Rachel Shadoan Muses

And Now for Something No One Will Want To Read (Or, Design Ethnography: Like Anthropology, but Less Conflicted)

Design Ethnography:

Like Anthropology, But Less Conflicted

Academic anthropology is the unholy love child of natural science and colonialism, and is burdened with the resulting identity issues that one might expect from such a union. It is a discipline “severely divided and deeply troubled in its self-identity… torn and fragmented, [anthropology] has lost its professional confidence as the Science of Man” (Eriksen, 2005, p. 34) Its origins leave it effectively crippled, frozen in self doubt, unwilling to adapt to the changes globalism has wrought on the landscape. The power of anthropology, its tool set for collecting rich description, is not lost to the world, however. Design ethnography, born of anthropology’s field work practice, offers a new discipline lacking the identity issues plaguing academic anthropology. To understand why this is the case, however, it first is necessary to examine the birth of anthropology.

I. A Brief History of Anthropology

The historical beginnings of anthropological thought are nearly impossible to trace. Each anthropologist “has his or her own notion of the most relevant point at which to begin the story” (Barnard, 2000, p. 27). Margaret Hodgen (1964) argued that the Greek historian Herodotus was the originator of much anthropological thought. More recent publications have pointed to Muslim scholar Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī as the first true anthropologist for his extensive study of the Indian subcontinent using the hallmark method of anthropology: participant observation (Ahmed, 1984). Regardless of whether anthropology began with social contract theory, as Barnard (2000) argues, it is generally agreed upon that academic anthropology as we know it “grew out of the intersection of European discovery, colonialism, and natural science” in the mid nineteenth century (Monagham, 2000).

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had profound impact on intellectual discourse during the 1860s. According to Stocking (1963), “the publication of the Origin in 1859 focused a whole range of developing knowledge in the biological and historical sciences on the question of the origin and antiquity of mankind and of human civilization” (p. 784). In keeping with this intellectual climate, Edward Tylor, “interested in reconstructing stages of social and cultural evolution,” produced one of the first works of academic anthropology (Monagham, 2000, p. 1). Tylor’s Primitive Culture introduced the modern idea of culture (Eriksen, 2005) as a “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor, 1871, p. 1). Tylor’s contemporaries were natural scientists as well as anthropologists: Lewis Henry Morgan produced monographs on both the American beaver and the Iroquois tribe. As Eriksen writes, these early anthropologists “respected no institutional boundaries between university subjects in their quest for knowledge” (2005, p. 2). However, it is not so much the interdisciplinary approach these men took to understanding that distinguishes them from later anthropologists; rather, it is the methods by which they collected the information they analyzed that sets them apart. Tylor traveled little after the journey that produced the notes for his first book; future theories on the nature of humanity were built instead from study of the accounts of others and archeological artifacts. This willingness to make use of information that did not come from personal participant observation is a noteworthy point in the evolution of academic anthropology; “until the late nineteenth century the ethnographer and the anthropologist, the describer/translator of custom and the builder of general theories about humanity, were distinct” (Clifford, 1983, p. 123).

This distinction between the ethnographer as the field researcher and the anthropologist as the developer of theories on humanity began to dissolve at the end of the nineteenth century. Anthropologists began to enter the field themselves to conduct their own ethnographies from which to build theoretical frameworks. According to Clifford, “the new fieldworkers sharply distinguished themselves from the earlier “men on the spot,” the missionary, the administrator, the trader, and the traveller, whose knowledge of indigenous peoples, they argued, was not informed by the best scientific hypotheses or a sufficient neutrality” (Clifford, 1983, p. 121). In particular, Franz Boas’s appearance on the scene “marks the beginning of an important phase in the development of British ethnographic method: the collection of data by academically trained natural scientists defining themselves as anthropologists, and involved also in the formulation and evaluation of anthropological theory” (Stocking, 1992, p. 20). However, while the “move toward professional ethnography was underway,” Clifford states, “the establishment of intensive participant-observation as a professional norm would have to await the Malinowskian cohort” (Clifford, 1983, p. 122). The work of Bronislaw Malinowski, bound together (perhaps irrevocably) the role of anthropologist and ethnographer; the ethnographer took on the theory building role of the anthropologist in addition to the role of observer. The task of the ethnographer had become, Malinowski writes, “the integration of all the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis of all the various, relevant symptoms…the Ethnographer has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental data” (1961 [1922], pp. 83-84).

Much of the anthropology taking place at this point was salvage anthropology; a rush to document “primitive” Non-Western societies “being destroyed with the advance of civilization” (Grimshaw, 2001, p. 23). Malinowski bemoans the disappearance of the native, writing in his forward to Argonauts, “at the very moment when [anthropology] begins to put its workshop in order, to forge its proper tools, to start ready for work on its appointed task, the material of its study melts away with hopeless rapidity” (Malinowski, 1961 [1922], p. xv). In this spirit, naturalist A. C. Haddon organized an expedition to the Torres Straight Islands; his team strove “to record the customs and practices of native peoples before they died out” (Grimshaw, Viisualizing Anthropology, 2004).

The focus of anthropology on the native began to shift after the Second World War as colonialism disintegrated. By then, Franz Boas and his followers had successfully won the argument that “culture rather than race determined behavior” (Patterson, 2001, p. 55). As anthropology progressed through the second half of the twentieth century, anthropologists began looking at groups within their own societies in addition to the exotic other. But regardless of whom an anthropologist studies today or in the future, Monagrahm writes, “anthropology continues to be firmly rooted in the descriptive richness that comes out of the specific encounters anthropologists have with particular peoples and places” (2000, p. 2).

II. Academic Anthropology to Design Ethnography: The Escape from Science and Colonialism

A. Clarifications and Overview

But what is ethnography to anthropology? The confusion stems, perhaps, from the numerous applications of the word ethnography within anthropology. Ethnography is something that anthropologists do-it is a tool that is used for gathering information about humanity. It is “characterized by long term intense interaction with relatively small groups of people” (Monagham, 2000, p. 26). An ethnography is also something that an anthropologist may write-a description of a people at a particular time and place. The matter is further confused by the shifting of roles within anthropology. Since Malinowski, the ethnographer has co-opted the role of anthropologist-an ethnographer now not only collects stories of the people but also analyzes them for meaning. The previously separate roles of fieldworker and theorist were fused into one (Grimshaw, 2001, p. 20). Because of this fusion in twentieth century anthropology, in this paper I treat the ethnographer and the academic anthropologist as one and the same, and refer to them as anthropologists. Design ethnography, however, is distinct discipline, separate from academic anthropology. The next few sections of this essay address the advent and growth of this design ethnography as a discipline, as well as its relationship to academic anthropology.

“Modern anthropology,” Grimshaw writes, “has always had a problem of professional legitimation” (2001, p. 19). This perceived lack of legitimacy has its roots in the origins of anthropology: colonialism and natural science. The former, anthropology strives to distance itself from, the latter, anthropology strives to become. Anthropology as a discipline has tried so hard to be something other than what it is that it has ceased to be useful. “Anthropology should have changed the world,” Erikson writes, “yet the subject is almost invisible in the public sphere outside the academy” (2005, p. 1). Design ethnography has evolved as a discipline in response to anthropology’s withdrawal from public discourse-it takes the best of anthropology and moves it forward, comfortable in its origin, strengths, and limitations, the confident adult to anthropology’s angsty teenager. Design ethnographers “usurp many elements of traditional ethnography, but bend, twist and transform them to suit our purpose: to define and design” (Salvador & Mateas, 1997). Design ethnography transforms the scientific fragility of anthropology into an understanding of the value of an ethnographer’s a point of view; it breaks completely with the power relationship remaining from anthropology’s colonial origin by developing a method that is deeply collaborative and encourages dialogue. Each of these transformations will be addressed in the following two sections.

B. Design Ethnography: Not Rocket Science

“Anthropology occupies the uneasy space between the sciences and the humanities,” Pool postulates (2005, p. 6). This unease is apparent in the generations of anthropologists who have focused their efforts on making the discipline as scientific as possible. Malinowski was particularly a proponent of the development of anthropology as a true science. In his foreword to Argonauts, he trumpets, that it has been proven “beyond doubt that scientific, methodic inquiry can give us results far more abundance and of better quality than those of even the best amateur’s work” (Malinowski, 1961 [1922], p. xv). The historical significance of science within anthropology coupled with the inherent subjectivity of its primary data gathering method has led to a deep anxiety within the discipline, the fear “that the outside world might discover ‘the fragility of the scientific precepts’ fundamental to the subject” (Eriksen, 2005, p. 1).

This anthropological obsession with scientific validity has caused many an anthropologist’s work to be discredited for being insufficiently objective in his or her observations. Clifford (1983) writes, “Cushing’s long first-hand study of the Zunis, his quasi-absorption into their way of life, ‘raised awkward problems of verification and accountability’… Cushing’s intuitive, excessively personal understanding of the Zuni could not confer scientific authority” (p. 123). Margaret Mead, too, was criticized for her closeness to her work. “She was perceived as … too engaged to be properly scientific” (Eriksen, 2005, p. 3). Anthropologists prefer “the natural scientist’s documentary, observational stance” (Clifford, 1983). Design ethnography, in contrast, is less concerned with the truth of the observations and more concerned with the usefulness of the insight. Colin Burns captured this when he said, “I don’t give a shit about being representative. I want to work with people who will help me think better” (Burns, 2009). A design ethnographer is not seeking truth, scientific or otherwise; after all, everyone lies all the time. Instead, a design ethnographer is in the points of view game, soliciting useful perspectives on the subject at hand (Macaulay, 2009). And one of the most useful perspectives on the subject at hand is the design ethnographer’s own point of view. An ethnographer’s point of view “constitutes a resource [she] should openly draw upon in [her] interpretations (Monagham, 2000, p. 29). Design ethnography recognizes that an essential component of the product a design ethnographer is peddling is the design ethnographer themselves. This acceptance of a degree of subjectivity is not necessarily unique to design ethnography-in the latter half of the twentieth century many anthropologists became significantly “anti-scientistic,” moving away from image of the anthropologist as an impartial, objective observer (Eriksen, 2005). However, anthropologists as a whole are “inept at organizing and immersing themselves in their own rituals” (Eriksen, 2005, p. 13), something that weakens the discipline by removing its most accessible resources. Design ethnography, conversely, exploits the perspective of the fieldworker, creating a more powerful tool for problem solving.

C. Collaboration: Distinguishing Between Applied Anthropology and Design Ethnography

If design ethnography is the ethnographic tool set applied to problem solving as Salvador and Mateas (1997) assert, then isn’t it just a fancy name for applied anthropology? After all, applied anthropology is anthropology directed towards solving practical problems. (Van Willigen, 2002). In the regard that both design ethnography and applied anthropology are focused on developing solutions, they are quite similar. However, they are distinct in a significant way: applied anthropology is practiced in the model of traditional anthropology, in which a lone anthropologist ventures out into the place of the “Others”, to “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (Malinowski, 1961 [1922]) before leaving the field to analyze and synthesize his observations. It is a monologue, a specter of colonial modes of representation, “an exercise in power and control” (Monagham, 2000, p. 29). Design ethnography, on the other hand, is deeply collaborative. A design ethnographer “actively encourages … others to participate in the process and in so doing, will fundamentally expand their way of seeing” (Cheskin Group). The backbone of ethnography is dialogue (Monagham, 2000).

The tension between the applied anthropologists and the people they were representing is nowhere more apparent than in development anthropology during the mid twentieth century. Development anthropology grew from “imperial expansion and colonialism,” in which the colonizers were “‘rational agents of progress and development'” (Van Willigen, 2002, p. 68). This view birthed modernization theory, the idea that natives should be industrialized and urbanized out of their “primitive” ways (Van Willigen, 2002). Patterson writes

Millikan and Rostow provided a blueprint for the interdisciplinary development and modernization studies that were carried out by social scientists, including anthropologists, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s. American foreign aid programs should, in their view, combine economic and political agendas to develop the infrastructures of underdeveloped countries and to support the export-oriented sectors of the local elites in order to promote capitalist modernity and to create “an environment in which societies which directly or indirectly menace ours will not evolve” (Patterson, 2001, p. 116).

Notably, the countries at the focus of many of these studies did not agree with this assessment. Many of the newly independent nations in Africa and Asia advocated instead an approach of non-interference in the affairs of other nations (Patterson, 2001). “In other words,” Patterson writes, “there was a fundamental difference of opinion between the American advocates of modernization and the leaders of the non-aligned nations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America” about how anthropologists should approach the “problem” of underdevelopment (Patterson, 2001).

While the issue of the lack of dialogue in applied anthropology is thrown into starkest relief when seen through the lens of development anthropology, it is also readily apparent in medical anthropology. Medical anthropology “draws upon social, cultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology to better understand those factors which influence health and well being (broadly defined), the experience and distribution of illness, the prevention and treatment of sickness, healing processes, the social relations of therapy management, and the cultural importance and utilization of pluralistic medical systems” (Society for Medical Anthropology, 2009). However, in spite of this enormous potential to alleviate suffering, medical anthropology has by and large failed to make significant impact. The primary reason for this is lack of communication. In order for interdisciplinary collaboration to be productive, both parties must have “respect and mutual understanding of the assumptions and approaches of the other discipline” (Pool, 2005, p. 1). This is often missing from medical anthropology projects because the anthropologists “failed to communicate with medical professionals” (Pool, 2005, p. 1). Hemmings writes, “Anthropologists have typically assumed the patient’s perspective rather than that of the doctor… The stereotyping attitude of anthropologists to doctors has often produced poor communication between them” (2005, p. 98). Success for medical anthropology comes only when the anthropologist assumes the role of a facilitator in addition to an observer: “Stein (1985) argued that he had been most successful with doctors when he did not try to change them, but instead helped them to see their own meanings and constructs that they brought to and imposed on their clinical practice” (Hemmings, 2005). It is in this mode of facilitator that the design ethnographer lives. In addition to actively encouraging participation from all involved parties, a design ethnographer “helps all stakeholders understand the questions and the role research can play” (Cheskin Group, p. 14). A design ethnographer “[makes] connections. They take the leap from research to strategy and innovation, working collaboratively … to solve complex problems” (Cheskin Group, p. 17). The focus on collaboration between stakeholders distinguishes design ethnography from applied anthropology; this dialogue helps the design ethnographer to develop more appropriate and applicable solutions to challenging problems.

III. Modern Storytelling: Design Ethnography in Industry

Because of the extreme importance of communication to a design ethnographer’s work, they have moved beyond simple text, which is the traditional (and nearly exclusive) mode of transmitting information in academic anthropology. Academic anthropology “offers little by way of an understanding of the contemporary world in which visual media play such a central role” (Grimshaw, Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology, 2001, p. 2). Design ethnography, by contrast, is focused on “engaging people concretely, for example, within films as subjects and collaborators” (Grimshaw, Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology, 2001, p. 3). This engagement is crucial in industry, where time to transmit information is often short. The design ethnographer must function as a storyteller in addition to an observer.

This role as storyteller is particularly apparent in the case of Intel’s design of the Intel Reader. The Intel Reader is a “mobile device that takes pictures of text, translates the image into digital text by using optical character recognition (OCR) technology, and reads the text aloud by using text-to-speech (TTS) software,” designed to help users with visual or other disabilities lead independent lives (Chan, Foss, & Poisner, 2009). The process began, as many ethnographic processes began, with listening. Chan writes:

When we started developing the Intel Reader we talked with end users who allowed us to gain insight into their needs, and who gave us the opportunity to hear how they use current technology in their everyday lives. To obtain a deeper understanding for end-user needs, we began with usage research. As part of this phase, we interviewed targeted users, followed them through a day in their lives, and observed their daily challenges at home and at work, and asked for their insights on the challenges of daily living (Chan, Foss, & Poisner, 2009).

Following the interaction with targeted users, the team began to develop composited personas from the key characteristics of the people they interviewed. This technique showcases the design ethnographer’s role as storyteller-it is “a way to make sense of complexity” (Cheskin Group, p. 4), to “translate large amounts of data into concise and compelling findings” (Cheskin Group, p. 17). Initially there were 30 characters, but from that the team distilled 5 personas. The process of distilling the user research into compelling and digestible stories gave the team the insight they needed to produce a design specification. “[The research] highlighted for us the three key elements for a reading device: accuracy, convenience, and discretion. The device needs to accurately capture information; it needs to be easy to use anywhere, anytime; and it must allow users to maintain privacy in their everyday tasks” (Cheskin Group).

Another example of ethnography in use in industry, Miller Beer’s quest to ascertain how their user base was different from Budweiser’s, showcases design ethnography’s willingness to embrace visual forms of communication, such as film, that are eschewed by traditional anthropology. Taylor writes on the subject, the perception that “‘when anthropologists begin to dedicate a large part of their time to ethnographic films it is usually because they have lost confidence in their own ideas’-is surely part and parcel of an abhorrence of imagery in general” (Taylor, 1996). Design ethnographers take a more pragmatic approach: Emma Gilding and Johanna Shapira of OgilvyDiscovery spent hours or days at a time filming their participants in their native habitats. Tischer writes:

Subjects agree to allow videographers to follow them for a day or longer, documenting the minutiae of everyday life and gathering information on everything from emotional engagement with a product to environmental cues on its place in the home and the psyche of the user. After an initial awkwardness, the camera typically seems to fade away, allowing an extraordinary candor. “There’s something really incredible about someone asking you to tell your story for eight hours,” says Shapira. “It can almost become a confessional experience for people.” (Tischler, 2007, p. 1)

Shapira and Gilding’s team analyzed the seventy hours of video footage of men in bars drinking Miller Lite down to twenty minutes of key insight; they found that Miller Lite was a social drink, while Budweiser was purchased by those drinking alone. Additionally, the team discovered that the average Miller Lite drinker was more comfortable emoting than his Budweiser-swilling compatriot. This insight allowed them to develop a series of commercials specifically tailored to Miller’s user base, “a hilarious series of ads that cut from a Miller Lite drinker’s weird experiences in the world–getting caught in the subway taking money from a blind musician’s guitar case, or hitching a ride in the desert with a deranged trucker–to shots of him regaling friends with tales over a brew” (Tischler, 2007, p. 2). The team credits the video footage with helping them pin the tone of the advertisements exactly; “‘It let us bring a level of verisimilitude to the execution that was just terrific'” (Tischler, 2007, p. 2).

It is the rich interaction ethnographers have with participants and other stakeholders that gives ethnographic results that “level of verisimilitude”. By building a deeply collaborative practice and embracing new forms of media to aid in storytelling and the presentation of “thick description”, design ethnography offers to the world what academic anthropology should have offered, but did not; a powerful tool for understanding ourselves and improving the world.


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