In a world that feels as if it is tightening as it falls apart, ethnographers need hope and idealism like anyone else. Even before the carnival of dejection that is the Trump administration, those of us who work as academic ethnographers had plenty of reasons to feel dispirited. As Isabelle Stengers stated during the closing plenary at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, the explanations we produce often justify despair. While it was foreboding, I interpreted Stengers’s comment as an attempt to incite hope of an immanent kind. Stengers went on to encourage those in attendance to anticipate today’s children someday asking “you knew, but what did you do?”
I propose that design has become appealing for anthropology, in part because it appears to offer concrete, hopeful, and future-facing ways for ethnographers to respond to such ethico-political predicaments. However, while this appeal is understandable, there are pitfalls in placing our hopes too heavily on design. I am not dismissing the potential of design for ethnography. Still, I want us to think about what is being collectively made, and for whom or what, when we turn to design as a source of moral and professional renewal.
Especially in places like California, and at large research universities like the University of California, the terms and techniques of professional designers have gained traction alongside the increasing corporatization of public universities, the consecration of entrepreneurship as a professional virtue, and the imperative to reconfigure our workplaces in the image of a technology startup. Just this year, for example, my university, the University of California, San Diego, unveiled its new marketing campaign, which centers on the tagline, “We break things better”—a thinly veiled facsimile of Facebook’s original corporate mantra, “Move fast and break things.”
These and similar discourses figure design as a powerful mode for making collective moral futures. They strongly associate design with the unprecedented, the courageously innovative, and the beneficently disruptive, in contradistinction to the inherited, the seemingly outmoded, and the listless and ineffectual. In a related vein, such discourses often make a virtue of the presumed speed and activeness, if not also athleticism, of contemporary technology designers while also ascribing a presumed atrophy or obsolescence to more conventional modes of knowledge production. Lastly, these discourses treat the practices of professional designers as materially relevant and engaged in ways that are not only different from but also superior to more conventional academic practices, such as writing.
If design is understood in these ways, then it is understandable why some academic anthropologists have sutured hopes for the future of our profession to design (e.g., Latour 2008; Rabinow et al. 2008). The practices of professional designers—charrettes, brainstorming, prototyping, play-acting, and so forth—appear to offer fresh and pragmatic resources for responding to Stengers’s ethico-political challenge. However, such framings often remake the very oppositions we profess to have overcome, particularly those stubborn distinctions between knowing and doing or idealism and materialism. In doing so, design for ethnography risks inverting the value of these oppositions, making a virtue of certain modes of material doing while also dismissing more conventional modes of ethnographic praxis. If nothing else, emulating the practices of professional designers is quite effective at engendering feelings of ethnographic avant-gardism, if not also virility.
Experimentation and newness are not bad things, and I would argue that they are and have always been constitutive features of both ethnographic practice and daily life more generally. My concern is that if ethnographers lift up and laud the terms and techniques of professional designers without also practicing a rigorous form of self-critique, then they risk paddling themselves into a professional eddy that churns on the valorization of ethnographic experimentation for the sake of ethnographic experimentation. As I have argued elsewhere (Sims 2017), such eddies are a form of antipolitics.
If we want to avoid these pitfalls without falling into a vortex of despair, then we should ask ourselves what our differently situated modes of making and experiencing idealism do, as well as what they do not do, for whom or what. When I ask these questions of my own forays into design for ethnography, such as my participation in the Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED), the first things that come to mind are supportive social relations. What is more, these forays were therapeutic in ways that many of the ethnographers involved seemed to need.
Yet I also worry about how far these soothing feelings and relations of support extend. For example, is it possible that those of us who have turned to design as a source of professional renewal may have inadvertently equated our feelings of being playfully unconventional with feelings of being superior, particularly in relation to ethnographers who are presumed to practice more conventional modes of ethnographic fieldwork and writing? Is it possible, in other words, that in valorizing design, some ethnographers may have limited their ability to imagine or desire more extensive political solidarities, struggles, and strategies? If so, we may be constructing yet another power faction within our field, rather than trying to dismantle already existing hierarchies or to perforate the barriers between our professional worlds and the broader worlds of which we are a part.
In raising these questions I am not advocating for ridding ourselves of hope or idealism. Nor am I suggesting that ethnographers can save the world. Rather, I am advocating for greater attention to the politics of how we concretely and collectively make and experience idealism in our professional lives. How we do so matters not only for what survives in the ruins of what we have inherited and wrought, but also for the quality of those interdependent futures.
Latour, Bruno. 2008. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society, edited by Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne, and Viv Minto, 2–10. Falmouth: Universal Publishers.
Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sims, Christo. 2017. Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.