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August Wilson's Radio Golf part 1

Big A and little a, big D and little d

There has been some static on the Anthrodesign list about the dominance of anthropologists and their jargon on the list. This was my response to some of the issues that appear on the list every once in a while.

Since I came across the Design and design distinction at the AIGA national conference in 2003, I have thought a lot about Anthropology and Design as general human endeavors and anthropology and design as professional activities. For example, I work/play within the field of Design, but feel less confident about design. Now probably, I am a decent “designer.” And maybe after a summer at Basel, I will change my mind and call myself a full fledge designer without choking. But the heart of the matter is that I don’t feel I have the credibility to call myself a designer compared to the award winning designers I hang out with (who all have MFAs from Yale and studied at Basel). Now this is about my lack of confidence for they all love and adore me and trust me to teach “design” to their students. So to deal with this I have two possible approaches: (1) I can go to Basel and get the marker of credibility I feel I need or (2) I can get my colleague! s to keep telling me that I am a designer until I believe it. Because it is my desire to be respected and admired as a member of their professional group that drives my insecurity about design. Thus for me, the line between Design and design, Anthropology and anthropology is relative to the standards of design/anthropology that one is operating under and the extent to which those are shared by others who can evaluate those standards.

What defines the professionalization of any human endeavor is the establishment of standards. There are design standards and anthropology standards. As professionals in the field of anthrodesign, what should be the standards for the profession will always be and should be a core issue. Is an MA in anthro and MFA or MDes in design both required to be a professional anthrodesigner? Who defines those standards? Who are the influencers and who are the deciders? What I find cool is that the standards are evolving in interesting ways that are, on one hand, higher (ex. thus sadly for newbies the greater difficulty of finding entry level positions in this field) and, on the other hand, broader (ex. the current spate of job postings are asking for wider ranges of credentials across the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and design).

Everyone does Anthropology and Design (we try to understand the people around us and create possible futures based on that understanding). Yet, there are subsets of the population who choose to make their livelihood from those endeavors (anthropologists and designers). To protect the reputation of the field so that clients will buy their services and more importantly understand the value-add of those services, they, as a group, create standards that make clear the “minimal” required skills, theoretical perspectives, and attitudes toward the field. These are not random cruel disciplinary enclosures, but often precipitated by the real harm done by practioners to the reputation and effective impact on the field.

As a professional and academic discipline, anthropology has been keen on protecting its standards for reasons both positive and negative. On the positive side, it is about instilling an theoretical responsibility to knowledge production and the ethical responsibility to the populations with whom one works. Anthropology emphasizes the theory embedded in methods and practices to guard against misrepresentations and abuse of study populations. This is the self-reflection borne out of anthropology’ role in the Imperial enterprise. Ethnography may be a philosophical orientation, but anthropology is a discipline, design is a discipline, physics is a discipline, economics is a discipline. Thus they are practices to be governed. Now, journalist and the CIA may all be interested in Anthropology and the study of culture and meaning. But I find that the questions, assumptions, and outcomes of their forms of inquiry are often not the same as anthropology, although the techniques m! ay be similar.

On the negative side, standards have often been about preserving the privileges of its professional members over those who do not meet the “in group” standards. Yet, over time and due to changes in the current “in group,” the standards shift. I always laugh that the founding fathers of anthropology believe that, as an African American, I did not have the cranial capacity to be an anthropology. This same boundary marking process happens within IDSA and AIGA and the same calls of “elitism” is thrown by those who perceive themselves to be outside of the “in group,” at least until they are the “in group.” <wink>

But for a professional group to demonstrate their value to government, business, and society, it needs to be able to clearly communicate “this is who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you.” This narrative is always one of exclusion. But “no condition is permanent” and this process can be part of establishing new identities as in, “I am an anthrodesigner.” And remember that by claiming, “I am a professional,” you are excluding those who are amateurs. This is not unique to anthropology, but happens whether the fields are art, engineering, economics, or design. We all need to form group identities, especially when we need to communicate them to others of higher status and upon whose favor we rely for our livelihood. 

My point is that I do not view these discussions as a devolution, but part of the evolution of both design and anthropology, as Design and Anthropology. At stake is the reputation and thus the impact of the professions on government, business, and society. Since neither field is especially “high status” in the American government, business, and society, we’re probably are not as open with the standards as we ought to be and expand and contract iteratively. But, I do find both fields trying to approach things more expansively than before in response to the changing world. To continue the dialogue is to continue the evolution.


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