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Designs and Anthropologies

Co-chaired by Keith Murphy and Eitan Wilf

February 11-15, 2018

Designs and Anthropologies

The intended goal of the seminar was to examine in depth the rich relationship and mutual influence between anthropology and design by assembling a group of scholars whose work critically engages one or more of the following configurations: anthropology for design, in which anthropological methods and concepts are mobilized in the design process; anthropology of design, in which design is positioned as an object of ethnographic inquiry; and design for anthropology, in which anthropologists borrow concepts and methods from design to enhance traditional ethnographic forms. One of the key implications of the discussions that emerged in the course of the week is the realization among the seminar’s participants that rather than providing a typology or definition of the relationship between anthropology and design, a more productive and needed move would be to open up the question of what those relationships might be. The different sessions that took place in the seminar, in which the participants presented their perspectives on the seminar’s theme, made it clear that the relationship between anthropology and design might be best clarified by acknowledging the existence of both multiple anthropologies, i.e. different sites and practices of anthropological engagements, and multiple designs, i.e. different design practices and politics.

Seminar participants discussed issues such as:

  • In order to solve the question of the moral dimensions of design it would first be necessary to reach a fundamental understanding of what design is.
  • If we understand design as multiple, what are the design histories and method assemblages that carry affinity with our commitments to decolonizing practices of knowledge- and world-making as a part of design and anthropology’s possible futures?
  • An examination and critique of concrete design practices in the corporate and non-profit worlds.
  • The multiple contradictions that emerge when development work and philanthropy become suffused by Silicon Valley norms and practices, as when the targets of development end up being perceived and treated as consumers-in-potentia.

In some respects the seminar turned out as anticipated, given the research interests of the group’s members. Each of the members provided a unique take on either design, anthropology, or both. However, as alluded to above, the original “of”s and “for”s configurations gradually faded away, almost to the point of completely disappearing. Rather than viewing this as a problem, participants considered the awareness of the need to develop new conceptual configurations as one of the seminar’s key contributions.

Keith Murphy, Chair
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California – Irvine

Eitan Wilf, Chair
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Lily Chumley
Assistant Professor, Department of Media, Culture and Communication, NYU

Douglas Holmes
Professor, Department of Anthropology, Binghampton University

Lilly Irani
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Science Studies and Critical Gender Studies, University of California – San Diego

Alberto Corsin Jimenez
Reader in Social Anthropology, Department of the History of Science, Spanish National Research Council, Spain

George Marcus
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California – Irvine

Lochlann Jain
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University

Lucy Suchman
Professor, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, England

Generous support provided by the Annenberg Conversations Endowment

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