Anthropology Design
Elizabeth Chin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0261


If anthropology is about anything humans have ever done from the emergence of primates until now, design covers a territory that is equally vast, up to, and—according to some—even including the universe itself as a designed thing. This essay focuses on both anthropology and design with an eye toward highlighting examples where rigor and sophistication apply equally to the anthropological as it does to the designerly. Carving a manageable path means that some important areas, such as human-computer interaction (HCI), crip technoscience, and critiques of artificial intelligence (AI) are attenuated. Ethnographers who are not anthropologists are also largely absent. As design has moved in recent years into taking on social problems, and international development issues, anthropology has taken notice. Meanwhile, changes in technology and communication have made design an appealing site of exploration for anthropology. Much of what has emerged is what Murphy 2016 describes as ethnographies of design. Design provides inspiration, as well, in terms of research methods, ways of working, and knowledge production, that is, anthropology through design. If the first strong wave of design interest in anthropology resulted in “design anthropology,” more recent interest from anthropology in design has explored how studio culture might transform the lonely ethnographer into a team player; anthropological interest is growing, as well, in designerly modes of investigation that indulge in play, use of materials, and shortened research deployments. Tensions abound: even as anthropologists criticize designers for being bad ethnographers, they have a strong tendency to be design interlopers, ignoring or giving short shrift to designerly forms of rigor and ways of working. Still preferring to write and talk, anthropologists on the whole remain deeply undesignerly in their ability to manipulate tools, materials, and form with both creativity and skill. Design, for its part, has a stunning capacity to claim to solve problems while providing no convincing evidence that this is, indeed, the case. The debates are important. Equally important are examples that demonstrate the power and potential in synergizing the two disciplines. Wherever possible, such examples are highlighted. If debates are often centered on boundary-keeping, these experiments and examples point a way toward blurring of boundaries that promises to enrich thinking and making in exciting and durable ways, both for anthropology and for design.

General Overviews

Unlike anthropology, design has yet to develop a strong self-critical discourse. As a result, the great majority of thinking and making in design remains ethnocentric. Anthropological and ethnographic critiques of the culture of design contribute to understanding design not as universal but of a particular time and place. Anthropology, for its part, has contributed to designerly recognition of many cultural practices as legitimately designed, challenging the Eurocentric bias baked into design’s dominant narratives and practices. Taking a classically political economy approach, Chin 2019 deconstructs a Bauhaus tea set to challenge Bauhaus aesthetics and claims of universalism. Annual review essays by Suchman 2011 and Murphy 2016 together provide a good grounding in the range of critical issues anthropologists tend to focus upon when they discuss design. Suchman 2011 provides an especially strongly voiced critique of design in industry, doing so as an insider in both design and anthropology. Going beyond Suchman’s (understandable) concern with high tech, Murphy broadly interrogates touchpoints between the two disciplines. Taking an unusually expansive approach, Drazin 2018 traces anthropology’s engagement with design across graphics, material culture, and designerly ways of working. A number of essays in Hjorth, et al. 2016 address the intersection of design and anthropology and the entire volume is well worth a deep dive. Bringing a Latin American critique, Escobar 2018 proposes that design’s eurocentric “one-world world” position be replaced by recognition of many worlds in the form of the pluriverse.

  • Chin, Elizabeth. 2019. Bauhaus and the people without design history. In Bauhaus futures. Edited by Laura Forlano, Molly Wright Steenson, and Mike Ananny. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    A historical materialist analysis of the materials of a Bauhaus-made silver and ebony tea set makes the point that materially and otherwise, the Bauhaus has always already been deeply enmeshed with global systems of oppression and injustice.

  • Drazin, Adam. 2018. Design, anthropology of. In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Edited by Hilary Callan, 1–9. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A broadly conceived survey of anthropology’s engagement with design that provides a great starting place for identifying key issues.

  • Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Bringing a strong commitment to Latin America, Escobar’s more recent engagement with design is focused on a critique of design’s “one-world world,” which he counters with the many worlds option inherent in the notion of the pluriverse, using a number of rich case studies from Colombia to illustrate these principles.

  • Hjorth, Larissa, Heather Horst, Anne Galloway, and Genevieve Bell, eds. 2016. The Routledge companion to digital ethnography. New York: Routledge.

    Many essays in this compendium are in the sweet spot where design and anthropology meet, particularly Wendy F. Hsu’s chapter, and the essays contained in a concluding section on design.

  • Murphy, Keith M. 2016. Design and anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 45.1: 433–449.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102215-100224

    Comprehensive and critically incisive, the review is organized around anthropology of design, anthropology for design, and design for anthropology.

  • Suchman, L. 2011. Anthropological relocations and the limits of design. Annual Review of Anthropology 40.1: 1–18.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.041608.105640

    Having worked in Xerox PARC for twenty years, Suchman’s understanding of both anthropology and design draws from her expertise in these fields. She calls for an anthropology of design, and urges design to acknowledge its time, place, and politics.

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