recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : ilonaandrews   1

Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design | Ethnography Matters
"So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Design ethnography, in the context of our classroom, is about trying to understand how people use words, images and objects to build worlds—and creating new combinations of words, images and objects that help us, and others, understand these worlds in different ways. All of our projects involve empirical fieldwork and analysis, along with the production of creative works that critically engage the subject of fieldwork. Because so many students attempt to do the creative work first, and use their ethnographic work to justify their ‘solution’ to a perceived (but rarely demonstrated!) ‘problem,’ I tend to be a bit more dogmatic about doing the ethnographic work first than I would otherwise advocate. The important thing I’ve learned, though, is that the best work always treats design and ethnography as complementary activities that are done in an iterative fashion that actually makes them difficult to separate in the end.

In teaching design courses, particular ethnographic methods became unappealing to me. Take auto-ethnography, for example: at its best the students continued to privilege their own thoughts and experiences; at worst it became a self-serving exercise in psychoanalysis or confession. And although performance ethnography can be interesting, I lack the expertise to assess it and worried that the students would again turn design into a form of privileged self-expression that could be difficult for others to understand. I needed something more accessible, that could more effectively trouble the opposition between subjective experience and objective fact—and I found it in fiction, which I think is rather beautifully both and neither."



"I think that the research environment for exploring these ideas has been crucial to their development. For the past few years, I’ve been working on a project that re-imagines NZ merino sheep in the (imagined) context of an Internet of Things. Note that I’ve not been tasked with designing possible software applications, but rather to imagine how different technologies could shift relations between livestock production and animal-product consumption. For this research I’ve combined traditional ethnographic methods of participant observation and qualitative interviews, with speculative design practices including fictional object and image-making—and I’ve given them both ‘life’ through creative writing. We’re about to launch these design scenarios, and will spend the next six months following up with more participant observation, interviews and online surveys to see how different audiences interact—or do not interact—with them.

For me, creating ethnographic fiction and speculative design has most often been a matter of material choice: both literally and figuratively. When the research subject matter is wool and meat-producing livestock, it was easy to start by imagining weird and wonderful things made of wool and meat! All the contexts for these fictional things (a government ministry and public programme, a host of consumer products and services) are plausible because they’ve been based on ethnographic research of people’s actual interests and concerns—but none of them are possible or even particularly realistic. To be honest, I really felt I was on the right track when I started talking about getting inspiration from contemporary urban fantasy novels—especially favourites by Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs—and both my design and ethnography colleagues just laughed. (It was like Joanna Russ had never written How To Suppress Women’s Writing!) But the important bit is that I came to understand that although fantastic ethnography and speculative design don’t have to derive their plausibility from realism or rationality, they should move people—because the space of the fantastic and the speculative is, after all, affective space, or the space of potential."

[Related (lined within): http://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2011/08/28/why-you-need-read-designing-culture-anne-balsamo
and http://www.designculturelab.org/2012/08/17/on-fantasys-green-country-and-the-place-of-the-nonhuman/ ]
annegalloway  2013  ethnography  designethnography  fiction  designfiction  writing  speculativedesign  design  ursulaleguin  margaretatwood  interdisciplinary  multidisciplinary  ilonaandrews  patriciabriggs  plausibility  rationality  realism  research  speculativefiction  worldbuilding  imagery  words  images  objects  fieldwork  noticing  observation  listening  wondering  ethics  documentation  interpretation  autoethnography 
september 2013 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read