Design Anthropology: Objects, Landscapes, Cities

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 social, political, and cultural milieu. This seminar explores their 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.

We will read classic texts as well as contemporary readings in anthropology, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design. The seminars will be filled with different components and tasks, including lectures and synopses of the weekly topic, small fieldwork-based exercises, learning how to take notes or record data using different media, analyzing ethnographic data, sharing thinking on individual projects, and discussing assigned readings.

Where possible, the synergy between anthropologists and designers will be cultivated to maximise exchange between disciplines. Ideally, the class will be evenly split between FAS and GSD. Students will be expected to engage in two large projects over the course of the semester. The first is a seven to ten-day fieldwork project in The Bahamas, centered on the Exumas archipelago, to be carried out over Spring Recess (March 16-March 24) with pairs of anthropologists and designers carrying out an ethnography of specific islands. The class periods leading up to that fieldwork will prepare students – methodologically, ethnographically, and theoretically – for this exercise. After the Spring Recess students will analyze their findings in relation to certain conceptual themes that drive much of design anthropology but also bear on the specific nature of design problems in the Exumas. This will prepare students to complete the second large project of the course: either a term essay or design project capturing their thinking on design anthropology and their fieldwork in the Exumas.

Students will be expected to do the weekly readings, and to lead the discussion on the readings at least twice during the semester. Participation is expected in class and amounts to 30% of the final grade; fieldwork in the Exumas is worth 40%; while the final assignment (essay or design project) is 30% of the overall grade. No late assignments will be accepted except for emergency or medical reasons.

Readings will be posted on the course iSite, where possible, and key books will placed on reserve in Loeb Design Library and Tozzer Library.

Students enrolled in this course, from the GSD or FAS, will be term billed $300, per Harvard GSD policy regarding international travel.