As canonical methodologies for conceiving and doing fieldwork are transformed by emerging technological developments and on-the-ground constraints, traditional forms of ethnographic research continue to be pushed, pulled, and prodded in new directions. In broad strokes the field of design — including separate sub-disciplines like architecture, industrial design, graphic design, interaction design, information architecture, human-computer interaction, and host of other related fields — seems to share a number of qualities with ethnography, and as such presents itself as one key domain that ethnography can explore, and perhaps absorb into its own process of inquiry.

  • Both design and ethnography exist as process and product. The design process and the ethnographic process both rely on specific sets of (more or less) inviolable principles and core methods that students are exposed to from their introduction to the disciplines.  At the same time, practicing designers and ethnographers work toward crafting “a design” or “an ethnography,” tangible results stemming specifically from putting learned principles and methods into action.
  • Both design and ethnography are focused on research, with a particular emphasis on careful observation and purposeful inscription of what is observed. As such, neither designers nor ethnographers take for granted the minute operations of the world around them in conceiving and carrying out their work.
  • Both design and ethnography are anxiously people-centered. In different ways design and ethnography maintain a nominal (if not always substantive) relationship to “the social.”  However both design and ethnography often fall victim to a tendency towards abstraction and thus a removal from material realities, despite the seemingly self-evident attunement to observations of real world conditions.
  • Both design and ethnography are at the service of more than the thing itself.  Though both design and ethnography often operate in practice with relatively small-bore goals — creating a comfortable chair or explaining a particular ritual — they are always linked into larger, less immediate symbolic processes, and their position in such processes often produces a range of different, unpredictable consequences.

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