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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. 

Diversity and the Whose Flag? Controversy on DO

There is a controversy brewing on Design Observer based on William Drenttel's calling out the lack of diversity of a panel of judges of an Adbusters contest to design a global flag. It has set off a firestorm of comments, some of which are plain scary. Below is my response:

First, William, you are super cool and brave to introduce this subject. The fact that you represent a "privileged white American male" makes me hopeful for the future diversity of the design profession, because social and economic justice is not possible, until there are those who are willing to share and, in some cases give up, their positions of privilege in order to allow marginalized others to gain access. You are part of the solution.

I am saddened and bemused by some of the comments to this post. I am saddened by the anger and fear by some of the commentators -- those who feel that their positions of privilege and authority (based on their race and gender) is threatened by the call that a "global" design project reflect more perspectives than that of seven white men. In the immortal words of Sojourner Truth, "If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?"

Diversity is about the having a range of perspectives in ways that matter to the subject. There are certain categories of identity in which the meanings are often overdetermined. These categories tend to be race/ethnicity, class, gender, and religion. Being overdetermined means that your are more likely to have experiences that significantly differ from someone in another group based on that identity. Yes, there are different perspectives among seven white men but does that represent a wide enough range of experiences, such that one does not overlap with the others.

Note that being judged by the "content of your character" does not mean being color/gender/class/religion blind. One's experiences based on overdetermined differences informs one's character. Experiences of institutional racism may help develop one's strength of resolve to succeed by creating one's own institutions. Experiences of the multi-ethnic culture of Islamic practice may develop one's tolerance for racial differences. Experiences of sexism may make one more expressive of the emotional inner life that is "forbidden" in the business world. These are the content of one's character, but they are generated by the external characteristics to which people positively or negatively respond.

I am bemused by those who are criticizing the call for diversity by pointing out its most cynical or failed implementations. Yes, sometimes diversity can devolve into "visual politics" without substantial differences in perspective. For example, Clarence Thomas was no Thurgood Marshall and Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton. But there should be an institutional consciousness that says that if we are going to create a world flag that we should recruit designers who my have different perspectives and experiences of issues of nationalism, internationalism, flags, perhaps flag-burning, and it should be global. Who are the top flag-burning designers?

This is getting "longer than the original post." Suffice to say that intentional or unintentional policies of exclusion of the diversity of perspectives is the root of all evil. The hubris of seven white American men judging the fate of a global flag is not so different than the hubris of the European heads partition of Africa. Shame on Adbusters. Praise for William for calling it out.