The Many Meanings of Design Anthropology

by Brandon Meyer (Excerpt from an unpublished paper)

In the broadest sense design anthropology is an all-encompassing field that is inclusive of every juncture at which the fields of design and anthropology have met, so that “design anthropology” has become a shortened form of “design (and) anthropology.” However, the various junctures take on many diverse and distinct meanings when evaluated on the merits of their disciplinary positioning, research priorities, and methodological approaches. These differences are significant enough that it is necessary to take them into account when discussing design anthropology and what is meant by the use of the term. The best summary of the diversity of meanings associated with “design (and) anthropology” was laid out by Gunn and Donovan in the introduction to the book, Design and Anthropology. While the authors took a position on which form of "design (and) anthropology" they are most interested in, they utilized variously capitalized acronyms as a device to portray the differently oriented understandings and practices:

dA — The theoretical contribution is for anthropology rather than design. Design follows the lead of anthropology in terms of adopting theoretical understandings, or becoming the subject of anthropological study. Da — Fieldwork is in the service of design. Framing originates from problem-oriented design approaches rather than engagement with peoples. Anthropology is put in service of design, for example ethnographic studies are used for establishing design requirements. DA — Disciplines of design and anthropology are engaged in a convergence of efforts each learning from the other (Halse 2008). DA is a shift from informing design to re-framing social, cultural and environmental relations in both design and anthropology… (Gunn and Donovan 2012:8–9)

Despite these clarifications, the current dominant understanding within anthropology advocates a “Da” interpretation of design anthropology as applied anthropology within design and an even narrower view of ethnography-as-method within design discourse. While the latter is a point of contention within anthropology, both definitions of design anthropology artificially limits the full breadth of design and anthropology as fields and misses the significance and diversity of their exchanges. Rather then choosing one side over the other in the debate over the true meaning of design anthropology or finding a compromise in fracturing the meaning as dependent upon specific regional contexts, I argue for a definition of design anthropology as a transdisciplinary epistemological construct along a spectrum within four specific pedagogical quadrants: anthropology relevant to design, anthropology of design, design of anthropology, and anthropological design. Updating Gunn and Donovan's definition of the different relationships formed between design and anthropology by reifying the significance behind the acronyms and adding "anthropological design" as a category, following Escobar's assessment of the actuality of a "DA" form of practice. Situating these many meanings of "design (and) anthropology" as holistically constitutive of design anthropology in the gestaltic sense:

The four pedagogical quadrants of design anthropology as a transdisciplinary epistemological construct. *While most anthropology is arguably related in some way or another to 
design issues - especially on a project-level basis - this area is considered within design as the most relevant to broader design 
theory and practice.
 *It is worth noting that not all practices within
 this area strictly adhere to anthropological explorations or processes outlined here.

Applied anthropology is the productive application of anthropological theory and methods across the span of practical matters, including design. As such it is neither an outdated mode of inquiry or a final and complete set of “best practices” of anthropology in design. However, a transdisciplinary definition of design anthropology necessarily extends beyond the purview of traditionally-trained anthropologists as well if it is said to exist at all. If applied anthropology represents practice-based frameworks developed to apply the work of a largely theoretical field, and design research represents theory-based frameworks within a largely practice-based field, the most innovative space for Design Anthropology sits at the intersection of anthropology and design within a continuum that is both anthropological and designerly in nature. Areas within design that take on issues and concepts that not only originate from anthropology, but that are arguably anthropological in nature themselves - and vice versa - are at least identifiable as the potential breeding ground of design anthropology theory and practice. The cumulative result of such an acute intermingling across the 4 pedagogical quadrants of design anthropology outlined here is a distinct discourse that is more than the sum of any of its individual parts and with demonstrably broad implications for both fields of design and anthropology.

For a list of reading materials visit this group's "Design Anthropology Recommended Reading List" or visit the Design Anthropology LinkedIn group for a regularly updated list of resources.


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