Just completed today a NSF grant proposal for a workshop on Design Anthropology, with Allen Batteau of Wayne State University. I had Roberta Feldman read a draft and in the discussion about her comments, she proposed to me what makes Design Anthropology distinct from traditional design and traditional anthropology:
What you are doing, based on your work with Design for Democracy, is trying to take social meaning and process and tie it to the act of designing, tie it closely to the actual decisions that designers have to make. You provide useful information and methods to inform specific design activities.
Design Anthropology is able to accomplish this because it was developed in the crucible of design practice, as opposed to academia. It had to be practical (or it would not survive), and used the tools of design itself to make sure its knowledge was "actionable."
But sometimes people forget how hard fought the synthesis was. I remember the early projects at Sapient in the late 1990s, where people ended up yelling and crying all the time because the synthesis of anthropological thinking and design thinking was so painful. Thus, Design Anthropology really represents the "bi-racial" child of academic anthropology and the practice of design.
What is interesting for me is what happens when you bring it back to the academy, which is my mandate. For me, it's not about democratizing methods like ID at IIT, which is a noble pursuit. The Dean, whom I ran into today, said that something about how I, representing the academic field of design anthropology, elevate the intellectual discourse of design so that design can be at the same level as engineering and business. I would say that it gives designers the confidence that comes from a sense of deep topical domain knowledge to engage in those conversations. At least, it is my intention to train designers to feel they can.
So I think I can articulate, with Roberta's help, the distinct character of Design Anthropology in ways to justify its academic existence.