A rather unhappy clash between ethnography and design?

This is what Lucy Kimbell discussed in her keynote speech “Reassembling the Visual” at EPIC 2008 on how we can present insights from ethnographic research as relations between people and objects that can actually be experienced by the reader/viewer. I recently re-read her talk and can very much recommend it. She draws partly on empirical research from Andrew Barry and colleagues into interdisciplinarity. The clash she is referring to is a form of interdisciplinarity that creates results that are somewhere between design and ethnography but hard to grasp for either discipline.

Cultural Probes are a good example, especially when they are characterised by Bill Gaver as confusing to both the participants and the design team in his 2004 paper, also referenced by Lucy. Bill considers this confusion inspirational of course and deliberately aims for it with the probes. Lucy suggests ethnographers to take inspiration from contemporary art and design, and fully engage with the clash too, as a way of exploring it further. She does so herself, for instance with Physical Bar Charts (a collaboration with Andrew Barry and part of their work Pindices). She presented this  installation at EPIC 2008.

Image by Elizabeth Churchill
Image by Elizabeth Churchill

As Lucy explains on her website: “In Physical Bar Charts, viewers are presented with five tall see-through tubes containing button badges, each with a specific message on. Visitors are prompted to help themselves to badges. As they do so, the levels in the tubes drop, presenting an inverse bar chart showing the popularity of the badges. Alongside the tubes are postcards asking visitors to predict the levels in the tubes on a future date. Depending on the messages on the badges, and the location in which the tubes are placed, the Physical Bar Charts make public the views of anonymous participants. As people walk around wearing the badges, a temporary community is formed.”

She emphasizes that the visual quality of her work, although important too, is not what she thinks makes it most valuable to ethnography as a source of inspiration. More importantly, through engaging with the objects you become part of the work itself and start to both create and understand its meanings. One can say that the type of interdisciplinarity that creates clashes between ethnography and design question what these disciplines each for themselves do. This offers opportunities for ethnography (and design) as Lucy suggests at the end of her paper, in particular when exercised in multidisciplinary projects in organisations.

This really inspires me to really do something with an idea I have had for a while. I would like to create a video installation for a client we have done visual ethnography for. This would be at their building entrance or canteen, where visitors and employees will see it casually and regularly, allowing them to get familiar with it over time. A great way to bring ethnographic stories to employees I think! Are you the client I am looking for?

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