Photo by Anna Klepikova.

A key mutual provocation between ethnography and design is their differential approach to the temporalities of human action. Whereas ethnography is intensely oriented towards identifying the presence of the past in the present (even when dealing with social change), design is radically future-oriented and aims to change the present (Gunn, Otto, and Smith 2013). In the following I argue that a perspective on emergence will productively develop this contested field.

At a fundamental level one can argue that social reality is always in a state of emergence, as originally theorized by the pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead (2002). According to Mead, the present is the true locus of reality: all existence happens in the present. The present is continuously moving, evolving from a past present and continuing into a new one; in short the present is always emerging. Mead does not negate the reality of the past and the future but he emphasizes that past and future are only knowable as dimensions of the present. In the act of giving shape to the future, we evoke or realize a past that makes this future possible.

This philosophical vision invites us to radically rethink the temporality of human action between the future orientation of most design and anthropology’s concern with the reproduction of past patterns. In contrast to a designerly hubris concerning the malleability of the future, the emerging present is not empty but already populated by enduring physical structures, invested social institutions and habitual cultural categories. But the future is neither a process of simple continuation, reproduction, or causal determination as highlighted by Mead. It is useful to recall the work of Raymond Williams (1973), who distinguished dominant cultural forms in a society from residual and emergent ones. The dominant is reproduced by the powers that be but it is never fully hegemonic as there are practices and meanings that do not fit in but still live on, known as the residual, and in addition there are new emergent practices and meanings, that are continually created in and by human action.

An understanding of the past as part of the emerging present is important as it opens up for alternative readings of history through the mining of archives and memories when envisioning and creating new imaginaries for the future. I propose that any design for alternative futures explicitly or implicitly involves a constructed past that conditions the anticipated changes and in fact identifies and articulates the agents that may carry out the projected changes in a kind of autopoetic process (Otto 2016).

Moving from ontology to epistemology, we should ask: how can we know the emergent? In other words, how can we describe something that is developing but not fully formed and visible yet? George Marcus and Paul Rabinow, who each in their own way have contributed to an anthropology of the contemporary (see Rabinow et al. 2008), suggest that ethnography facilitates a critical distance or untimeliness with regard to the present that can challenge reigning opinions.

Considering design we encounter another methodological approach to the emergent: the design practice of idea generation or ideation through various means of intervention such as design concepts, props, mock-ups, prototypes, scenarios, video feedback, games, performance, and enactment. In particular, I wish to highlight the importance of creating various forms of design events: happenings that are scaffolded by designers in collaboration with ethnographers and other social scientists, and that afford the experiential and tangible exploration of alternatives to the present, thereby investigating the future and the past simultaneously (Smith et al. 2016).

These design events can take various forms including role-play, enactment, simulation, exhibition, film making, and feedback. I will close with an example from my own curatorial practice at the Moesgaard Museum, a culture-historical museum in Denmark that opened a grand new exhibition building in 2014. I headed a small group of anthropologists, designers, and technical staff with the task to make a new ethnographic exhibit for the opening. One of our key objectives was to find a topic that would both engage and challenge the public. We chose the theme “The Life of the Dead” because it was felt that the issue of how to deal with dying and loss was a contentious and sensitive topic in public discussions. Many experts from different disciplines and professions pointed to a lack of space for emotional and ritual expression in modern Denmark, where the dominant worldview is thoroughly secular, rational, and individualist. In our exhibition we presented, in a virtual, untimely way (see Rabinow 2008), different cultural worlds with different ways of relating to the dead. We included sensory, interactive, and participatory devices as well as a room concerning the Danish situation, in which we focused on the things left behind by the dead.

In a section of the exhibition dedicated to the Día de Muertos celebrations in Mexico, the public is invited to dance with skeletons, which track their movements. Photo courtesy of the Moesgaard Museum.
Elsewhere, visitors are encouraged to reflect on how the living relate to the dead through the things the latter have left behind. Here we see things collected by a young boy, which belonged to an uncle whose lifestyle inspired the boy to pursue his own goals. Photo courtesy of the Moesgaard Museum.
Visitors also encounter a Christmas ceremony as observed by the Yolngu people in Northern Arnhem Land, Australia, who include their dead in the celebrations. Visitors are invited to write a greeting to their own dead relatives and to hang it on the artificial Christmas tree. Photo courtesy of the Moesgaard Museum.

The exhibition has drawn considerable public attention. The most remarkable development was that I was asked by a major national newspaper to propose new rituals for dealing with the dead. Here, my role as an anthropologist changed from that of an ethnographer and maker of an interventionist exhibition event to that of a designer of prototypes for new rituals. The exhibition comprised all three elements mentioned by Williams. It was designed in reaction to a dominant cultural form and included residual forms as well as an exploration of the emergent, namely the growing awareness of a ritual lack that had to be filled. It looked forward and opened up for a different understanding of the Danish past by including alternatives of dealing with the dead, both from home and abroad. Making the exhibition thus made it possible to combine the different temporal orientations of ethnography and design, invoking both past and future through an intervention in the emerging present.


Gunn, Wendy, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, eds. 2013. Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mead, George Herbert. 2002. The Philosophy of the Present. New York: Prometheus Books. Originally published in 1932.

Otto, Ton. 2016. “History In and For Design.” Journal of Design History 29, no. 1: 58–70.

Rabinow, Paul. 2008. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

_____, and George E. Marcus, with James D. Faubion and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Smith, Rachel Charlotte, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder, eds. 2016. Design Anthropological Futures. New York: Bloomsburgy Academic.

Williams, Raymond. 1973. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review I/82: 3–16.