Ethnographic Design

The phrase “ethnographic design” has cropped up in several contexts in recent years, though what the term refers to is often unclear. In some respects, it functions as a Lacanian master signifier, meaning that what it refers to is less important than the work it does for those of us who care about it. In other respects, it functions more as a Lévi-Straussian floating signifier, which is to say that it doesn’t really refer to anything at all. In a certain light there’s something aspirational in “ethnographic design”—we invest it with the meanings we want it to have; in another light, it just is what it is. All of which is to say that while of course “ethnographic design” does refer to something, I’m not exactly sure what that something is.

Max Weber used the concept of elective affinities in some of his works, a partially developed theoretical construct that he borrowed from eighteenth-century chemistry to explain why different sorts of things in the social world seem to naturally bind together, even though there’s no real material contiguity between them (for example, the elective affinities that bind Calvinism with capitalism). To me what’s interesting about this concept is that it productively relies on the seeming contradiction between the free choice of “election” and the naturalness implied by “affinities,” both combined into a single idea.

And this concept does make some sense. We often find plausible links between different things in the world, and then we argue that those links are real, natural, or maybe conventional. Sometimes these bonds are strong and don’t require much argumentation at all; other times they’re weak and tenuous, which means we need to put more effort into making the case that the things brought together properly fit.

Design and ethnography are terms with elective affinities. More precisely, they’re terms that refer to phenomena out there with elective affinities, similar features that we’re choosing to bring into alignment because these links resonate and seem to give us some traction in our work. An earlier arrangement of these two terms flowed in a different direction: “design ethnography” initially emerged in corporate environments as a way to inject textured insight into what might otherwise be considered shallow research and development processes. But design ethnography is not quite the same as ethnographic design. Where design ethnography feels constrained to corporate, nonprofit, and educational domains in which ethnography, generally, is put to work for design, ethnographic design seems to want to account for this and more.

One way in which that “more” presents itself has to do with the fact that elective affinities are not aligned in a linear or causal way, but rather mutually correspond. This means that if ethnography can be useful for design, then perhaps design can be useful for ethnography. Some anthropologists have taken this possibility quite literally by attempting to introduce specific studio practices derived from design pedagogy into how we teach, talk about, and think about ethnography. A premise underlying such a move is that ethnographic norms and traditions are stale or ill-suited for the kinds of social worlds that anthropologists find themselves in today. Design practice is generally good at stimulating imagination and encouraging problem-oriented thinking. So perhaps using design to reimagine ethnography—just as ethnography has been used to reimagine design—can help transform the very possibilities of what ethnographic practice can be.

Both takes on design and ethnography are, essentially, instrumentalist exploitations of their identified elective affinities: what can ethnography do for design, and what can design do for ethnography? But, of course, only very specific features of ethnography have been selected as usefully correspondent to design; and to be sure, only very specific features of design are selected as usefully correspondent to ethnography.

This instrumentalism works, to some degree, and the surface affinities between design and ethnography do and will, undoubtedly, get us somewhere. But what is more potentially useful are the unreckoned affinities that hold ethnographic design together below the surface. In some respects, design and ethnography are figures of salvation for one another, each seemingly offering some missing piece that the other lacks, a jolt of ameliorative sense or structure. Ethnography can make design somehow better, and design can do the same for ethnography, but if this is the case—if design and ethnography can somehow help each other out—it’s not primarily through a methodological connection. Rather, it’s through a shared but controlled desire for more that resonates between ethnography and design in attitudes and inclinations about how to work and to be in the world.

Some other connections to consider:

  1. Engagement: How, and under what conditions, do we purposefully and with intent engage in a world of others?
  2. Creativity: How, and under what conditions, can we innovate new, meaningful forms in that world through our professional work (however we’re defining “professional”)?
  3. Making a push: How and under what conditions is making a push—that is, purposefully and with intent trying to make a change in the social world—an acceptable form of creative engagement?
  4. Sense-making: How and under what conditions is understanding the world we’re engaging an important part of what we do?

These are just a few correspondences among many. I have framed them as open-ended questions because the issues they raise do not have precise answers. Instead, they traffic in the fuzzy realm of it matters, but by degree. Figuring out how strongly the bonds hold between ethnography and design is a matter of further exploration. As more ethnographers learn something from design or work alongside designers and begin to figure out how creativity in ethnographic practice can fulfill the desire for more, then little by little, by degree, ethnographic design might become a signifier with some recognizable and meaningful signified—one whose underlying affinities can create something greater than its individual parts.