Review: Borderland Biashara Report (2016)


Image 1: Traders and Transport Options on the Border of Kenya and Uganda. Photo credit: Niti Bhan.

Upon reading the Emerging Future's Lab newly released report Borderland Biashara (2016), you will quickly realize that everything you think you know about trade and the informal economy on the Kenya/Uganda borderlands is probably wrong.

I have always been interested in what is labeled the informal economy. As an African American, de facto segregation and discrimination meant that my parents, and especially grandparents, operated in the informal economy. They hailed gypsy cabs before there was Uber. One grandfather was a money lender, so there was a preference to deal in cash not bank accounts. Wages could be paid under the table. Holiday presents may have "fallen off a truck." They operated in a gray zone of legality and illegality, when American laws were prejudicial against black people.

I more directly experienced the informal economy when I spent my formal anthropology career in East Africa (1993-1999), specifically in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. But this was before the cultural shifts happening in Africa due to access to mobile technologies. To understand the dynamic quality of entrepreneurship on the Kenya and Uganda border today, you must read the Borderland Biashara Report because it does two things extremely well.

First, the report does an excellent job of providing an in depth description of the interconnections between personal relationships, which, by definition of being part of the informal economy, are not mediated by formal contracts, and the success of a trader's business. This is due to the ethnographic approach of the research team: Niti Bhan, Emerging Future's Lab Director, Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate.

One of the key insights of the report is HOW different kinds of informal traders improve the quality of their family, financial, transport, information technology, and customer networks in order to improve their businesses. You could feel the hustle and bustle of the traders' various socially-driven economic activities whether it is calling, texting, or transferring  money on M-pesa for agents or family on their mobile phones; visiting a supplier via a matatu, or sitting under a specific tree where customers will know where to find them. Good social networks are good business.

Second, the report selects a trader segment, which the team calls the Hidden Middle, as a focus for their nuanced analysis of the relationship between formal and informal structures in support of the traders' business. I hate to break it to the banks out there hoping to cash in on the informal economy in Kenya and Uganda--you are seen to provide limited ROI in terms of these trader's business value and your fees make no sense. The team's insights into Hidden Middle's optimization of both systems present a  break through for those in development to understand when formalization works or does not work as a driver of entrepreneurship.

The Emerging Future's Lab Borderland Biashara Report demonstrates the best of what design thinking--although I think their work is more aligned with my seven principles of design anthropology--can do in helping organizations to better understand the dynamics and non-exploitative opportunities that exist in various alternative economies in the world. I hope to see the team presenting their report at all the design and ethnography conferences next year (EPIC, Core77, HOW Design Live, Ico-D) in recognition of their project's accomplishments.




Rebranding Anthropology Textbooks

Beloit College Anthropologist, Associate Professor Jennifer Esperanza was feeling frustrated. Why is there always images of "exotic" peoples on the cover of anthropology textbooks? "Why can't there be images of, for example, a group of white American women eating salads, on the cover?," she asked.

A quick Google image search of "anthropology textbooks" demonstrates her point: image 1.


Image 1: Screenshot of Google image search of "anthropology textbooks"

 Stephen Nugent (2007: 132) in his book, Scoping the Amazon: Image, Icon, and Ethnography, describes: 

Much of the writing on anthropological photography has sought to redress the indexical bias according to which Western image making of non-Westerners has, to put it as crudely as possible, objectified anthropological (and other) subjects.

The aim of the Rebranding Anthropology Textbooks is to offer a critique not just in words, but in counter images that make stark the construction of identities and the owner/subjects of the anthropological gaze in anthropological photography. For me, it is part of two larger projects in which I have been involved. The first is the Decolonizing Anthropology project, which was first articulated by Dr. Faye Harrison in 1991. Since becoming an anthropologist, I have accepted her challenge to work "to free the study of humankind from the prevailing forces of global inequality and dehumanization and to locate it firmly in the complex struggle for genuine transformation" (Harrison 1991: 10). The second is the Rebranding Anthropology project that I initiated in 2005 with other applied anthropologists. This project culminated in a 2006 workshop with the American Anthropological Association to reposition the field from its traditional stereotypes to its contemporary practices and competitors. It also led to the redesign of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology branding and logo mark in 2008 by University of Illinois at Chicago graphic design students.

The design brief that I offered to my former Swinburne Design Anthropology postgraduate students was the following:

Greetings Danthro Alums. I have a quick weekend project for you to do as a favor. A friend of mine pointed out how all anthropology textbooks have these "exotic" images of others on the covers and never an image of "white women eating salad". 

Me, being Dr. Smarty Pants, said, "Wouldn't it be great to replace those exotica images with those of middle class American/Australian Caucasians doing stuff, maybe even using stock photos?"

So, I would ask you to select a cover from a cultural anthropology textbook and replace the "exotica" image with an image equivalent of "white women eating salad." I would suggest creative commons instead of stock images so that we can use them in an article about this topic.

I selected as my template the textbook, Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human by Robert Lavenda and Emily Schultz, 3rd Edition: image 2.


Image 2: Cover of Anthropology: What Does It Mean to Be Human textbook

Then, I recreated the textbook with a set of two new images: image 3. The first image is one of my own and has the same Western "anthropological gaze" exotic style as the original textbook image. I used one of my own to avoid any future copyright issues in the reproduction of the project's images in articles, books, and exhibitions. It was also a good reminder for me of how many of the images in my iPhoto library adhered to the National Geographic style of representing the people and places where I have traveled for research. The second image is a decolonized version that shows a similar topic but with Western cultural practices as the subject. I downloaded the image from a Flickr Creative Commons image by colorblindPICASO.

RB Anthro textbooks1_dt

Image 3: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Woman in Store. Credit: Elizabeth Tunstall and colorblindPICASO CC BY-NC 2.0

Design anthropologist, business coach, and branding specialist, Julie Hill accepted the challenge and produced nine images for the project. She describes her experience below:

I found this exercise interesting and fun to explore. Especially focusing on the shift in the lens, from traditional anthropology to contemporary ethnography, and what that means. The longer I did it, the more interesting it got - I accessed deeper cultural themes, such as beauty, festivities or core cultural values. I liked the one where the North African guy is using modern technology (ipad) and the Western woman is practicing yoga, but maybe it would have been more effective if I had put a traditional Indian woman practicing yoga and then a western woman practicing yoga, to demonstrate a difference.

Rebrand Anth Text Hill1

Image 4: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Beauty Clay. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill2

Image 5: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Body Modification. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill3

Image 6: "Exotic" and decolonized images of The Interpretation of Culture. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill4

Image 7: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Dancing. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill5

Image 8: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Introducing Anthropology. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill6

Image 9: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Market. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill7

Image 10: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Cultural Anthropology textbook. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill8

Image 11: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Nubile Women. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

Rebrand Anth Text Hill9

Image 12: "Exotic" and decolonized images of Eating. Credit: Julie Hill. All images are from Creative Commons (Wikimedia).

 APA Citation: Tunstall, E. (2016, April 7). Rebranding Anthropology Textbooks [Web log post]. Retrieved from



AAA opens up the kinds of inquiry in its Long Range Plans

I love being part of the anthropological community in that there are always very active debates and eruptions on the nature of the field. The current eruption surrounds the replacement of the term science with that of public understanding in the AAA's Long Term Plan. The debate brings up painful memories of the divorce at Stanford when I was a graduate student circa 1997-1999. The department split into the Anthropological Sciences and the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. They are back together again, but I here it is not a good marriage. But anyway, here is my response to the flurry of emails about the change on the Anthrodesign Yahoo Group listserv.

The Psychology Today "article" reminds me that sometimes blogging is not the equivalent of journalism. The blog post is misleading and grossly unfair. The NYTimes article provides a somewhat more measured view, but it still frames the change as a negative "deepening rift." By replacing the word "science" with the term "public understanding" in its long-range plan, the AAAs is expanding its mission such that it no longer mandates a single form of knowledge production (e.g. science) but rather a uniform intention in terms of the outcomes of research. This is not the same as "ditching" science. There is nothing in the statement that says scientific inquiry cannot take place. I still assume that scientific inquiry has something to contribute to public understanding and will continue to do so. What perhaps the shift is indicating, which is causing the consternation, is that scientific inquiry is no longer the only privileged mode of knowledge production in anthropology, in which the change reflects merely the reality of the world today. 

I am currently reading the book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhawia Smith (Zed Books: 1999). It should be required reading for anyone interested in this discussion. The relevant points from the book in relationship to the AAA's decision are how positivism, as part of scientific research, is interested in the "measurement of things" and the procedures of validity and reliability to guarantee their measurement (Smith 1999: 42). Epistomologically and ontologically, Smith argues that these processes, as embedded in research regardless of the specific discipline, inflicts violence on indigenous peoples because it set up "rules of classification, rules of framing (representation), and rules of practice (evaluation)" in which indigenous societies have been brought into the Western system of knowledge as inferior (Smith 1999: 43).

She notes that anthropology is the most hated of disciplines among indigenous peoples because of its theft of indigenous knowledge, artifacts, even bodies. This is in spite of the relationship indigenous communities may have with individual anthropologists. The AAA has made great efforts to engage indigenous peoples as active participants, not just subjects, of anthropological inquiry. The establishment of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists section in the AAA in 2007 has been a major step.

Again, in my view, this change is not about excluding scientific inquiry, as sometimes you need to measure things depending on the kinds of questions you are asking, but rather about leaving an opening in the kinds of inquiry that takes place in the field as long as it addresses the main goal to "...advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects." I belive this is a positive direction for the field.

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. 

Anthropology has always been visual

Got this off of Design Observer, but John Curran has posted a list of the greatest hits of anthropological and social theory diagrams on Flickr.

This makes me happy for two reasons. First, I have always bristled at the notion that anthropologists are more textually-oriented than visual, that somehow there is no culture of the visual in the field. Having misspent my youth trying to figure out the subtleties of kinship diagrams, mastering the art of reading archaeological site maps, and illustrating the distinct morphology of early hominids (pre-humans), I knew that to be empirically untrue. So I am happy to have the vindication through visual documentation that Anthropology has always been visual.

Two, I am co-holding with the diagram-master himself, Hugh Dubberly, a workshop at the American Anthropological Association Meetings in San Francisco as part of the NAPA Design and Anthropology Special Interest Group. Proud (as opposed to shameless) plug (because I am really excited that this collaboration is happening, especially if I get to keep the posters):

TITLE OF EVENT: Workshop: Designing Anthropological "Boundary Objects": how-to compellingly and effectively visualize anthropological data for heterogeneous audiences

SPONSOR: National Association for the Practice of Anthropology
DATE SCHEDULED: 11/21/2008
TIME: 10:00:00AM - 12:00:00PM
ROOM: Union Square 18

So the next time a designer colleague of mine accuses me of being too textual, or more often, seems shocked that I know how to draw a diagram. I can point them to the Great Diagrams of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Social Theory with pride.

More than 15 minutes fame: ID@IIT student video

Gabriel Biller and Kristy Scovel, graduating students at ID @ IIT just released their video, starring me (way too much of me, I should have wore more make-up) on ethnography and interviewing called, "Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography and Interviewing Primer"

They did a really good job. It very funny. What makes me most happy is that they adopted my view of ethnography as a philosophical orientation not just a set of techniques:

The IIT Institute of Design is a graduate school of design dedicated to advancing the methods and practice of human-centered innovation. We believe that real innovation starts with users' needs and employs a set of reliable methods, theories, and tools to create solutions to their problems. Ethnography and interviewing are how we, as designers, see the world through other people's eyes and get them to tell us their stories. In the spring of 2008, we talked to professors, experts, and students about this philosophical orientation and how to actually get people to talk. To ground things a bit, we took a look at a truly universal article of clothing – denim jeans – and set out to understand: "Who's buying premium denim and why?"

So check out the video:

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

Response to DO article on Makereadies and Ink

Jessica Helfand has posted an article on Design Observer about the end of Makereadies with the age of digital printing. And what it seems to mark for her:

Ephemerality is so often the casualty of any kind of progress, as production of any kind is invariably supplanted by quicker, cheaper, more efficient means. In this case, the more the physical object is compromised by speedy transmittal, the more our definitions of design, and of the methods that produce it, must adapt to new conceptions of both method and manufacture.


Here is my response:
The Work of Design in the Age of Mechanical/Digital Reproduction

A few months ago, I went to an actual printing press to oversee a job. This was the first time that I understood that designers made prototypes. There is this entire heavy manufacturing process (with large German machines) that takes place for a Adobe InDesign file to become a physical brochure. That was a magical moment for me (as a quasi-non-designer) in terms of understanding design's role in an "industrial" process.

I am in Santa Fe for the summer, and now I realize what it means to be in a place of "Art." And by art, I mean you can see the human imprint on the works. One can see the brush strokes of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting and know that a human hand made it. You know that it is human because it is imperfect in is regularity.

What you are expressing so elegantly, Jessica, is what happens to design and designing as we move further away from the visibility of human (and mechanical, thus human) imperfection in the work. Philip Burton once told me that it took him 3 years to design his "book" at Basel. The nearly insurmountable potential for human imperfection in hand typesetting is what probably makes that book a work of design superior to art. What makes Saul Bass's work so compelling to me is that you know he had to cut forms out by hand with that level of imperfect precision.

So in addition to your questions of methodological emphemerality and manufacturing efficiency what happens to design when the possibilities of human imperfection are so minimized that there is no sense of awe in design? Is this not what digitalization has done for design? Yes, people still to bad design with digital tools, but the results are probably "better" designs than if they had to use Exacto knives and T-squares.

Is this part of the further democratization of design for "the people" (i.e. Walter Benjamin's argument in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction? Is it part of the de-skilling of design for designers and printers? I think I could live with those outcomes in some ways.

Or does it speak to a deeper loss of the imperfections and "happy accidents" that make possible the delight, surprise, discovery, and humanity in a work of design? This to me would be the more tragic loss.

Yet, I do wonder, Jessica, who actually ever sees the makereadies? Is that moment of delight just for the designer or is a broader audience exposed to them? If it is the former, than perhaps the loss is double. That people do not see them and now they have become obsolete.

Why I think this matters? I once read an entire book of Shakespeare's sonnets. And you know, he wrote some really bad poetry. But, reading them made me appreciate the good poetry all the better because I understood all the possibilities of imperfection that made the good ones perfect. 

My article on design anthropology at Abobe Think Tank

Hey, I just noticed that my article on Design Anthropology: What can it add to your design practice?  just came out on Adobe Think Tank.  It was lots of fun to write and David Womack is a great editor. I now want a personal editor.  Here is the teaser:

Designers primarily concern themselves with how to create a "successful" communication, product, or experience. But with the past 10 years of globalization, digitalization, and ever increasing design complexity, designers have come to realize that to answer the question of design "success" requires that they answer that question of how the processes and artifacts of design help define what it means to be human.

Also in my publishing forays, I was quoted by Rick Poyner in his May 2008 ID Magazine article, Down with Innovation. The quote was “There is an inherent intelligence to beauty, which is about the depth and passion we feel for the world.” Tee hee. I did not even know I was quoted in the article until an ID undergrad student told me. The quote comes from a comment I left on Design Observer about the power of beauty.

Helvetica in White

Last night I watched the film, Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit. While it is an amazing film about typography and provides an interesting history of the Swiss modern typeface, Helvetica, it was struck by the lack of ethnic  and even gender diversity among the interviewees. Of the 22 + interviewees, only 4 were women, 0 were people of color, leaving the rest to be European or Euro-American white males.  Okay,  historically I can see how the designers from the 50s and 60s would be the euro white male, but why were there no people of color among the later designers. Paula Scher and David Carson, and Stefan Sagmeister criticized Helvetica for ideological reasons, but what about someone like Saki Mafundikwa, who could criticize it for its colonial rationality.

I know that diversity in design has a long way to go. But considering the film was done in 2007 in ethnically diverse Europe and the US, you'd think that it would somehow make an appearance in the film. Another missed opportunity...

Graphic Design and Religion

Okay, maybe it's the Holiday season, but I cannot get Steve Hahn's project out of my head. Why is it that graphic designers never talk about/write about communication design and religion? According to his bibliography, he had not come across Daniel Kantor's Graphic Design and Religion: a Call for Renewal (Gia Press 2007). I will have to purchase it now that my interest is peaked.