Design Anthropology: a resource guide

| May 11, 2012

Working List of Anthropologists Specializing on Design

Allison J. Clarke teaches at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and is director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation.

  • Design Anthropology is transforming our material culture. Springer: Vienna, 2011.

BRUNO LATOUR is a French philosopher and anthropologist who has written extensively on the anthropology of science and technology. He is also one of the leading theorists of actor network theory (ANT, which has become a methodological staple of many disciplines.

  • Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands. Knowledge and Society. 6: 1-40, 1986.

  • Spheres and Networks. Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization. Harvard Design Magazine. Spring/Summer, 30: 138-144, 2009.

  • A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosphy of Design (With Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual Internatioanl Conference of Design History Society – Falmouth. Pp. 2-10. E-books, Universal Publishers, 2009.

TIM INGOLD is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.

  • Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: an introduction. Hallam, Elizabeth and Tim Ingold (eds.). Pp. 1-24. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007.

SARAH JAIN work explores the discursive practices of product designers in order to better understand the production of injurious effects of a product’s design. She teaches at Stanford University in the department of anthropology.

  • Injury: Design and Litigation in the United States. Princeton University Press, 2006.

  • Dangerous Instrumentality: The Bystander as Subject in Automobility. Cultural Anthropology, 19(1): 61-94, 2004.

  • ‘Come up to the Kool Taste’: African American Upward Mobility and the Semiotics of Smoking Menthols. Public Culture, 15(3), 2006.

DANIEL MILLER teaches at the University College of London in the United Kingdom. He has written extensively about material culture.

  • Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

  • Designing Ourselves. In Design Anthropology, Clarke, A. (ed). Pp.88-99. New York: Springer, 2010.

  • Power of Making. Crafts. 232: 86-93, 2011.

KEITH MURPHY is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist at UC Irvine who along with George Marcus has been experimenting with different techniques for applying design techniques to ethnographic analysis and reflection. In addition, he has carried out extensive fieldwork with architects in California and product designers in Sweden.

  • Building Stories: The Embodied Narration of What Might Come to Pass. In J. Streeck, C. Goodwin and C. Lebaron (eds.) Embodied Interaction: Language and Body in the Material World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Collaborative Imagining: The Interactive Use of Gestures, Talk, and Graphic Representation in Architectural Practice. Semiotica, 156(1/4): 113-145, 2005.

LUCY SUCHMAN worked as a researcher for Xerox before she began teaching Sociology at the University of Lancaster. Her writings largely reflect on her past experiences in the high-tech world and explore issues of work, human-machine relationships, and gender—among others.

  • Anthropological Relocations and Limits of Design. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40: 1-81, 2011.
  • Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Embodied Practices of Engineering Work. Mind, Culture and Activity, 7(1/2): 4-18, 2000.

SHERRY TURKLE has a combined background in psychoanalysis and anthropology. She teaches at MIT and recently published three edited volumes exploring the social aspects of technical thinking.

  • Alone Together (2011),

  • Inner History of Devices (2008)

  • Evocative Objects (2007),

Working List of Graduate Degree Programs in Anthropology and Design

ABERDEEN UNIVERSITY, MSc Design Anthropology:

Design Anthropology is a novel and exciting interface where the speculative imagination of possible futures meets the comparative study of human ways of living and knowing. It is about how the creation of new architectures and new things can be informed by in-depth understanding of how people inhabit the structures they build and relate to the things they use. It offers a radical rethinking of the ideas and concepts that have traditionally underpinned design practice, such as nature and artefact, form and content, knowledge and skill, making and using, creativity and innovation. And it seeks to place design in its wider political and institutional context, amidst concerns about environmental change, sustainable development and the conservation of energy…. The MSc in Design Anthropology is not a course in design. It is rather intended to provide designers, or those with an interest in design, with a set of critical, conceptual and methodological tools, drawn from contemporary anthropology, that they can bring to bear in their own practice – above all outside the academy. Students will be encouraged to experiment with ideas and methods developed through the course by way of internships or other placements towards the end of the programme.”

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON, MA Culture, Materials and Design: Their vision statement:

“The material world is a world of social potential. Social scientists should be better equipped to engage with materials and objects through ethnographic, critical, analytical, presentational and collaborative skills. Designers, artists, engineers, architects and curators should be better equipped to work with people using similar skills.”


SWINEBURN UNIVERSITY, Design Anthropology MA program:

Design anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of design. It seeks to understand how design helps define what it means to be human, that diversity of human values, and then how design translates these values into tangible experiences.”


Working List of Centers Working on the Anthropology of Design

ETHNOCHARETTE, Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine:

“From its inception in 2005, one of the core projects of the Center for Ethnography has been to experiment with how studio settings and design processes might be usefully built into the various phases of ethnographic inquiry, and tailored to its specificities. The staging of para-sites in the pedagogy of dissertation projects has been one such endeavor. Now, in a planned series of “ethnocharrettes”, we address more explicitly the application of studio design settings to various phases of ethnography. We begin with the anthropological tradition of pedagogy in ethnographic research and what students can do collaboratively with their receptions of the still canonical form of the ethnographic text. In this initial series, we understand ourselves to be experimenting with a modality that might eventually have several different elaborations and functions within and alongside the development of ethnographic projects, from thinking through the idea for a project, to explicitly collaborative phases of fieldwork, to becoming a form of ethnographic production as a replacement for, or supplementary to, the standard genres of writing. We feel that the most effective way for a project of ethnographic research to be ‘public’ or relevant today is to open itself up to various constituencies in its different phases at the same granular, ‘micro’ scale at which it is produced. And that the design studio is the most appropriate forum, or theater, for this ‘becoming’ of ethnography at different phases of its ‘doing.’”

Anthropology of the contemporary research collaborative (ARC), University California Berkley:

“Anthropological Research on the Contemporary is devoted to collaborative inquiry into contemporary forms of life labor and language. ARC engages in empirical study and conceptual work with global reach and long-term perspective.”


Working List of Design Anthropology Courses

HARVARD UNIVERSITY, Anthropology 2695: Design Anthropology: Objects, Landscapes, Cities:

“This course will examine the intersections between design and anthropology. In recent years, there has been a movement in anthropology toward a focus on objects, while design and planning have been moving toward the understanding of objects as part of a greater milieu. This seminar explores this common ethnographic ground. The course is about both the anthropology of design, and the design of anthropology. For designers, the goals will be to learn thick ethnographic observation and description; applying theoretical concepts in making connections between ethnographic data; and moving from ethnography to an understanding of how context informs design, as well as asking why we design in the ways that we do. Anthropologists will be challenged to think about different forms of ethnographic fieldwork by collaborating with non-anthropologists and working toward a collective ethnography; using visual information to represent ethnographic information and insights; and applying anthropological skills to the study of objects, materiality, and design processes.”

The course was taught in 2011 by Steven C. Caton and Gareth Gerard Doherty.


UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS, ANTH 4701-008/4610-016 Design Anthropology:

“Design anthropology is a rapidly growing field of employment for those who wish to work in business contexts. In this course, students learn the fundamentals of this field. By collaborating on an applied project, they gain practice in the research methods of participant observation, interviewing, and videotaping. They learn to engage in collaborative analysis using qualitative software. And they work with designers and customers to translate their research into practical applications.”



“Design Anthropology is an emergent field concerned with the design of technologies that build upon and enhance embodied skills of people, through attention to the dynamics of performance and the coupling of action and perception (as against the more traditional focus on mental computational operations). This is a radically new area of research that cuts across a wide range of fields from industrial design, through human movement studies and ecological psychology, to sociocultural anthropology…. The aim of the course is to challenge conventional thinking regarding the nature of design and creativity, in a way that acknowledges the improvisatory skills and perceptual acuity of people. Combining theoretical investigations and practice based experiments in a series of research seminars; the course addresses questions regarding methodological innovation within processes of designing/ using things. Studying the relation between design practice and use practice, researchers place emphasis on the creativity of design and emergence of objects in social situations and collaborative endeavour…” This course was organized in 2010 by Wendy Gunn, Jared Donovan, Tim Ingold and James Leach.