marketing research?

First I answer by saying that marketing research in the past 20 years have adopted a lot of anthropology, specially ethnographic methods, into their practices. So there is a lot of overlap in methods and often assumptions. But the talk was about design anthropology to a design business audience so I was outlining the overlaps more than the differences. The differences have to do with the questions asked.  Design anthropology asks, “What does it mean to be human?”  Marketing research asks, “How does one allocate resources to move customers to buy goods and/or services?”  The rituals of male grooming were the focus of the study I presented and it was done in an anthropological understanding. What does grooming mean to men? What are the repeated behaviors of this male grooming? What are the deviations and what does it mean to deviate? What sense of order if any does grooming provide for the men? What do these rituals mean in terms of the individual and group identity of men? What are the roles of women in those grooming rituals?  This was the design anthropology part of the project. With that wider frame, there were very specific marketing research parts about the grooming artifacts (shampoo and conditional products) and how they are used. What moves men to buy one product versus another? Design anthropology asks broader questions of the data regarding human nature, but is is also able to encompass the marketing question (where other market research techniques might stop).

My praxis and that of the students I train are about understanding how designed stuff or design processes help define what it means to be human. Marketing research, if interested at all, defines humanness based on how people fit within a product purchasing and experience cycle. Design anthropology takes a broader and more undetermined definition of humanness.

As for the problem solver/objective position of researcher reading, here you have completely missed the point of any anthropological/design anthropology engagement.

Anthropological Origins

The original intent of anthropology, from even its most colonial enterprise, was to cultivate empathy for diverse perspectives of being human. This was when the Colonial administrations seriously doubted the humanity of various colonial subjects as a justification of their racists policies. Anthropologist, like Malinowski, Boas, or Crushing in the US, went among native groups to say directly, “Hey these people are human because they do have their own forms of kinship, religion, politics, economics, and manufacturing.” So the original purpose of anthropology was to elicit empathy for the complexity of the world. The field was devoted to understanding, documenting, and representing that diversity. If you ever had to do kinship diagrams, one would understand how complex something as “simple” as family relations are.

Positions of “objectivity” were based on developing effective modes of knowledge presentation at the time as well as being a counter to the highly biased, in other ways, reports about native lives by Missionaries, Colonial Administrators, Trades persons, who all saw the native people as inhuman barriers to their own ambitions. Anthropologists were people of their own times and harbored perhaps the same personal views about the native people, but their scholarship was about showing how natives were human from their own perspectives of humanness reinterpreted for comparative purposes for more effective communication.

Post-structuralist, feminist, and subaltern anthropology

Yes, in the post-structuralist moment of anthropology, anthropologists could no longer provide authoritative labels of this is your type of kinship structure (Crow, Kerela, etc.) in vast taxonomies because of the entrance of white women and women of color, men of color, and native anthropologists into the field to critique the “authority” of those old labels, often in order to provide their own labels in institutional power struggles. The point is that these discussions and debates were expressions of an internal struggle among diverse anthropologists about who had the right to provide labels, not with the act of labeling itself.

Where design anthropology enter?

Design anthropology comes to the fore in the post-structuralist model of anthropology with the intent to demonstrate the multiplicity and complexity of the lives of people who happen to consume products, communications, and experiences. Design anthropologists said, “Hey, they are not just consumers or users, but rather people with rich lives in which your products do or do not fit in the ways that you imagine them.” You being the companies that hired them.  Anthropology’s research modality has always been participant-observation, not observation as designers like to say. In that tradition, design anthropologists  and anthro-designers do more than observe; they also participate because that is how one develops empathy through the inter-subjective relations among people, objects, the environment, etc. By doing so, design anthropologists and anthrodesigners are able to engage multiple modalities of being within the design process at many different levels and forms:

  • Indirectly through abstracted representations of multiple values and experiences to inform designing by designers where the technical means are beyond the contextual knowledge of the people who might use the designs (this can be end users as well as corporate stakeholders)
  • Directly by various people’s co-participation in the design of objects, communications, and experiences at various levels of fidelity
  • Directly by providing various people additional shared tools of design production appropriate to their own contexts

As for me a case study of design anthropology, Design for Democracy was explicitly about bringing citizens into the design process of the materials responsible for the maintenance of US democratic institutions. This was accomplished at first indirectly through abstracted representations of the voting experience of different types of voters, voting judges, election officials, the postal service, special interests groups, and election vendors. Then it brought people with and without disabilities, who spoke multiple languages, of different ages, genders, and races directly into the co-design process of designed objects that affected their identity as citizens. Finally, it provided election officials shared tools of design production (ballot templates) so that they could create designs appropriate to their own contexts and their own problems and solutions. It did so with the underlying anthropological questions of what does it mean to be a citizen and how does the design of this stuff impact people’s understand of democracy. That was the meaning of Design for Democracy for me.

So Yoko, you conclude with the fact that you do not find design anthropology’s approach valuable. To that I say, okay.

My students, my colleagues, and my clients find it extremely valuable because it is the only way I know how to create empathy for the diversity of human experience to inform the ethical praxis of designing. There are perhaps other approaches, with which I am not familiar and I am extremely open. For now, design anthropology works for me and more importantly it works for others, especially my design students whose projects and passion continues to inspire and humble me.

So thank you for taking the time to ask hard questions and for clarification of my views. I really do appreciate it. 



It was a proprietary client project so there is no article to share. =(

If you look at the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) proceedings from 2006, someone presented on this topic, I think, and thus has documented their research.

jeff Salz

Hi Dori..

Where can I find your original article on male grooming. I am undertaking a related project and there has been limited research on the the topic.

Jeff Salz

Narr Dori

Yoko, you are very rude and thoughtless. I am an outside observer here, but interested, and I find you are not listening, but rather bringing out your fixed ideas over and again.

There is a problem with language, yes. Dori's is a bit abstracted for me, and I think she does hide a bit behind it. But her points can be understood very well, if you are not looking to be 'clever' as you evidently think you are by looking for 'language slips'. You might consider whose generation invented all the ideas you draw from in this approach -- it is Dori's, and is responsible in fact for the rigidity of some of her expression.

You, on the other hand, write carelessly, do not even keep your English straight -- at a graduate student level? This is probably not how you want to end up facing the world.

To make a point clearer, no one is going to be the slightest impressed with an ideological stance after you leave the pampered confines of the university. And they are going to be even less impressed by an undisciplined voice as you show.

The hardest thing is that your own ideology, a form of watered-down communitarian Marxism, is over two decades old. Let's all gain the world from the grass roots...

I can assure you it is going to take much more than that. You might in fact try to learn something from what Dori does, where she does actually cross borders, and make constructions, expressions in the world. This is not 'problem solving'. You invented that concept into her arena, and I think you are simply very wrong. You would _like_ to think it is a throwback. But instead, it is work flawed as all real work is, but actually building something forwards.

When you see how building is much more important than narrow-minded purity, then you will start to grow into what can be an engaging and very contributive profession - whatever your profession may turn out to be.

Less sauce, more substance, and we will thank you.


Yoko Akama

Hi Dori and fans,
Sorry, I had to have a little chuckle there - good hand-ball of a hot potato - I realise that you probably have more pressing things to attend to. And yes, your publications responds and answers my critique perfectly.. how silly I was not to realise this before! Instead of a promotion of Design Anthro, I would welcome articles that you have written that is critical and reflective of your research. I think I would learn a great deal from that - as a researcher critically engaged with design research.


Dori Tunstall

I think that Ksenija has addressed my points for me, quite well. I would suggest that you to read the various publications I have written in-depth on many of these subjects. Proceeedings from the IASDR 2007, Wonderground DRS 2006, EPIC 2006, the Adobe Article that framed my Design Victoria presentation, writings in the SfAA newsletter, article on DIY Policy for Re/Public. Then, I think we can engage in further discussion.

ksenija berk

The achievements of the design profession do have their nostalgic roots in the idealistic notion on the quality of designed products and human environment. However social inequality, globalization, minority issues, the instability of both local and global markets, the intolerance of differences and emerging difficulties of immaterial labour are evident markers that functionalism, universalism and timelessness in design profession are not sufficient categories to think of anymore.

This is exactly the point where design anthropology and interdisciplinary research from other social sciences and humanities enters. Design is not a practice isolated from the society and humanities can reveal a deeper understanding how design works and what are the consequences of different design practices on larger scale of societal realm. I'd like to briefly mention a contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière, one of many theorists who crosses the boundaries between the disciplines in order to broaden understanding on disciplines as design. When a designer accepts various decisions, choosing among many alternatives in the creative and constructive process, Rancière stresses that one is also designing divisions of communal space: "It is the way in which, by assembling words or forms, people define not merely various forms of art, but certain configurations of what can be seen and what can be thought, certain forms of inhabiting the material world." Exactly those configurations which Rancière sees as symbolic and material at the same time, cross boundaries between arts, genres and epoch. They cut across the categories of an autonomous history of technique, art and politics.

Therefore I can understand those voices calling upon limitations of certain research methods and approaches. A research always inevitably reveals our own positions within different ideologies and power relations, for we (no matter how hard we strive to be objective) we are never 'clean', 'innocent' or detached from the societies and political systems we live in. Dori as design anthropologist is revealing exactly those categories and problems in the vast field of design. And yes, every research method has its own limitations and can offer a certain view and omit the other, exactly what Dori with her anthropological research reveals so well.

Yoko Akama

Hello Dori
Thanks for your considered and thorough response. I was a bit taken aback as to how you had 'elevated' the visibility of my critique! It is a shame that the points you articulately put forward were not made/present in the talk you gave, which is what I specifically reacted to in my comment.

I am deliberately being polemic because, as I might have said before, I had previously assumed that we occupied the same 'camp', so to speak, but the more I read your blog and attend your presentations, the more I notice and question the areas of our differences. So, thanks for putting up with the 'peer critique', irrespective of how old we are, I think it is the only way we can really 'nut out' the core of what we say.

I still remain unconvinced on your answer to Design Anthropology's difference with market research. I agree, that the question one sets off may be indeed different, but does this necessarily equate to a different outcome? How are these 'questions about being human', then woven into the design process? How does that inform the design outcome? A cynical view would be to say that, irrespective of whether you had tried to understand the humanness of 'male grooming', you are still designing products in a way that will appeal (sell well) to the consumers. This part had not been made clear in your presentation, or in your post. I would see the critical issue is how you argue what had been discovered through Design Anthropology that can then transform what will be designed, and how this transformation will create a different kind of engagement that people want, overall.

A case in point is an example that you gave in response to a question (after your presentation), of a US military website. If I remember correctly, one can argue that, indeed, Design Anthro had identified a 'need' that the prospective soldiers wanted to know how they would live in the locations that they are posted out to.This seemed to have influenced the way the US military would display this information on their website, so that it will appease the mothers and lessen their worries of how their boys and girls were living. However, a question that occurred to me was, weren't there other concerns that they raised too, like, issues surrounding risk and danger in combat zones; questions of how decisions are made about the way the military are involved in certain countries… the list can potentially endless. I am not clear how these issues might have been dealt with, when fed back to the US military, especially if they were ones that were critical, condemning or questioning their activities.

This leads me to a point where I think Design Anthropology, or you, side-step or not illuminate - the murky, complex issue of politics and agenda (politics with a lower-case p). When you involve various stakeholders in a design process, as in the example you give with the Design for Democracy, who do you advocate on behalf and how are difficult and complex issues dealt with? Whose values do you satisfy in the end through the designed outcome? The one who shouts the loudest, the one who pays or the those in the majority? Everyone all equally?- well, we know that is never the case.

I think this is the crux of the issue with the whole field of designing with people. Whether we call it Design Anthropology, User-centred design, Participatory design, Co-design, they all sound wonderful. On the surface, it appears to be such a egalitarian, democratic and nicey-nicey way of designing. However, underneath it all really boils down to whose decision makes it in the final cut. Design is political, it is never neutral, neither is a design-anthropologist or an ethnographer. Each stakeholder brings their worldview to the table in how they would like the world to be. Whatever the designed outcome, it will inevitably have values embedded within it, which are often invisible yet pervasively inscribed in the design process. These designed outcomes then shape the world we live in, shape the way we think and act. So many reported case-studies omit the critical question of how and which values are deemed 'better' to be expressed and inscribed through the design process, and why.

So, I am troubled by your statement 'how design help define what it means to be human'. Does it really? It is again the language slips and nuances I pick up in your statements that sounds the warning bells in my mind. That designer=design is defining the way humans 'should' be so that they can make sense of who they are. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive and emphasising something that you had not intended to imply. However, I would be more comfortable with a statement that flips it around to say that people (human) can make/design to express who they are. Through design, humans can discuss what they want their world to be, and of course, designers are one of these humans too. It is about how this dialogue can take place.

I am afraid that I shall remain critical of Design Anthropology until the nitty-gritty, dirty, difficult bits are really opened up, questioned and examined. It is really, only through critique and questioning, can we see our own prejudice, assumption and the way we colour the way we see the world. I hope your students and fans of Design Anthropology can engage in such critique too.


Gong Szeto

forgive me for being reductionist, but i see things as a continuum, and let's call this, for argument's sake, "the tool using/making continuum":
1. hominid is hungry
2. hominid sees fruit in tall tree
3. hominid either starves, or fashions something to get up that tree (stacking stones, fashioning a ladder from branches)
4. hominid deploys solution (either it works or it doesn't work, tries again)
5. hominid is elevated and therefore reaches fruit
6. hominid is no longer hungry
7. hominid is hungry
8. repeat

1, 2, 6, 7, 8 is the traditional practice of anthro (sorry if i cannot name the exact strain of anthro)

3, 4, 5 is the traditional practice of design (in this case the hominid is the designer)

1-8 is design-anthro.

i am happy to be A) wrong or B) simplistic about this. but i think dori's case is clearly about interactive participation/observation in this continuum in its entirety, not just a subset of this continuum. design-anthro by its very definition also seeks to affect the system, not just to report on it.

patronizing and misguided are fightin' words, but i gotta ask - patronizing to whom? (purist anthropologists?) and misguided why? because it sullies the purity of system?

problems remain problems until solved. which then begets more problems (or the system properties change). then more things to solve.

i am certain said hungry hominid could care less about lines in the academic sand. hungry hominid just wants to eat.

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