Things as co-ethnographers: Implications of a thing perspective for design and anthropology

Elisa Giaccardi, Christopher Speed, Nazli Cila, M. Caldwell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

As humans, we have complex and intertwined relationships with the objects around us. We shape objects; and objects shape and transform our practices and us in return. Acknowledging this ongoing interaction among people and objects calls for approaches in both design and anthropology that give both parties an equal role. In the current design research agenda however, humans take a central place in methodology with the tools and methods of user-centered design (Greenbaum and Kyng 1991) and participatory design (Schuler and Namioka 1993). This focus on the human is essential for investigating the subjective experience of everyday practice, but assumes that possibilities for creativity and innovation are bounded only by human imagination and capabilities. In this arrangement, the relationship between humans and objects is unidirectional: humans are actants that ‘make’ objects with a clear encoded function. But what happens if we shift the focus to objects that break down, get dirty, contest their original function and even begin to perform autonomously? What if we try to understand the world from the perspective of a ‘thing’ that is situated within relationships with other entities and that has the potential to influence the existence of those other entities? For instance, what would the world look like from the perspective of a kettle, and how might a kettle inspire the existence of other entities? What kind of anthropological insights and design opportunities would this approach provide? Our argument in this chapter is that a thing perspective can bring unique insights about the relationships between objects and human practices, and ultimately present new ways of framing and solving problems collaboratively with things, which have different skills and purposes from humans.2 Drawing from materials gathered during the Thing Tank research project, a collaborative platform for design inquiry in the Internet of Things, this chapter examines the potential that a thing perspective holds for design and anthropology, and for design anthropology specifically, as it challenges anthropocentric assumptions about the world and opens up new ways of understanding objects, people and use practices. In particular, the chapter is concerned with what a methodological and analytical focus on things as actants, and perhaps even social actors, may reveal about the types of social relations and power dynamics that inhere between things, and between things and people. Based on these considerations, we argue that things may serve as co-ethnographers. Equipped with software and sensors, they can have access to fields, data and perspectives that we, as human ethnographers, do not, and therefore may help us ‘see’ what was previously invisible to humans.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDesign Anthropological Futures
EditorsRachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjærsgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, Thomas Binder
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781474280648, 9781474280631, 9781474280617
ISBN (Print)9781474280624, 9781474280600
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Design Anthropology


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  • Thing Tank

    Speed, C., Giaccardi, E. & Rubens, N.


    Project: Non-Funded Commission or Consultancy work

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