Human instruments, imagined return

Siobhan Magee, Chris Speed, Eric Laurier, Mark Hartswood, Fionn Tynan O'Mahony, M de Jode, A Hudson-Smith

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

Abstract / Description of output

The proposed Pecha Kucha presentation reflects on a design project in which Hortense Powdermaker’s musing that anthropologists are ‘human instruments’ (1965) became uncommonly literal. Specifically, it discusses the politics and materiality of the ‘imagined return’ constituted by anthropologists’ who have carried out ethnographic research to inform a design intervention return to their fieldsite for the purposes of deployment and reflection on the design.

Our multi-disciplinary group designed ‘The Haggle-o-tron’, a kettle enhanced with a camera, speakers, and thermal mini-printer, after ethnographic fieldwork in Oxfam secondhand charity shops in Manchester revealed that shoppers use smartphone-enabled access to eBay and Amazon to compare online prices of goods with their prices in charity shops. When online prices are lower, shoppers ask the shop manager to lower the price (‘haggle’). The Haggle-o-tron imagines a future in which prices of goods in charity shops are not decided by price tags but by social interaction. Information about how and where items were produced, the memories and values attached to them by previous owners can add value to items. So too can sensual, qualitative facets such as feel, smell, and fit. Apposite to the theme of ‘ethnographies of the possible’, those who use the Haggle-o-tron can also see the future implications of their purchase: because they are buying in the charity retail sector, the money they spend will go to an aid project. The money they spend is shown as translated into chickens or goats on a receipt that feeds out of the teapot. This particular object was chosen because it is sensitive to its surroundings of a semi-public space with important social meanings to local communities, yet disruptive because its function (as a calculative device that can see, hear and speak) was surprising given its form (a decidedly ‘analogue’ kettle).

Returning to the field to deploy this design intervention constituted for the anthropologist ‘an imagined return’. In addition to powering the Haggle-o-tron and thus becoming a ‘human instrument’, by returning with an ethnographically-informed artifact designed to lead users to experience an imagined future in which prices of goods are decided through social interaction meant returning to the charity shop fieldsite (because it was the site of data collection) whilst not returning to the charity shop fieldsite (because this was now changed materially and socio-economically to an idea of the original fieldsite ‘in the future’).

The two main questions the presentation seeks to address are:
1) how might design anthropology conceptualise situations in which a research must become part of an artifact in order for it to be amenable to users?
2) in which ways can the presence of an ethnographically-informed artifact during a deployment where the ethnography was originally generated make the anthropologist’s design deployment not fully a ‘return to the site’ but rather an ‘imagined return’: partial, hazy, fragmented?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2014
EventResearch Network for Design Anthropology - Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Duration: 10 Apr 201411 Apr 2014


ConferenceResearch Network for Design Anthropology


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