Correspondences: Design and Temporality

Design is the keyword for this month’s session of Correspondences. As a verb and a nominal, design can refer to the practices that humans employ to arrange, engineer, fashion, create, mitigate, forestall, and imagine their near and distant futures. But designs are also artifacts—the prototypes, master plans, algorithms, and styles that frequently occupy social lives independent of their assigned functions. Designed worlds and worlds of design are thick with aspirational order, promises of technological solutions to pending crises, and the allure of expertise. Yet the products of design, from smart cities and service delivery networks to computer operating systems and clothing brands, seem to always invite contingencies, failures, disruptions, and hackings. Designers promise solutions to problems. Yet, as many anthropologists have recently observed, it is failure—immanent to every design—that makes this theme so fertile for ethnographic exploration (e.g., Bissell 2011; de Boeck and Plissart 2006; Larkin 2004, 2008; Mains 2012).  

Design is, at least in part, about the future, and anthropology has always been interested in how humans mediate, govern, resist, and hack their futures. As Arjun Appadurai (2013, 285) has argued, however, we have yet to aggregate these interests into “a general point of view about humans as future makers and futures as cultural facts.” Could design as a theme of critical ethnographic engagement link specific practices such as canoe making in Gawa (Munn 1977), DIY punk style in Indonesia (Luvaas 2012, 2013), autoconstruction in Luanda (Gastrow 2015), and hydraulic engineering in Mumbai (Anand 2011) to a general discussion of humans as futuremakers? While design as a practice seems to disavow history, it can also reveal much about the past (see Bissell 2011). What are we, as anthropologists, to make of the ruins and afterlives of unrealized and abandoned designs that inhabit the present alongside dreams for a better future? Finally, how might specific ethnographic engagements with practices of futuremaking disrupt notions of design as a specialist, technocentric activity? This session invites four scholars to reflect on these and other questions related to design as an emerging theme in anthropology that also—as Bissell reminds us in his opening Provocation—furthers our enduring concern with humans as worldmakers.

The contributors to this Correspondences session are:   

William Bissell is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Lafayette College. Much of his work focuses on the complexities and contradictions of urban environments undergoing transformation. He is the author of Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Power in Zanzibar (2011). A complete list of publications can be found on his faculty webpage.  

Amelia Hassoun is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research asks what it means to imagine, design and construct futures through smart city projects, with a focus on residents interacting with and creatively reworking the data-gathering civic technologies that permeate the Singaporean city-space, as well as the makers of these technologies. Before rejoining the wild world of academia, she worked as a user experience/user interface designer in London.  

Brent Luvaas is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Drexel University. A former editor of Visual Anthropology Review, Luvaas addresses the aesthetic and structural shifts in cultural production in the digital age. He has published articles on fashion, music, and photography, and is the author of Street Style: An Ethnography of Fashion Blogging (2016). He also blogs at Urban Fieldnotes.   

Claudia Gastrow is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Her research explores questions of politics, aesthetics, citizenship, and material culture in urban settings. Her work has been published in Politique Africaine and the Avery Review. She is currently working on a book that explores the role of aesthetics in the constitution of urban citizenship and political dissent in Luanda, Angola.  


Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 542–64.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. New York: Verso.

Bissell, William. 2011. Urban Design, Chaos, and Colonial Planning in Zanzibar.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

de Boeck, Filip, and Marie Plissart. 2006. Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City. Antwerp: Ludion.

Gastrow, Claudia. 2015. “Thinking Futures Through the Slum.” Avery Review 9.

Larkin, Brian. 2004. “Degraded Infrastructure, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy.” Public Culture 16, no. 2: 289–314.

_____. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Luvaas, Brent. 2012. DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures. London: Berg.

_____. 2013. “Material Interventions: Indonesian DIY Fashion and the Regime of the Global Brand.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 1: 127–43.

Mains, Daniel. 2012. “Blackouts and Progress: Privatization, Infrastructure, and a Developmentalist State in Jima, Ethiopia.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 1: 3–27.

Munn, Nancy. 1977. “The Spatiotemporal Transformations of Gawan Canoes.Journal de la Société des Océanistes 54, no. 33: 39–53.

Posts in This Series

Design and Temporality: Provocation

Design and Temporality: Translation

Design and Temporality: Deviation

Design and Temporality: Reaction

Design and Temporality: Integration