Introduction: Keywords for Ethnography and Design

From the Series: Keywords for Ethnography and Design

Photo by Anna Klepikova.

In recent years, the boundaries between ethnography and design have become increasingly porous. Designers make use of ethnographic methods, cultural anthropologists incorporate elements of design thinking into their ethnographic practice, and scholars critically engage the similarities of each field’s epistemic complicities with global structural violence. We see this emergence of debates and consonances as an opportunity to reorient what ethnography can and should be. This Theorizing the Contemporary series is comprised of keyword essays. Together, the keywords present a snapshot of the shifting vocabulary that populates the conversations around ethnography’s engagement with design.

This series is one product of the University of California Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED). CoLED is a network of ethnographers interested in interrogating ethnography’s approach to design. Between 2015 and 2017, CoLED hosted a series of workshops across the University of California system. In 2016, CoLED organized an international conference on ethnography and design, partially supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. For this series, we challenged contributors to consider what ethnographic design or the design of ethnography or ethnography as design might be.

Three framing essays by Lucy Suchman, George Marcus, and Keith Murphy orient readers to the perspectives that follow. Suchman argues for a critical ethnography of design, in which ethnographers investigate the work of those who call themselves designers. In contrast, Marcus suggests that ethnographers might develop new forms of ethnography by drawing on techniques from different design practices, including theater design. Murphy seeks a middle ground, finding resonance between ethnography and design in that both are expert practices fundamentally concerned with making, doing, and creating. In this introductory essay, we also offer a fourth variation: a vision of ethnography as a design for social being and knowledge production (see also Escobar 2018).

We present this set of keywords in the tradition of Raymond Williams (1976), whose original exploration of the keywords concept has sparked several recent derivations (Burgett and Hendler 2007; Currah and Stryker 2014; Adams, Reiss, and Serlin 2015). Keywords, in this tradition, sketch an active vocabulary of a given cultural field. By nature, such collections function as a provocation, an invitation for further interrogation of the always changing meanings that cohere around words and phrases.1 We offer the keywords in this series as a map of the constellations in the universe of ethnography and design.

Ethnographers Debating Design

Humans are bricoleurs. By improvising with that which is at hand to make the worlds in which they live, bricoleurs are designers, manipulating the material environment in intentional and meaningful ways. Both ethnographers and designers have observed that these relationships are coconstitutive: “We shape objects, and objects shape and transform our practices and us in return” (Giaccardi et al. 2016, 235). And, both ethnographers and designers understand the project of making as being fundamentally future-oriented, even imbricated in the changing of things over time. Perhaps more so than design, anthropology has been invested in thinking with and about differences across cultural, vernacular, or ontological worlds, which fundamentally shape what is thinkable and define the possibilities of the real.

The current moment in design’s engagement with ethnography has particular contours. Globally, designers are promoting and pursuing socially conscious design practices and so-called design thinking to remake the world (Papanek 2000). At times, these design approaches resemble a rebranding of ethnography, such as IDEO’s toolkit for “human-centered design” (HCD). Adopted by such institutions as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, HCD offers methods for conducting community-based qualitative research in order to identify community problems and to give designers a window into what it might take to fix those problems. That is, HCD turns ethnographic problems into design problems with a socially conscious or humanitarian bent.

This type of optimism, or even hubris, can be a target for the critical ethnography of design that Suchman calls for in her essay. As anthropologist Peter Redfield (2012) has observed, when Western design firms tackle problems of the global South through what they term “elegant” or “simple” design strategies, they tend to focus on solutions rather than the fully elaborated social and cultural worlds that extend beyond the frame of the project. For instance, Redfield points out that a portable, filtering drinking straw, a direct and individualizing solution to the absence of clean drinking water, fails to account for the ways in which such a design undoes the drive for a publicly funded water system.

Furthermore, ethnographers have observed how design itself has become a fashionable brand in global capitalism. Design practices and their physical objects become fetishized as global commodities: Post-it notes and Sharpie pens circulate in Delhi as cult objects coveted for their association with design practice (Irani, Dourish, and Mazmanian 2010).

As Christo Sims argues in his essay, however, the drive for ethnographers to reveal the complicity of design practice or to write a critique of design belies a particular positionality, suggesting a far-seeing capacity in the ethnographer who understands where design might fall short. This provocation raises questions. What is it about design hubris that so infuriates ethnographers? What might we learn about our own limitations by examining the impulse to critically examine the design project?

Design in the Service of Ethnography

Whereas HCD puts tactics from ethnography in the service of design process, another thread flips this relationship and puts design practices in the service of ethnographic process. Engaging design process thus becomes, as with sensory ethnography (see Nakamura 2013), a way to reinvigorate ethnographic process with modalities beyond the written word. Murphy and Marcus (2013, 252) have observed that while “in most instances the relationship between anthropology and design is asymmetical, with anthropology almost exclusively subordinated to the needs of design,” design practice might bolster the development of an anthropology able to meet the complex challenges of the contemporary world. Murphy, Marcus, and others have therefore set out to experiment in this vein, for instance, adapting the design studio’s charrette format to the task of working collaboratively on ethnographic problems (Murphy and Marcus 2013, 254; see also Gunn, Otto, and Smith 2013).

Several essays in this series emphasize how the design of human interfaces and infrastructures offers an opening to explore social worlds and social inequity. Ilya Utekhin, Kim De Wolff, Sal Zárate, and Joan Donovan each demonstrate how ethnographic worlds can unfurl by the storying of design elements. Each of these contributors use narrative to describe the processes that underlie design practice, the reach of designed objects in the world, and the intended and unintended ways that these objects travel and take on meanings. This gestures toward what Suchman (2011, 1) calls “a critical anthropology of design . . . that articulate[s] the cultural imaginaries and micropolitics that delineate design’s promises and practices.” In this light, a call to attend to design as an object of ethnography is not simply a mandate for critique, but also an invitation for showing the charged relationships of power at play. For instance, Sasha Welland not only considers aesthetics as an element of design practice, but demonstrates how aesthetics are entangled in the pathways of desire that make artworks compelling, political, and subversive.

While it is tempting for cultural anthropologists to assume the role of critic and note missteps under the banner of design, Keith Murphy cautions that ethnographers must be careful not to overlook similarities between design and their own epistemologies. Elsewhere, Murphy (2016) argues that it is the modernist genealogy of design as human action that sits at the core of ethnography as scholarship. Marisol de la Cadena suggests here, as elsewhere, that ethnography continues to struggle with ontological difference, too often compromising in ways that allow translations of cultural meanings to stand for incommensurable differences. From this perspective, the ontological design of conceivable possibilities for being is the subject of ethnography, and the ethnographer’s role is to make space for, or as de la Cadena puts it, to “think” the ontological design of the world of one’s ethnographic subjects.

Ethnography as Design

By shifting our focus from design’s output or product (finished ethnography or designed object) to its practice and working process, we can think of ethnography itself as a design for social being. As Alberto Corsín Jiménez argues, the notion of constant revision or prototyping toward a better outcome applies to both design and anthropology: as ethnographers we are constantly creating and revising drafts. We are, in effect, designers of the collaborative coproduction of knowledge (Clark 2013, 199). Or, as Arturo Escobar (2018) puts it, design is thinking about ontological possibility. Considering ethnography as design means understanding ethnography as prototyping the social and as devising possible ways of being in the world or interfaces between worlds. This is what Joseph Dumit and colleagues describe as improvisation (see also Hegel 2017). The creative work that goes into executing an ethnographic project is a kind of dramaturgy or theatrical project, as Cristiana Giordano and Greg Pierotti argue here. Ton Otto calls on ethnographers to at once work with and in design (in this case, designing a museum exhibition) in order to spark social modes of engagement and dialogue. Design praxis thus becomes a kind of engaged or public anthropology.

Several of our contributors suggest that attention to the design of ethnography as a practice reveals tacit biases. Joan Donovan considers how ethnographers, as researchers working in a digital era, rely on search terms in ways that produce particular kinds of logic and thinking. Cassandra Hartblay argues that ethnography as a practice was traditionally designed not just for white men, but for nondisabled or normatively bodied ethnographers, thereby excluding the perspectives of disabled bodies from the work of knowledge production. In this way, thinking ethnography as design queers ethnographic practice by revealing taken-for-granted norms.

Ethnography is always bound up in ontological shifts that forge new social modes of recognition. Thinking in this vein is not simply an argument for integrating design thinking into ethnographic practice, but a reminder that ethnography itself is a human practice, that ethnographers are bricoleurs, and that our work poses fundamental questions about designs for possible futures of the social world.


The editors of this series are grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for its generous support for the conference, “Ethnography and Design: Mutual Provocations,” and to the University of California Office of the President for supporting both the conference and the broader activities of the CoLED network. We are immeasurably indebted to Elana Zilberg, whose vision and initiative brought the CoLED network and its unorthodox formulation of “ethnographic design” into being. Although she is not listed as an editor, this series would not have come about without her. Keith Murphy read drafts of this introductory essay. Several scholars, including Hannah Appel, Elizabeth Chin, Eli Elinoff, Yelena Gluzman, Wendy Gunn, Lilly Irani, Lochlann Jain, Roshanak Kheshti, Michael Montoya, Nancy Postero, Shalini Shankar, and Audra Simpson presented keyword talks as part of the conference, and their ideas contributed to the intellectual underpinnings of the arguments laid out here. For a digital archive of the conference and other related materials, please visit the CoLED website.


1. For Williams (1976, 15), a collection of keywords “is not a dictionary or glossary of a particular academic subject. It is not a series of footnotes to dictionary histories or definitions of a number of words. It is, rather, the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions. . . . They are significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought.”


Adams, Rachel, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, eds. 2015. Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York University Press.

Burgett, Bruce, and Glenn Hendler, eds. 2007. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University Press.

Clark, Brendon. 2013. “Generating Publics through Design Activity.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 199–215. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Currah, Paisley and Susan Stryker, eds. 2014. “Keywords.” Special section of Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, nos. 1–2.

Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Giaccardi, Elisa, Chris Speed, Nazli Cila, and Melissa L. Caldwell. 2016. “Things as Co-Ethnographers: Implications of a Thing Perspective for Design and Anthropology.” In Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder, 235–48. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

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

Hegel, Christine. 2017. “Improvisation.” In “Collaborative Analytics,” Theorizing the Contemporary series edited by Dominic Boyer and George E. Marcus, Cultural Anthropology website, July 27.

Irani, Lilly, Paul Dourish, and Melissa Mazmanian. 2010. “Shopping for Sharpies in Seattle: Mundane Infrastructures of Transnational Design.” In Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Intercultural Collaboration, 39–48.

Murphy, Keith M. 2016. “Design and Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 45: 433–49.

_____, and George E. Marcus. 2013. “Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design . . . Ethnography by Design.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 251–68. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Nakamura, Karen. 2013. “Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and the Multisensory.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 1: 132–35.

Papanek, Victor. 2005. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. 2nd edition. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Redfield, Peter. 2012. “Bioexpectations: Life Technologies as Humanitarian Goods.” Public Culture 24, no. 1: 157–84.

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

Suchman, Lucy. 2011. “Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design.” Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 1–18.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Croom Helm.