AAA16 – Design Anthropology

This year, the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropology Association was held in Minneapolis, MN.  Our session on Design Anthropology was organized by Christine Miller and Emilie Hitch, and sponsored by the National Association for Practicing Anthropology (NAPA).

Innovation, Human Understanding, and Design
in the Software Industry

Presentation Abstract

The software industry today is still largely imagined and led by male engineers, but over the past 20-30 years, there has been a growing awareness of the need for a more balanced view of the world to both build and bring those technologies to market.  As a result of these and other trends, the ‘end-user’ has been problematized in the technology industry – an unknown and unpredictable entity who needs to be understood in order for products to succeed.  In this context, social scientists have a unique role to play in helping technology-focused engineering teams to both understand people and the context in which technologies are being used. However, social scientists alone are usually not sufficient in this case; a partnership with specialized designers enables the team to bring research and concepts to life in a way that is consumable by everyone – including the engineers.  This paper explores one such collaboration, and how each cross-disciplinary team member (and ultimately, the product itself) benefit from the varied perspectives of the team.


Session abstract and panel participants are below.

Design Anthropology: Discovery and Evidence of Emerging Pathways in Anthropology

Session Abstract

Design anthropology is an emerging transdisciplinary field that brings together design’s fundamental orientation to change and critical anthropological perspectives in a radical approach to future-making characterized by “inclusive, collective, and public approaches” (Ehn, Nilsson, & Topgaard, 2014). Design anthropology is practiced in many different ways depending on the purpose of the study or project, the client, the composition of the research team, the context, and the community or “users” who are the subjects of the study. Design anthropology reflects a shift from stasis to process that extends the ethnographic gaze (Halse, 2013). This shift is at the heart of design anthropology practice and key to capturing the position of the anthropologist as both an observer of the transformative process while simultaneously being an active agent within it.

The diversity of design anthropology praxis is broadly evident in two main streams, one represented by the EPIC community (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) and the other as it has evolved in Europe and Scandinavia with strong ties to the tradition of participatory design. The EPIC community is rooted in business anthropology and strong business and corporate affiliations. The locus of design anthropology as it is evolving in Scandinavia and Europe tends to be centered in academic institutions, for example, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK) which hosts the website of the Research Network for Design Anthropology (

In spite of this diversity, design anthropology embodies an emerging set of principles that define design anthropological practice. These principles include commitments to transdisciplinarity and collaborative process, participatory design that includes a wide range of stakeholders, ongoing methodological experimentation and design for social impact. Design anthropological projects are characterized by rigorous critique and iterations that take into account both intended and unintended consequences of proposed designed artifacts. The explicit aim, to achieve transdisciplinary collaboration, challenges team members to articulate and demonstrate how their individual contributions add value to the project. It requires thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries and subordinating individual disciplinary biases, focusing instead on the dynamics of whole systems and what other disciplinary perspectives can contribute and how they can add value.

Presenters will explore various forms and traditions of practice within design anthropology.

Panelists included Natalie Hanson (ZS Associates), Siobahn Gregory (Wayne State University), Tamara Hale (University of Colorado Boulder), Christina Wasson (University of North Texas), Rebekah Park (ReD Associates), and Martha Cotton (Fjord).

3 Comments on “AAA16 – Design Anthropology”

  1. Pingback: Design Anthropology at AAA 2016 | anthrodesign

  2. Pingback: A New UX Maturity Model | Natalie Hanson

  3. Pingback: An Uneasy Truce | Natalie Hanson

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