Design Ethnography in the Anthropocene

It’s the second week of winter trimester, and I’m teaching my second-year undergraduate course in Design Ethnography. The theme this year is the Anthropocene, or how design relates to people’s relationships with animals, plants, the Earth’s elements, and “natural” materials in an era defined by humanity’s impact on the planet.

In this course, students learn about some of the main ecological challenges facing the world today and how different cultures around the world understand the relationship between nature and culture. And we focus on developing critical and creative skills in observation, interviews, interpretation, representation, and reflection so that design can play a more sustainable role in our shared future.

Anthropocene Fever by Jedediah Purdy

The Anthropocene debate: Why is such a useful concept starting to fall apart? by Aaron Vansintjan

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin (pdf) by Donna Haraway

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

Tomorrow we delve into what ethnography means and how we do it. I like this lecture because I get to share one of my favourite descriptions of ethnography, from Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific :

“Ethnography has a goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose sight. This goal is, briefly, to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. We have to study man, and we must study what concerns him most intimately, that is, the hold life has on him. In each culture, the values are slightly different; people aspire after different aims, follow different impulses, yearn after a different form of happiness . . . In each culture, we find different institutions in which man pursues his life-interest, different customs by which he satisfies his aspirations, different codes of law and morality which reward his virtues or punish his defections. To study the institutions, customs, and codes or to study the behaviour and mentality without the subjective desire of feeling by what these people live, of realising the substance of their happiness—is, in my opinion, to miss the greatest reward which we can hope to obtain from the study of man.”

Ignore the outdated language and, almost one hundred years later, I think it is still an unusually eloquent statement on the beauty of our field of research. And if ethnography is committed to sharing stories about what it means to be human, then we can also count amongst its rewards a greater understanding of ourselves.

The first assignment is to conduct several hours of participant observation, doing something that can help us better understand people’s everyday understandings of, and interactions with, “nature”. I haven’t defined nature for them, and I can’t wait to see what they do!

I’ve also started doing something new this trimester: Each class begins with 10 minutes of sustained consideration of a photograph. Spending ten full minutes looking at one image is incredibly challenging but, I hope, also rewarding. The longer we spend looking at something, the more we stand to see. Our minds are given time to move away from–and perhaps more importantly, return to–what’s right in front of us. The activity, especially when done regularly, sharpens attention and increases awareness. It teaches students the foundational skill of all ethnographic research: engaged observation. The activity ends with answering one question: “What matters here?” and, of course, there is no right answer. The goal is simply to get better at seeing–at recognising–the larger context(s) which lend any image its resonance or power.

In our first class, we looked at an image from Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait series:

Cell phones by Chris Jordan

Close-up of Cell Phones by Chris Jordan (2007). Depicts 426,00 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the US every day.

And tomorrow, we’ll look at one of the photos from Paul Nicklen’s Polar Bear series:

Polar Bear by Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative

What do you think matters in each image?