VISUAL TURN IV: People and Stuff– A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (2/2)

In a previous post, I described the process of an ‘Ethnocharrette’ – essentially a strategy that incorporates aspects of design methodology into anthropological practice. As part of a longer series thinking about how art/design modalities are increasingly commonplace in anthropologies that aren’t designated as visual anthropology. I wondered if this attention to art and design in anthropology is ‘new’ or simply new to me given my recent collaboration with two artists? Is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” underway? I discussed these questions with Keith M Murphy, author of Swedish Design: An Ethnography. This post is the second half of our conversation.

Lindsay: Your book takes on how Swedish design is constituted in practice through everyday design work and refracts larger cultural and political ideals about Swedish social democracy. Your observations and engagements with designers not only inspired your book, but also some of your pedagogical strategies like the Ethnocharrette. It is increasingly common to see people working at the intersection of design and anthropology. Do you see this as being a way to make the skills of anthropology marketable outside of the academy or is there something specific that makes this intersection make sense?

Keith: I think the intersection makes sense in a few different ways. In terms of the marketability issue, sure, in a general sense anthropology has a lot to offer all sorts of design fields and is well-positioned to make the work done by designers better according to a number of different metrics. But I tend to think collaborations between anthropologists and most other kinds of professionals are almost always A Good Thing. The question is what makes the match between design and anthropology a fruitful one, and as a follow-up, why is this relationship only recently gaining wider attention, given the fact that anthropologists and other ethnographers have been working with designers outside of academia for several decades.

For me the match makes sense because both anthropology and design (I’m using the term broadly, even though design is a very diverse kind of thing) share a number of basic core concerns, the most obvious of which is a concern with people. Even if the daily work of a furniture designer is focused on sourcing the right sized screws, or an architect spends most of her mornings wrangling with CAD software, that’s all done in the service of creating objects and spaces that help constitute an everyday world of human lived reality. If anthropologists are tasked with making sense of that world, designers are charged with help giving it form, two complementary cuts in a broader human-centered project. Second, both design and anthropology are concerned with, for lack of a better term, stuff. Even though we’re all so focused on people, we also recognize that people never stray too far from their things, and that the forms those things take and the meanings they’re given are critical mediators of cultural and political experience. Third (there’s more, but I’ll keep it at three), design and anthropology both operate by means of research, which is to say, both fields explicitly value exploring and critically understanding the wider contexts in which they’re situated, rather than simply building on preconceived ideas about what they’re looking at.

As for why this relationship is only now taking on a more cohesive form, I think that abstract anthropological theorizing needed to play catch-up with the real world. I see several moments and movements in anthropology as sort of establishing necessary preconditions for the emergence of a more robust design anthropology, including material culture studies and theories of materiality, which bring things and their qualities to the fore in not-necessarily-Marxist ways; reconfiguring the critique of visualism as an attention to multisensory semiotic engagement; and a turn to the ethnographic study of making and its contexts. When taken together, all of these (and more!) begin to dismantle longstanding frameworks that separate production and consumption, material and immaterial, the visual and the textual, form and content, and lots more, and design anthropology is sort of swooping in to help redesign their new configurations.

This isn’t to say that design is perfectly suited for anthropology and vice-versa, and I definitely don’t think the match is always trued. But I do think anthropology and design can definitely learn quite a bit from each other.

Lindsay: Yes, I agree. What I think is interesting is the uptake in visual modalities by those of us whose objects of enquiry are not design or aesthetic/cultural production. For instance, we’ve talked about the debates in the infrastructure literatures that rely heavily on the issue of materiality and what is tangible and seen and what is ‘invisible’. I gained some perspective on this last fall when I participated in a symposium at NYU, Media, Infrastructure, and Aesthetics. There were people from a wide range of disciplines interested in assessing the growing scholarly and artistic interest in the aesthetic dimensions of extraction.  Architecture, design and art were avenues for talking about global resource extraction and its related cultural politics, even for those of us trained outside these specifically visual disciplines. What do you make of this? Do you think this is a select group of people, or do you think there is a broader current in anthropology to take on shared interests and expertise of these other fields?

 Keith: I think that as anthropologists continue to find new sites to examine, and new constellations of humans and their things to puzzle through, we often find ourselves not fully equipped to account for, if we use Eduardo Kohn’s phrasing, the stuff “beyond the human” (and his book is a great example of an anthropologist trying to do just that). This can really be a struggle. Of course anthropology has always cared about the parahuman materials of social life, but as we move toward treating such things less as a context thickly described and more as our central objects of inquiry, our fealty to a textual impulse in both our methods (e.g. field notes) and our representations (e.g. ethnographic monographs) can sometimes stymie us from moving beyond the human in ways that are appropriate to our field sites, and that can push anthropology forward (though I’m personally not interested in straying too far from the human). So some anthropologists start looking elsewhere for inspiration. I think part of the draw toward architecture and design, at least for me, is that, as I said, those are fields whose concerns seem to resonate with anthropology, but whose modalities aren’t ultimately subject to a textual impulse for their legitimacy. They seem to offer ways to engage with the world that are certainly visual, but really they’re multisensory, and they don’t seem to provoke much anxiety around accounting for the semiotic richness of those multisensory forms of engagement — which I think can be alluring to fieldworkers feeling oppressed by the routine obligation to transduce complex experiences into a collection of words on a page. I don’t know whether art, design, and architecture are, ultimately, some perfect parallel panaceas that will help anthropologists really confront the shifting composition of the fieldsites we find ourselves in, but I do think there’s a lot of value in seeing what might come of it.

I am a sociocultural/linguistic anthropologist interested in the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. My primary research examines indigenous-state relations and everyday experiences of extractive development (diamonds and oil) in circumpolar North America. With artist/academic collaborators, Jesse C Jackson (UC Irvine) and Tori Foster (OCAD U), I am developing a set of moving and still images to tell the story of urban life north of the 60th parallel. This new work combines data visualization techniques with more standard anthropological methods. When not north of 60, I have the pleasure of teaching ethnographic writing by way of anthropology at SUNY, Oswego where I am an assistant professor. I am the editor of the Society for the Anthropology of North America's peer reviewed journal, North American Dialogue. You can find me on social media @drlibertybell

4 thoughts on “VISUAL TURN IV: People and Stuff– A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (2/2)

  1. Lindsay, thank you again for introducing me to Keith’s book Swedish Design: An Ethnography. It is, indeed, a gem. I must admit that I was a bit disturbed when early on Keith introduced Deleuze and Guattari’s “Diagram”, heteroglossia, and Foucault’s “heterotopia” as key theoretical concepts. What I would like to point out here is that in Keith’s hands these become far more than examples of pomo jargon. They inspire and inform the substance of the ethnography, thickening the description and making it more compelling as well.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks so much for your kind words. Honestly, I was a little disturbed myself when some of that language started making its way into my thoughts and writing (not heteroglossia, though, which is like catnip for linguistic anthropologists). But what kept coming back to me is that many of these concepts really did resonate with me in terms of understanding the ethnographic material I was working with. So what I tried to do, rather than just drop them in the text as familiar jargon, was to sort of operationalize them through carefully working and re-working them through the ethnography.

    For me, one of the useful things about theory in anthropology is that, if used well, it can help bring together lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena and illuminate overlaps and consistencies between cases that might otherwise go unnoticed. But if your theory is impenetrable and/or unwieldy, or you aren’t clear enough about how exactly it matters to your ethnographic particulars, then that capacity to do some bridging work pretty much disappears. So I spent a lot of time trying to lay out a) what a given theorist was saying, and then b) how these concepts apply to design in Sweden, with the hopes that they could also easily be used as a way to identify and understand and critique overlaps and consistencies that may exist in other ethnographic domains. I’m sure folks will disagree with both my a’s and my b’s, but that’s OK, I think the exercise is totally worth it.

  3. Keith,

    Allow me to pile on a bit — in a positive way. Your book seems to me a wonderful illustration of something Victor Turner wrote,

    In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience.

    “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors.” In Victor Turner, ed., Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 23.

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