Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design


Anne Galloway

Editor’s Note: Anne Galloway (@annegalloway) is Senior Lecturer at the School of Design (Victoria University of Wellington,) and Principal Investigator at Design Culture Lab. Coming from a background in anthropology and STS, Anne’s work focusses on relations between humans and nonhumans, and the development of creative research methods for understanding issues and controversies around science, technology and animals. In this first post of this month’s edition about Ethnography and Fiction, she gives her perspective on design ethnography and speculative fiction. More specifically, she describes various authors who inspired her work as well the relationship between ethnography and design.


For the past five years I’ve worked as a design ethnographer. I haven’t always called myself that—I have a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and a PhD in Sociology—but I’ve always studied what people make in, and of, the world. And although I don’t feel much disciplinary allegiance, it would be disingenuous to say my disciplinary background, and their methods in particular, haven’t been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Perhaps because of my multidisciplinary education, I tend to have a rather idiosyncratic view of what design ethnography means. First, I do not use ethnography as a means to privilege people, and my approach to design ethnography is different from that which underpins much human- or user-centred design. My ethnographic practice is strongly informed by science and technology studies, most notably in their recognition of nonhumans as agents in everyday life, and by “multispecies ethnography“, which explicitly involves doing research with nonhuman animals. More generally, I see both ethnography and design as practices that re-assemble the complex assemblages to which we are already attached. And although I also see the need for ethnographic studies that directly inform design practices and products, and respect the people who do this valuable work, I don’t enjoy playing a support role to ‘real’ designers. I much prefer to find new ways of doing both ethnography and design.

So how do I teach ethnography to design students? First, I tell them that if they’ve ever wondered why people do things, or how things got to be the way they are, then they’re already part ethnographer. I say that my job is to help them get better at asking and answering social and cultural questions, because understanding and building entire worlds is a huge challenge that no single discipline can accomplish on its own. And I tell them that I believe the best designers are those who understand that what they’re doing is cultural innovation, which requires them to move beyond both personal impression and expression, as well as any self-righteous desire to ‘fix’ the world. My approach to design ethnography binds us to others, and I place a lot of emphasis on the need to develop a social ethics, rather than relying solely on personal interests and beliefs.

Over the years I’ve observed that design students often have much better observation and documentation skills than sociology and anthropology students do, but they appear to struggle greatly with how to interpret the information and represent this knowledge to other people. On the other hand, anthropology and sociology students often have superior analytical skills but are terribly limited in their desire or ability to communicate in anything other than the written word—even when their topic is visual or material culture. Consequently, I’ve come to think that ethnography makes design better as much as design makes ethnography better, and in that sense I believe we can serve each other equally.

Untitled by Smithsonian Institution
Untitled by Smithsonian Institution

Design ethnography, in the context of our classroom, is about trying to understand how people use words, images and objects to build worlds—and creating new combinations of words, images and objects that help us, and others, understand these worlds in different ways. All of our projects involve empirical fieldwork and analysis, along with the production of creative works that critically engage the subject of fieldwork. Because so many students attempt to do the creative work first, and use their ethnographic work to justify their ‘solution’ to a perceived (but rarely demonstrated!) ‘problem,’ I tend to be a bit more dogmatic about doing the ethnographic work first than I would otherwise advocate. The important thing I’ve learned, though, is that the best work always treats design and ethnography as complementary activities that are done in an iterative fashion that actually makes them difficult to separate in the end.

In teaching design courses, particular ethnographic methods became unappealing to me. Take auto-ethnography, for example: at its best the students continued to privilege their own thoughts and experiences; at worst it became a self-serving exercise in psychoanalysis or confession. And although performance ethnography can be interesting, I lack the expertise to assess it and worried that the students would again turn design into a form of privileged self-expression that could be difficult for others to understand. I needed something more accessible, that could more effectively trouble the opposition between subjective experience and objective fact—and I found it in fiction, which I think is rather beautifully both and neither.

For the past thirty or forty years, ethnographers have explicitly acknowledged our role in writing culture through our actions at least as much as we capture or reflect it. Taking this thinking a step further, ethnographic fiction is often described as a story that could have been ‘discovered’ and told by an anthropologist. (As a side note, Raymond Williams famously referred to science fiction as “space anthropology.”) Accordingly, even though made up, these narratives focus on cultural life as if it were actually experienced by actual people. On the other hand, to a certain degree ethnographers make up people every time we present a viewpoint or activity through a composite character, and fictional personas have long provided anonymity for research participants as well as distance from difficult topics or contentious actions. But I’m interested in pushing past ‘simple’ ethnographic fiction and toward what I call “fantastic ethnography and speculative design“.

By way of background, I think all ethnographers are taught that Ursula Le Guin’s father was the famous American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and her mother an accomplished writer, so it comes as no surprise to us that her culturally rich stories are so capable of rendering the strange as familiar, and the familiar as strange. Le Guin has written many excellent essays, but the one that currently preoccupies my research and gives me my definition of “fantastic” is called “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” Ostensibly written in defense of fantasy narratives, it is also a brilliant critique of the kind of modernist realism that informs so much of today’s fiction, design and design fiction. Le Guin reminds us that not only is our distinction between factual and fictional narrative historically quite recent, but that we’ve forgotten how to even read fantasy. Imagine, she suggests, if we were to “judge modern realist fiction by the standards of fantasy.” We would find ourselves, she continues, faced with “a narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs; trapped in representationalism, suffocatingly unimaginative, frequently trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.” (When I first read this I was sure she was describing most of the social and cultural research I had to read for my postgraduate studies, not realist fiction!)

Untitled by Smithsonian Institution
Untitled by Smithsonian Institution

Le Guin’s essay challenges us to probe what exists beyond realism, beyond anthropocentrism, and to carefully question what this space can and cannot bring forth. First, I’ve combined notions of the fantastic and the speculative with practices of ethnography and design in order to remind us that we are making things, and that we have many material narratives at our disposal. Second, I’ve chosen fantasy as a guide specifically because it’s different from science fiction. Feminist critiques of science have long demonstrated that scientific rationality is connected to practices and values of modern, affluent, male-dominated, Western culture. Indeed, ‘good’ science fiction is often predicated on its ability to be scientifically plausible—just as ‘good’ ethnographic fiction is meant to be culturally plausible. To escape, or exceed, these ways of thinking and doing, then, requires the sort of critique seen in feminist science fiction and the incredible, unruly, premodern sensibility that infuses the fantastic. As Le Guin explains, the fantastic reminds us of “what we have denied, what we have exiled ourselves from.” That “humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important” and that “there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.”

The ‘speculative design’ half of ethnographic fiction and speculative design more simply draws on the notion of speculative fiction (as Margaret Atwood prefers to call her writing, and perhaps includes magical realism), together with the likes of Archigram and Superstudio, as well as more recent approaches such as critical design and design fiction. However, my approach might be differentiated from some of this design work specifically because it avoids a (hard) prescriptive or (soft) moralising dimension. As Le Guin puts it, fantasy does not seek “utilitarian interpretations and judgments” which reduce its narratives to “political-economic terms” that are, in any case, dismissed if not “utopian, dystopian, or of clear social relevance.” (Here we might also recall the flexibility of Atwood’s ustopias, “these not-exactly places, which are anywhere but nowhere, and which are both mappable locations and states of mind.”) And so fantastic ethnography and speculative design do not offer preferable futures or even possible futures, if that involves “disguised ethics or politics.” Of course, what the designer or writer intends and how an audience actually engages with their work is never entirely clear and should not be assumed to be in sync. In fact, part of my broader desire to bring ethnography and design together is a sort of checks-and-balances approach to my research—and the fantastic or speculative part need not be exempt from that.

I think that the research environment for exploring these ideas has been crucial to their development. For the past few years, I’ve been working on a project that re-imagines NZ merino sheep in the (imagined) context of an Internet of Things. Note that I’ve not been tasked with designing possible software applications, but rather to imagine how different technologies could shift relations between livestock production and animal-product consumption. For this research I’ve combined traditional ethnographic methods of participant observation and qualitative interviews, with speculative design practices including fictional object and image-making—and I’ve given them both ‘life’ through creative writing. We’re about to launch these design scenarios, and will spend the next six months following up with more participant observation, interviews and online surveys to see how different audiences interact—or do not interact—with them.

For me, creating ethnographic fiction and speculative design has most often been a matter of material choice: both literally and figuratively. When the research subject matter is wool and meat-producing livestock, it was easy to start by imagining weird and wonderful things made of wool and meat! All the contexts for these fictional things (a government ministry and public programme, a host of consumer products and services) are plausible because they’ve been based on ethnographic research of people’s actual interests and concerns—but none of them are possible or even particularly realistic. To be honest, I really felt I was on the right track when I started talking about getting inspiration from contemporary urban fantasy novels—especially favourites by Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs—and both my design and ethnography colleagues just laughed. (It was like Joanna Russ had never written How To Suppress Women’s Writing!) But the important bit is that I came to understand that although fantastic ethnography and speculative design don’t have to derive their plausibility from realism or rationality, they should move people—because the space of the fantastic and the speculative is, after all, affective space, or the space of potential.

In wrapping up these thoughts I could apologise for not providing any clear lessons for the reader to take away, but that wasn’t ever my intent. My thinking, doing and making isn’t done yet and I just wanted to share how I’ve got to where I am. Perhaps you recognise some of these experiences or share some of my interests, but perhaps not. All I know is that it will take different kinds of people sharing different kinds of stories before our collective imaginations truly take off to places unknown. And it may just be the archaeologist in me, but I’m most hopeful that we’ll accomplish that by looking far into the past–when the real and the rational didn’t dominate everyday life–at least as much as we look into the future.

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9 Responses to “Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design”

  1. September 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Very interesting article! It absolutely fascinates me the merge of anthropology with design. I am a designer and I wish one of my degrees was into anthropology or sociology but as there is no time to go back to school I really enjoy reading such articles. I firmly believe that design is in a sense the visualization of the any anthropological research and I wish subjects such as pure anthropology and sociology were part of a designer’s education.

    Looking forward to read more articles on this issue.

  2. 村头一枝花
    April 12, 2015 at 12:07 am #

    The main difference of Ethnography and other qualitative methods is that ethnography is design free! With design, how could you say that is ethnography?


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