Tag Archives: Ethnography

anthropology + design: laura forlano.

[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design. This is our final post!]

LAURA FORLANO. writer and design researcher.

 

WHAT I DO.

I’m an ethnographic time traveler. For much of the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the ways in which the use of communication technology enables emergent socio-cultural practices around working and living in cities. For example, I’m interested in peer-to-peer networking, bottom-up organizing, co-located online collaboration, user-driven social innovation and open source urbanism, to name just a few. I’ve watched teens use mobile phones in Tokyo, observed activists building Wi-Fi networks on rooftops in Berlin, interviewed freelancers in Starbucks cafes in New York, watched doctors use computers in operating rooms, tested iPhone applications for navigating college campuses, visited design studios in Barcelona, and hung out with hackers in Budapest.

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anthropology + design: kat jungnickel.

[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

KAT JUNGNICKEL. ethnographer. maker.

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ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

I’ve always made a bit of a mess. I’ve splashed around darkrooms, attempted to stitch interdisciplinary collaborations, and knit a research blog. I’ve hosted exhibitions, printed ‘zines and folded origami-inspired data boxes. I regularly collaborate with colleagues to build and perform dubiously welded “Enquiry Machines,” and I’m currently sewing a range of new Victorian women’s cycle wear as a means of thinking about public space, mobility, and gender.

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anthropology + design: anne galloway.

[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

ANNE GALLOWAY. designer. ethnographer. archaeologist.

ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

My sense of anthropology is very materialist so I think it made a lot of sense for me to gravitate towards design. I originally trained as an archaeologist and did ethnographic fieldwork on Andean textile production, so I’ve always been interested in the things that people make. Of course, as anthropologists we’re taught the importance of context and I think that bringing anthropology and design together really stresses contextual meanings. For me, the most interesting connection between anthropology and design can be found in how each practice enhances the other. Anthropology provides a kind of thick description that contextualises design processes and products, and design offers anthropology creative means of exploring and representing what it means to be human. I also enjoy the explicit combination of thinking, doing, and making—of blurring boundaries between analytical and creative practice, between rational and emotional experience.

Sometimes, in design, we talk about research about, for, and through design—and I think that anthropology is well suited to contribute to each endeavour. As we know, ethnography (including material, visual, and discursive culture) can tell us a lot about the roles of design in everyday life. Ethnography also provides us with valuable information that can be used to design “better” things—or to design nothing at all. And although research through design is perhaps less obviously related to anthropology, I think that every kind of anthropological research could create and employ objects and images with as much nuance as we’ve come to use words.

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anthropology + design: silvia lindtner.

[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

SILVIA LINDTNER. DIY maker, hacker, and ethnographic design researcher.

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ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

Many disciplines and fields often work with competing notions of what counts as design, claiming authority over the term, practice, and definition. Think for instance about efforts in critical design (e.g., Dunne & Raby 2007) and the strong oppositions its practitioners often make to product design. Critical design is aimed at engaging people in critical ways with commonly used products. As Jeff and Shaowen Bardzell illuminate, critical design is positioned in opposition to affirmative design—the latter considered as “the common practice, and this practice is amoral and ultimately a dupe for capitalist ideology, while critical designers are described as moral agents who seek to change society for the better” (Bardzell & Bardzell 2013).

It is important to not shy away from the politics of design, or to brash aside such heated debates over definitions, terms, and authentic practices–many of which are legitimizing efforts of new approaches in an overly competitive market (both industry and the academy). The question is how to engage the politics of design in a way that remains open to multiple viewpoints and approaches. At numerous times in my research, I have heard people argue that the process of making and designing itself is apolitical. There is much that refutes such statements–think for instance of questions of labor when we turn towards sites of production that manufacture the technological products we use on a daily basis, or listen to debates of hackerspace members over what counts as hacking versus making versus product design. What is important here is to consider the differences that lie in designing as a mode of inquiry, a leisure practice, or central to one’s profession and livelihood.

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anthropology + design: nicolas nova.

[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

NICOLAS NOVA. design researcher. ethnographer.

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ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

The word “design” is problematic as it’s often related to furniture and glossy magazines at the local newsstand. And because this term is used in different fields, from engineering to management, you have different professions in which practitioners see themselves as “designers:” architects, engineers, people developing user interfaces for websites or video games, etc. A good way to approach design is to understand what “designers” do: they define the shape and the behavior of artifacts based on their understanding of potential users and the context in which they live or work. Said differently, they materialize “prospective futures.”

In order to speculate about near future possibilities, designers usually need to make their work relevant, useful, or believable by people. This is where the social sciences fit in. Knowledge and methods coming from anthropology–such as ethnography–are used and often repurposed by designers to help make different decisions over the course of a project. Observing people’s routines in a kitchen can inform the design of electric appliances, for instance. Interviewing users with a non-standard way of using their bike can also be curious and lead to new bicycle designs.

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anthropology + design.

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, Rachel Carmen Ceasar.

Chances are you know nothing about design.

Me neither.

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So when I was introduced to designer Laura Forlano at the Society for Social Studies of Science meeting in Sunny San Diego last fall, my interest in what design could do for anthropology–and vice-versa–was piqued.

For the next two weeks, I will be running a short series that features interviews with design researchers, ethnographic hackers, and field work makers with their take on anthropology and design. For the first interview, we will be talking with design researcher and ethnographer Nicolas Nova (that’s his toolkit in the photo above).

Rachel Carmen Ceasar (@rceasara) is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Medical Anthropology Program at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco (California, USA). She writes about the subjective and scientific stakes in exhuming mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship in Spain today.

Data Havens of Iceland

Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?

Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform.  In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve.  The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.

But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche.  In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.

AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?

Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them.  But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”.  That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection.  From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point.  That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!

AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading

Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this interview with Kirin Narayan as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesKirin is currently professor in the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University, after a distinguished career in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. She is the author of numerous books and articles, written across all possible ethnographic genres, including the monograph Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching, folklore such as Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales, the novel Love, Stars, and All That, her memoir My Family and Other Saints, and the writing guide Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov.)

This past month, I interviewed Kirin Narayan over email, she in Australia and India, and me in the USA. Inspired not only by her writings, but also by an ethnographic writing workshop she led for faculty and students at the University of Colorado a couple years back, I wanted to share her insights and inspiration with Savage Minds readers and participants in our ongoing writing group. Below is our exchange. Enjoy, learn, write!

  • CM: One of the things so unique about your writing are the many genres and forms you write across: academic prose, fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction, writing about writing, storytelling, editing, books, articles, and so on. What has your writing path in anthropology been like? How much have you purposefully shaped what and how you wrote versus how much have embraced what invitations and opportunities have serendipitously come your way?

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Anthropologists: Ready, Set, Write!

Anthropologists have always been writers. But we have not always paid attention to writing as craft or as practice, rather than as vehicle for communicating knowledge. While historically some anthropologists wrote well or across genres—Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Laura Bohannan, and Clifford Geertz immediately come to mind—the 1980s literary turn in anthropology brought us new collective energy and interest in not just writing, but in writing well.

Writing takes time. Writing well takes time and practice. Continue reading

Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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Made in China: Notes from the CIA Gift Shop

What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?

I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.

There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading

The Digital Revolution and Anthropological Film

[The following is an invited post by Jay Ruby. Jay has been exploring the relationship between cultures and pictures for the over forty years. His research interests revolve around the application of anthropological insights to the production and comprehension of photographs, film, and television. For the past three decades, he has conducted ethnographic studies of pictorial communication among several U.S. communities.]

I first became interested in documentary and ethnographic film in the 1960s and was a witness to a profound technological change motivated by the need some filmmakers had to create a new cinematic form. It occurred in two places almost simultaneously – France and the U.S. Filmmakers wanted lightweight 16mm cameras with sync sound that needed no lighting and would need only a small crew for location shoots. In 1960, Drew Associates – Bob Drew, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennybaker jerry-rigged a fairly lightweight 16mm camera attached to a synced tape recorder and made the first American Direct Cinema film, Primary. (Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press 2007) With its grainy, wobbly sometimes out of focus images and often-garbled sound, the film radically altered how some U.S documentarians made movies. While an interest in observational style films was relatively short among U.S. documentarians, some European anthrofilmmakers still consider it the best way to make films (See Anna Grinshaw and Amanda Ravetz’s 2009 Observational Cinema: Film and the Exploration of Social Film, Indiana University Press).

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The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

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Fiction and Anthropology

As a graduate student during the time that the “Writing Culture” movement was in its heyday, I was drawn to ethnographies such as Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. I loved it not only for its poignant analysis of the cultural contexts of Bedouin poetry but also for Abu-Lughod’s fine writing.  Before becoming an anthropologist, I had received a master’s degree in creative writing, and I have always been interested in the ways that anthropology and literature inform one another. In particular, what can anthropologists learn from fiction? Continue reading