On June 8, 2011 the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine conducted its first ethnocharrette, a day-long event — thoroughly experimental in conception and scope — organized around re-imagining and re-configuring ethnographic methods, texts, and assumptions through the use of a small set of particular design practices.
Why use design as a template for reworking ethnography?
The design process, inasmuch as it can be reduced to a single entity, is generally oriented toward transforming (or cooking) “raw” information into “useful knowledge,” a guided mutation of “mere ideas” into “workable concepts” or a “feasible design” that then becomes an “object” (in all possible meanings of the term) in the world. The design process inherently consists of techniques for “working out” and “working through” different kinds of materials. Rather than unfolding in a strict and predictable linear form, the design process continuously moves back and forth between activities and modes of action that stimulate creativity and that afford a kind of critical thinking rarely achieved through simple discussions. Motivating this project is a belief that through the application of design methods and design thinking various aspects of ethnography — from research design to methods to writing and representation and beyond — can be prospectively and productively remade to better suit the continuously shifting contingencies of contemporary anthropological research.
We chose to focus our inaugural ethnocharrette on a strong piece of existing ethnographic work, treating what’s revealed in a familiar textual format as the basic information to discuss, think through, and manipulate. Eleven graduate students from the Anthropology and Informatics departments at UCI, under the guidance of Professors George Marcus and Keith M. Murphy, worked with the book Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless by Robert Desjarlais as their “raw” ethnographic material, a text that is itself simultaneously both traditional and innovative in its own right. Our goal was relatively simple: use the information presented in Desjarlais’s book — in whatever ways possible — as the springboard for crafting innovative and alternative ethnographic modes.