Origins of anthrodesign

Anthrodesign is an active online community of about 3000 practicing social scientists and interested colleagues from other disciplines.  The focus of our dialogue is on the use of ethnographic methods in non-academic contexts.  I created the listserv in 2002, and many of the reasons for its founding are the same reasons it continues to be so successful today.  Over the years I’ve received inquiries about why I formed anthrodesign, what problems I intended to solve, and what I think about it today.   As anthrodesign approaches it’s fifteen-year anniversary, this blog post is intended to answer those questions and more.  I believe sharing some of our history may help shape our trajectory, and at the same time inform others who might be interested in establishing their own vibrant and long-lasting community of like-minded practitioners.


In 2002, I was two years away from finishing my dissertation.  I had taken an extra year preparing for my comprehensive exams, because much of the material I needed to write my literature review hadn’t been covered in my earlier coursework.  Working alone, I was struggling to find materials and to explain their relevance to my subject matter, an ethnography of a high-tech corporation.  In parallel, I was beginning to think about what life might be like after my PhD was complete.  I had been working full time since the start of my doctoral program, and had enjoyed teaching a couple of undergraduate courses.  But after the fast pace of the software industry, I was clear that campus life was probably not a good fit for me.  And I was lonely.  I loved what I was studying, and I desperately wanted to talk to others who were learning and doing and struggling as I was.

In an effort to build a support system and define my next steps, I began to reach out to anthropologists who were researching or working in the business context – I spoke with Marietta Baba, Susan Squires (who was leading the NAPA Mentor program at the time), Patricia Sachs, Gitte Jordan, and others.  Though those connections, I met many more anthropologists – many of them also working alone – who were doing the work I wanted to be doing.  I was inspired, energized, and much more clearly focused on my next steps as I expanded my social network.  Today, I am a successful User Experience (UX) professional in part because of what I learned from those many individuals who took the time to engage with me as my goals and plans emerged.

In 2002, I organized a panel for the American Anthropology Association (AAA) annual meeting entitled Anthropology and Innovation in the High Tech Sector.  I was still writing my dissertation, and I’m not sure I had anything meaningful to say at the time!  But I did organize the panel and bring together interesting participants from Pitney Bowes and Microsoft. I learned a lot, and those conversations continued after the meetings.  It’s possible that all the excitement and momentum drew us into a meal together afterwards – that definitely became a tradition in subsequent years.  It was such a pleasure to engage in conversation with anthropologists whose work resembled my own.

Following the AAA meetings, the dialogue continued by email in the weeks following, and our numbers swelled from our panel participants to 24 people exchanging email.  At that time I knew we needed another format, and in August 2002 the anthrodesign listserv was formed.

In 2004, I brought together many of the same people from Pitney Bowes, Microsoft, and also Intel.  The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) panel was entitled Across the Wall: Ethnographers and Technologists at Work Together.  The panelists were colleagues who had been working side-by-side on these problems for a number of years.  We were assigned a little shoebox of a room, but the topic garnered attention; the room was packed, and we had people standing in the hallway outside to hear what we had to say.

I’ve been contacted many times about anthrodesign, what my inspiration was for founding it, what I think contributed to its longevity.  It’s easy to say in hindsight, of course!  But since I have spent significant time working on social media strategy in my career, hopefully that knowledge – combined with my fourteen-plus years of moderating anthrodesign – will provide some valuable perspective.

In the beginning

For me there were three main reasons for forming anthrodesign (1) it felt like the right moment both personally and for the discipline (2) I wanted to combat the isolation that I and many other practicing anthropologists were feeling, and (3) I was looking for ways to accelerate knowledge sharing.  Ultimately, I wanted to foster a cross-disciplinary dialogue about our work.

The right moment

An important aspect of building a community is meeting people where they are.  About ten years ago, I had a UX executive tell me that one of his teenage research respondents had described email as the way I would “send thank you notes to friends of my parents”.  Email is the hand-written thank-you note of my generation.  The listserv is essentially a centralized email capability, which does put us at risk for being irrelevant as communication preferences change.  Over the years I tried Facebook (not for everyone for a variety of reasons), Twitter (good for quick exchanges but not real dialogue), LinkedIn (great for networking, but not good for people that need to ensure the privacy of their employer or client as they ask questions).  We also have a website with a (largely neglected) blog.  Most recently, we’ve established a Slack community (like group chat, or a closed Twitter community) together with EPIC and Ethnography Matters.  Today, that seems to work well, and it has forced me to stay current.  But in all seriousness, different working styles and younger generations engage in different ways, and if we truly want to foster a dialogue, we need to enable people to connect in the ways that works best for them. And what the best way is changes as technologies (and the people they serve) evolve.  Today the Slack community is growing significantly faster than the original list, and bringing together new members who might have not otherwise found their way to us.

Last year, the CEO of Ford announced that had put his whole leadership team through IDEO’s design thinking training, and he was talking about the importance of ethnographic methods.  That was not happening 15 years ago, in spite of the fact that anthropologists have been working in the automotive industry (at Ford, GM, Chrysler, and others) for years.  So, what has changed?  At least for me, in the high-tech industry, the dot-com crash was a turning point; we had to get past valuing technology for technology’s sake, and become clearer both about the business and human value that our solutions would create.  Suddenly, there was room to consider people in the context of technology, and anthropologists who were interested in engaging with such problems.  There has also been a growing interest and curiosity about design in the business and popular press, as evidenced by a growing number of articles in Harvard Business Review, Business Week, Fast Company, Wired, and more.  I am not sure – if I attempted to found anthrodesign again today – whether there would be the same interest and urgency as there was at the time.  In other fields where market research is more central to decision-making, I’m not sure it would have worked either.  It was the right topic, at the right place, and the right time.

Combat isolation through virtual community

One of the unexpected things about anthrodesign is that it’s founded around the ethnographic method, which is used in a variety of fields, including practicing anthropology and design research.  That has been both a blessing and a challenge.  It’s been a blessing because it’s opened up the conversation beyond anthropology (more on that later), and enabled us to have a dialogue around the many diverse literatures that inform our work.  And, it’s a challenge because the community is so interesting and wonderful, it’s often a temptation to ask the group about things that have nothing at all to do with ethnographic methods.  It has also meant that there is no one obvious place to go advertise the group.  In fact, it’s been a conscious decision on my part to keep the group closed (e.g. I have to add each member myself), and to avoid sweeping invitations.  The User Experience group on LinkedIn, for example, has over 100K members.  It’s a wonderful resource, but in my experience, it doesn’t foster the same sense of community and dialogue that a smaller group does.  Most joiners find out about anthrodesign by word of mouth from a current member, from a book on ethnography in business (more on that below), from a blog, or from a Google search.  The aspiration has never been to be large, but rather to be of high quality, so this approach to publicizing the group has made good sense.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with many members of the list, whether through brief email exchanges, or meet ups at relevant conferences.  Having a chance to connect over a meal with other like-minded anthropologists has been a personal highlight for me.  Many, many of us are working as lone practitioners or lone anthropologists in a multidisciplinary team.  Under those conditions, it becomes so important to have others to talk to – whether it’s to corroborate whether we’re crazy (likely not), to discuss how to handle objections to our work or our recommendations in a specific situation, or to track down an obscure article that we need for a paper we’re writing.  Although I derive pleasure from being part of such a vibrant community, those individual connections are what make the administrative effort worthwhile for me.  And in fact, I think good communities do help build relationships, or at least provide fertile ground for those relationships to form when / if they are needed.  I see the evidence of that now in the data available about our Slack community.  While it appears very active, in fact about fifty percent of the communication is happening through direct messages, rather than in a public channel.  The dialogue doesn’t have to be fully public to foster a sense of community!

Accelerate knowledge creation and sharing

There was some writing on participatory design (notably Participatory Design: Principles and Practices from 1993, now out of print) that emerged in large measure from Europe.  During the writing of my dissertation, that work that inspired me to look more closely at design methods.  I was looking to other fields because at the inception of anthrodesign, there had been very little written about the use of ethnographic methods in the business setting.  The American Anthropological Association has a small special interest group called NAPA (National Association of Practicing Anthropologists), which was a welcoming organization.  And, while I enjoyed attending the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings, it took some time for me to understand that my work was really practicing, and not applied.  NAPA Bulletins provided insights about anthropologists studying business contexts, but showcased very little or nothing about anthropologists who were truly embedded in their work contexts, and providing anthropological / ethnographic insights for (rather than about) their places of work.

However, in the years since, there has been a wealth of material written about the topic.  Many of those books were written or edited by members of the anthrodesign community, including:

In the years since the list was formed, there have also been a number of books published by European authors about anthropology and design:

I am sure there are others that I’ve missed – please let me know which ones in the comments.

In addition, beginning in 2005, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) emerged, and the resulting intimate event was much larger and more generative than any post-conference dinner could be.  The double-blind peer reviewed proceedings (now available online) continue to provide insight and perspective into how the field has evolved.

As I was preparing this blog post, EPIC founders Tracey Lovejoy and ken anderson shared their thoughts with me about how EPIC emerged from the strong foundation of community that had been established with anthrodesign.  Ken stated that the “vibrancy and growth of the list … demonstrated that there was at least a virtual community of interest, one willing to actively engage with each other” and Tracey said that being part of the early anthrodesign dinner events at anthropology meetings (AAA, SfAA) helped her to see the value of having a safe place to engage in dialogue with others doing similar work.  Together, they felt that it made sense to bring people together in real life to continue the conversation and create a shared body of knowledge.  Today, EPIC has ~3000 registered members across many disciplines and geographies, with a total of 5000 people subscribed for email communications.  The community has produced and curated eleven years of conference content in a growing number of formats, from formal papers, to Pecha Kucha presentations, and most recently to a business school style Case Study format.  This body of knowledge will help to ensure that the next generation of social scientists and designers can learn from the past and continue to advance the field.

The promise of cross-disciplinary collaboration

Today we have nearly 3000 members globally on the listserv, with another 600 or so (some overlapping) on Slack.  At the inception (at least the first 100 members), almost all of us were social scientists.  Nonetheless, the need to collaborate effectively in interdisciplinary teams remains central to our work.

One of the many challenges for applied anthropologists is learning how to collaborate with people trained in other disciplines.  How do engineers think?  What do they value?  What / do they see as the value proposition of the work that I do?  One of the most insightful and funny moments in that 2004 SfAA panel has stuck with me all these years.  Jill Lawrence (from Pitney Bowes, now at Crown Equipment) was present with one of the engineers she was working with at the time.  They had agreed to take classes so that they could better understand the other person’s perspective.  Her a-ha moment came while taking a programming class; Jill said “Now I know why he wants me to answer questions with a yes or a no”.  She learned that for an engineer, there is no way to program for “it depends”, which includes all the subtlety and complexity of human behavior.  Much of this comes with experience, of course – by working with the same team, or similar types of colleagues over time, we learn about what works and what doesn’t.  Our ability to be effective results in part from using participant observation techniques in our own places of work!  But in a consulting role, we are thrust time and time again into situations with new collaborators, where familiar ways of working may not apply.

My hope with anthrodesign was to foster a dialogue between social scientists and designers, specifically.  I could see that designers were trained with many skills that were complementary to anthropology education.  For example, design school is practical and applied; the student portfolio is built by systematically addressing a series of business problems with a business stakeholder, an end-user, or a consumer in mind, and often with a fixed or pre-defined set of materials.  My training allowed me to think about how technology transforms the way people work, the power dynamics in play, the discourse within a system.  I didn’t receive formal education about how to make those ways of thinking useful in the business context, but I was fortunate to learn that in my day job at a software company.

Knowing that collaboration with both designers and engineers would be critical to my success, I wanted to engage in a conversation about how we could do that together.  How can we work together more effectively, what can we learn from each other, how can we deliver better outcomes if we work together?  I had some ideas at the outset, and I hoped that we could advance our thinking as a group through our discussions.  But in reality, the designers on anthrodesign are usually lurkers.  They are happy to learn, and to post the occasional question.  Perhaps because the group’s name begins with ‘anthro’, or because ethnographic methods have historically been the anthropologists’ method, the designers remain largely silent.  And that, I suppose, is my biggest regret.  In spite of all the wonderful outcomes of the group, the social scientists were so eager to engage with one another that we have not actively engaged with the design community as much as I might like.  Perhaps I should have looked for a co-facilitator that could have nurtured those voices and perspectives earlier on, or perhaps my ambitions for the group were unrealistic.  I value the EPIC proceedings because they establish the canon for our shared ideas.  However, it does privilege those (like anthropologists) who are accustomed to imparting their wisdom in words.  I hope that the EPIC Pecha Kucha and other formats will continue to make room for alternative voices in the community.  How to do that within the existing anthrodesign community – and whether such change is possible fifteen years in – is still an open question for me.

In closing

I hope this piece provided some interesting perspective on the anthrodesign community, why it was formed and how it has evolved, as well as my perspective on where we are today.  I would love to discuss this further with any who are interested, whether that’s to learn about relevant literature that I’ve missed, recommendations about how to better engage our design colleagues, or other ideas this sparks for you.  Please feel free to post in the comments here, or join the discussion and comment via the listserv or Slack.

4 Comments on “Origins of anthrodesign”

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