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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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.

Returning to the topic of critical design, then, we might ask: can making and designing for a living also be critical? In which ways? How does critical design in production differ from the kind of critical design we know today? (i.e., shown off to a fairly exclusive audience in a contemporary art museum?) In that sense, for me processes of designing and making have always been more interesting than design with a capital D. There is a tendency in the social sciences to focus on studying the designed artifact—the thing out there and imbued with values and meaning by its creators. In my work, I have been focusing on the processes that goes into making a thing: all the way from tinkering, prototyping, sketching, printing, over writing, talking, pitching, to manufacturing, bargaining, testing, selling,… I consider many of the makers I have encountered in this research critical designers in that sense that they challenge a particular status quo, intervene in existing structures of power, and engage critically with societal and technological questions. Their process of designing is simultaneously affirmative and critical. They are simultaneously driven by (1) making a profit, intervening in the world, and making it a better place, as well as (2) participating in a global market economy of tech innovation and disrupting it (I have written about this in greater detail here: Lindtner 2014).



What we might need today is a contemporary version of participatory design (PD). Originating in Scandinavia, the collection of methods known as participatory design aim to engage workers in co-determining the computational systems that might be introduced into their workplaces (Kensing & Blomberg 1998). This approach to engage the user into the design process has found broader uptake in corporate design methods, such as human-centered design, that are often based on methods borrowed from fields such as anthropology. The original political agenda to empower workers has turned into what Tom Boellstorff (2008) calls “creationist capitalism”—a form of “user participation” that gets people to adopt and spend money on a technology by being involved in creating content, writing code, and sharing information. The most notorious example of this is social media platforms, such as Facebook and Second Life.

So taken together, the fields of anthropology and design have already “met.” Ethnographic methods are used to better target product designs towards user needs (and increased sales), and design methods are used in anthropological research and training (e.g., The Ethnography Center at UC Irvine “Ethnocharrette” project). Not all of this has gone so smoothly as Boellstorff reminds us with his notion of creationist capitalism. In neither field of anthropology nor design do we find much of an in-depth engagement with the more critical and reflective approaches that the other discipline offers. Simply put: design draws upon participant observation, but not the writings after anthropology’s critical turn. And anthropology is interested in what design fields have to offer in terms of creativity, rapid ideation, and material engagement, but not in terms of critical reflection on the politics of design.

I propose a turn towards reflexive and critical approaches in both anthropology and design. It might be worthwhile to bring into conversation and develop a shared methodological frame based on efforts such as critical technical practice (Agre 1997), critical making (Ratto 2011), reflective design (Sengers et al. 2005), and ongoing reflections on authority and collaboration in anthropology (Marcus 2000, Kelty 2009).



Both design and anthropology are an art of inquiry. They set up a relationship with the world, rather than a distanced view from an academic position. Working with makers, hackers, and tinkerers provides me with the opportunity to explore, on an even deeper level, productive processes (i.e., what goes into making or manufacturing a thing) as forms of inquiry and knowledge production.

I research cultures of technology production, with a particular focus on contemporary DIY (do it yourself) maker and hacker cultures. Over the last four years, I have explored, for instance, the proliferation of the maker movement and its intersections with manufacturing and industry development in China. I have conducted multi-sited ethnographic research as well as DIY maker workshops, maker conferences, and media productions, mostly in different cities in China, but also (although with less intensity) in the United States. I pay particular attention to the ways in which local maker cultures are tied into a global reorientation towards digital fabrication, hardware production, and physical materials. DIY makers in China, for instance, situate their work in relation to a history of open manufacturing (shanzhai 山寨) common to the Southern regions of China as well as in relation to a global maker movement and start-up culture (e.g. Lindtner 2014).

With a background in digital media and interaction design, an essential aspect of my ethnographic research has always been a deep engagement with people’s technology practices. This means that as part of my fieldwork, I also participate in the making of things, which has included the production of a short film about an open innovation and co-working model XinDanWei in China, the co-organization of conferences and research projects as well as co-authorship with makers and artists (e.g. Lindtner & Li 2012; Hertz & Lindtner 2014).

“Innovate with China”

Both anthropology and design provide me with toolkits to “study with,” in Anthropologist Tom Ingold’s sense of the term (2013). By “study with,” Ingold emphasizes the difference that lies in “study about” versus “study with,” the former being primarily transformational and the latter largely documentary. The kind of anthropology I feel aligned with and the kind of ethnographic research I conduct have always entailed a process of “making with:” studying with, working with, writing with, and learning with, rather than studying or writing about.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by “making with” here. In early 2013, I had a several months long ethnographic engagement with a growing start-up scene in and around Shenzhen, a city in the Southern regions of China. The last years have seen a rise in hardware accelerator and incubator programs that invest in hardware start-ups and bring them to China in order to turn DIY maker ideas into end-consumer products (see more on this here: Lindtner et al. 2014). The vision that many of the start-ups share, from both China and abroad, is a commitment to empower others who are less familiar with the inner workings of technology and hacking (i.e., their own appropriation and modification of the products they own). They share this vision with the makers and hackers of earlier generations working on human-computer interaction, invisible computing, and tangible interfaces, who began by building prototypes of wearable computers, embedded systems, and Internet of Things. The visions of seamless computing by Mark Weiser (1999) or Ishii and Ullmers’ early work in tangible computing (1997) come to mind here. Many of the hardware start-ups that spin out of hackerspaces, universities, and maker initiatives today are implementing these earlier visions and prototypes of invisible computing, turning them into actual products by partnering with small- to large-scale manufacturers.

By “making with,” I wish to highlight the collaborative process central to design, something that I have found to be rarely taken up in anthropology Despite anthropology’s interest in design methods and cultures of design, the focus often remains on things like engagement with materials, brainstorming, fast data generation, etcetera. Designing is fundamentally a collaborative practice that frequently involves a multitude of stakeholders. For instance, the start-ups I worked with as part of my fieldwork in Shenzhen did not simply hire a factory that made products for them. Rather, designing a product entailed visits to the factory on a weekly basis where the start-ups and the factory workers together explored different materials, the affordances of different machines, and electronic circuitry for a given product. These collaborations on the factory floor slightly altered the original design, often improving it. When people talk about design, they rarely talk about these interactions fundamental to production, a process often considered as post-design. By “making with,” I wish to highlight first, that production and industrial fabrication is an essential aspect of design, and second, that it is accomplished through partnerships and collaborations.

An essential aspect for me in this approach of “making with” is also the collaboration on writing and media productions. Much of my writing (academic and otherwise) is collaborative, a practice common to many technology research and design fields. Two of my recent projects are:

  1. A handmade zine that Garnet Hertz and I produced in collaboration with the members of the New York City-based hackerspace NYCResistor:
Pop-up spiral in the middle of the zine. Inspiration was the vending machine at the hackerspace.
Pop-up spiral in the middle of the zine. Inspiration was the vending machine at the hackerspace.
Old toy becomes a tool to create an experientially different material for the zine.
Old toy becomes a tool to create an experientially different material for the zine.
 NYC Resistor logo in fabric, which ended up stamped into the zine.

NYC Resistor logo in fabric, which ended up stamped into the zine.
At the printershop, printing and arranging content.
At the printershop, printing and arranging content.
Putting it together.
Putting it together.
The NYCResistor Hackerspace Zine.
The NYCResistor Hackerspace Zine.

2.    An article David Li from the hackerspace in Shanghai and I wrote together in 2012 that got published in the ACM Interactions magazine on China’s maker movement:


Both publications involved processes of crafting, theorizing, and researching. The production of each was a way of understanding cultures of technology production on a deeper level (i.e., active participation in production). For instance, the making of the NYC Resistor Zine gave us the rare opportunity to learn about the hackerspace by working with the resistors. The article allowed David and myself to express more clearly themes that I had identified in the field before, but that had remained somewhat vague—such as the relationship between copy and open-source, or between hacking and making. The making of both publications also opened up conversations and interactions with others who are less likely to read traditional academic pieces. For instance, because the ACM article was translated into Chinese, it became accessible to a new readership amongst a group of elderly inventors in China.

Collaborative tinkering.
Collaborative tinkering.

When I began my fieldwork with makers in China in 2010, I was struck by the amount of writing that makers produced–on blogs, public talks, in books, and in articles. Many think of geeks, hackers, and makers as concerned foremost with things like circuit diagrams or the kinks of a piece of software code. And while such things are of course essential to makers, they are not divorced from reflecting and thinking about the very process of hacking, coding, and making. I was driven to understand this material-semiotic mode of co-production better and began to work with David Li, the co-founder of China’s first hackerspace, and others in China’s growing maker scene on a series of workshops and events based on making and critical reflection.

Impressions from the workshop in Budapest (From top to bottom): “Silenced Voices” prototype; materials and sketches for an “automatic door opener”–a spin on Latour’s door closer.

In 2011, we put together a workshop in Budapest that brought together scholars, makers, designers, and hackers from China, Iran, Eastern Europe, and North America. We worked with the local FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory, small-scale workshops offering digital fabrications, tools, and machines for digital-physical production), who provided us with the space and tools to make things. Over the course of the workshop, practitioners and scholars worked together on writing software code, cutting wood, formatting hardware boards, etcetera, while also critically debating and reflecting on the designs and process as a whole. One of the things we made was a functioning prototype, a little box that can record messages and then play that message on a radio receiver. Imagine recording your own slogan and transmitting it in a public space to be heard by others. The motivation was to disrupt state media coverage that doesn’t allow for a multitude of voices–hence the prototype’s name, “Silenced Voices.” The making of the device brought up heated discussions about censorship and Internet freedom and control, especially with an eye towards participants’ experiences in their respective regions of work in the US, China, Iran, and Europe.

In 2013, based on the success of these informal events, David Li (XinCheJian), Anna Greenspan (NYU Shanghai), and I kicked off a Shanghai-based research hub, called Hacked Matter. What began as a series of workshops and conversations has now turned into a long-term collaboration between makers and researchers in China using an interdisciplinary set of methods ranging from designing over making to writing and ethnographic fieldwork, with the goal to understand deeply contemporary transformations in industrial production, hacking, and innovation.

Our most recent event in Shanghai brought together makers and hackers, journalists, industry partners, and scholars through conversations and hands-on making sessions:


Agre, P. 1997. Towards a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI. In Bowker, Gasser, Star, and Turner, eds, Bridging the Great Divide: Social Science, Technical Systems and Collaborative Work. Laurence Erlbaum.

Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. 2013. What is “Critical” about Critical Design? Proc. of ACM Conf. Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI’13 (Paris, France), 3297-3306.

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2007). Critical Design FAQ. Last retrieved February 21, 2014.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making. Anthropology, archeology, art and architecture. Routlege, New York.

Ishii, H. and Ullmer, B. Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between people, bits, and atoms. . In Proc. of ACM Conf. CHI’97, 234-241.

Kay, A., C. 1972. A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages. Proc. of ACM ’72, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Kensing, F. and Blomberg, J. 1998. Participatory Design: Issues and Concerns. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 7, 3-4 (Jan. 1998), 167-185.

Kelty, C. et al. 2009 Collaboration, Coordination, and Composition: Fieldwork after the Internet. In Fieldwork is not what it used to be, eds. Faubion, J.D. and Marcus, G. E., NY: Cornell University Press.

Lindtner, S. and Li, D. 2012. Created in China. The Makings of China’s Hackerspace Community. ACM Interactions, XIX. 6 November December.

Lindtner, S., Hertz, G., and Dourish, P. 2014. Emerging Sites of HCI Innovation: Hackerspaces, Hardware Start-ups & Incubators. Proc. of ACM Conference CHI’14, Toronto, Canada.

Lindtner, S. 2014. Making Subjectivities. How China’s DIY Makers remake industrial production, innovation & the self. In: Special issue on Polititical Contestation in Chinese Digital Spaces” (ed. Guobin Yang) of the Journal of China Information.

Marcus, G. 2000. Para-sites. A Casebook against Cynical Reason. Late Editions: Cultural Studies for the End of the Century. University of Chicago Press.

Ratto, M. 2011. Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life, The Information Society: An International Journal, 27:4.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., and Kaye, J. 2005. Reflective design. In Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: between Sense and Sensibility (Aarhus, Denmark), 49-58.
Weiser, M. 1999. The Computer of the 21st century. ACM SIGMOBILE, Mobile Computing and Communications Review, Vol. 3, Issue 3, 3-11.


Silvia Lindtner is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the ISTC-Social (the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing) at UC Irvine and at Fudan University, Shanghai. She is also an incoming faculty member at the University of Michigan in the School of Information. She researches, writes, and teaches about DIY (do-it-yourself) maker culture, with a particular focus on its intersections with manufacturing and industry development in China. Drawing on her background in interaction design and media studies, she merges ethnographic methods with approaches in design and making. This approach allows her to provide deep insights into emerging cultures of technology production and use from a sociological and technological perspective. Her work is published across the fields of human-computer interaction, media and communication studies, science and technology studies, cultural anthropology, and China studies. Silvia is the recipient of a NSF grant, a Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, a Chinese Government Scholarship 2012, and two Intel Research Grants. Together with Anna Greenspan (NYU Shanghai) and David Li (XinCheJian), she is also the co-founder of Hacked Matter, a Shanghai-based Research Initiative.


Rachel Carmen Ceasar is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Medical Anthropology Program at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco. Her research focuses on contemporary Spain and Morocco as a lens through which we may come to understand how people deal with the aftermath of war and repression. For her next project, she will investigate the unmarked graves of Berber war corpses that remain in Spain today as a critical aspect of the historical and contemporary tensions between Spain, Morocco, and Berber Morocco.