Teaching Reflections: Design Ethnography #1

Posted on Aug 5, 2014 in Ordinary Madness of Academia

This term I’m teaching two courses: CCDN233: Design Ethnography and CCDN384: Multispecies Design. I had originally planned to blog weekly reflections but the first three weeks of classes have been such a blur that I’ll have to start now and hope I can do it weekly from now on. I’ll also split my reflections into separate posts for each course.


This is a second year elective with just over 50 students from all three of our design specialisations. Last year the course was finally starting to come together, and I’ve made some minor adjustments to the content in order to better emphasise the development of ethnographic research skills. Each week we look at different aspects of ethnographic research, including doing fieldwork, analysing fieldwork, ethnographic writing, sensory ethnography, and multispecies ethnography–as well as visual culture, material culture, and collecting, curating and creating culture.  Students are required to conduct fieldwork (observation, interviews, etc.) for three assignments: WORDS produces a written ethnography, IMAGES produces a visual ethnography, and OBJECTS requires that students design a diorama that contextualises an object collected during fieldwork. Students are also required to give a brief presentation at the end of the course that explains their personal perspective on the relationship between design and ethnography.

I started the course by explaining design ethnography–not least because no one had heard the phrase before! For the purposes of this class, design ethnography uses ideas and methods from anthropology to understand people and how they make sense of the world. This helps us understand how people interact with material and digital designs, and it helps us design things that will be meaningful to people. It also uses design ideas and methods to share this cultural understanding with others. Backing up a bit, I then asked “What is anthropology?” and explained that it is the study of humanity in all its biological, material, linguistic, and cultural expressions across space and time. This means we try to understand all the practices and beliefs shared by people in a particular place and historical period. Or, put a bit differently, we try to make sense of ourselves in relation to other people, places, things, and ideas in the world. Ethnography is the primary method that anthropologists use to understand the world. We work with our heads, our hearts, our hands, and our feet. Ethnography can include many things, but for our purposes it requires fieldwork–observing other people and actively participating in the world around us–instead of only spending time in a lab or a library or a studio.

What do design ethnographers do?

1. We ask a lot of questions, and we listen very carefully to people’s answers.
2. We meticulously observe what people do, think about how and why they do it, and compare it to what they say.
3. We document everything so that we can create “thick descriptions” of the world and represent “webs of significance.”
4. We take this knowledge and we design for people’s actual needs, hopes, and desires.
5. We design with care and respect for people’s differences.
6. We don’t treat people as problems to solve or fix.

To this I added that, ultimately, the stories we tell can be considered “partial truths“–which for our purposes means that we try to understand as much as possible, but we can’t know and represent everything and that’s okay. Drawing on concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, I also said that it’s okay to have our own ideas about people and the world, but our job is always to see how other people understand the world (in their terms) and not worry about who’s right and who’s wrong.

Moving on to fieldwork, and the first assignment, I explained the process of applying for ethics approval (which I do at the course level), and creating the participant information sheets and consent forms they must use. We spent time going over fieldwork protocols, and the biggest challenge for students seems to be asking the “right” kind of questions. Despite going over how to avoid questions that elicit simple “yes” or “no” answers, they still struggled with trying to get people to answer direct questions. I explained that approaching face-to-face interviews as if they’re a survey is difficult, and it’s often much better–and easier!–to ask participants to share a story about the topic they’re interested in and then have a conversation with them about it. This way, the participant will let them know what’s important, or where the “real” story lies. We discussed how observation allows us to compare what we see and did to what people said, allowing for greater accuracy and improving the quality of our interpretation.

The following week, Dr Lorena Gibson gave an excellent guest lecture on her fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and India. She emphasised how difficult observation can be with this fun example:

(I counted the number of balls correctly, but was rather embarrassed to learn that I completely missed the gorilla!)

Lorena also beautifully illustrated how ethnocentrism and cultural relativism work with this clip from Tribal Wives:

But the real highlight came when she shared photos taken by schoolchildren at Talimi Haq School in Priya Manna Basti, Howrah (Kolkata). For this ethnographic research, Lorena used photovoice, “a collaborative participatory method where people in marginalised communities are encouraged to take photos of things they consider important in their lives, or that capture their lived experiences.” She provided cameras and training, and asked the students to work in pairs to photograph a ritual or activity that was important to them and arrange it as a photo essay or narrative. We then looked at the photos and Lorena asked the students what they suggest about the lives of the children and life in Priya Manna Basti. For example, the girls took photos of water–something that is very strictly controlled in the slum and integral to cooking and cleaning (considered women’s work). The boys took photos of school and street cricket, emphasising play (classes are voluntary and held after a full day of work). The students were very good at noticing gender differences, spatial contexts like domestic and public space, as well as the different poses of people pictured (i.e. some looked directly at the camera, but most did not).

This exercise sets up our second assignment quite well, but for now we still have to concentrate on practicing observation and interview skills, and then interpreting what was seen, done and heard. Students are still struggling with making assumptions about what they see and hear, although I’m very impressed by how few have got stuck on making judgements. The students are bright and sensitive, but I think it can be difficult to understand a point of view that we’ve never before encountered or with which we disagree. I had hoped that limiting their fieldwork to family and friends would reduce the amount of cultural dissonance encountered, but it seems to also make it harder for them to get past the taken for granted.

Next: Week 4 reflections

Also: Multispecies Design (Weeks 1-3)