on research, cell phones, and the anthropological model

I’m behind again. The Infrastructural City is back in my lap for more finishing touches on the design so I’ve been working on that fiercely. One day you’ll forgive me. I’ve also been working on new plans, which will be announced in detail here soon. Interested in a research-based internship on telecommunications and urban life over the summer?* Contact me. 

A week ago the New York Times carried this lengthy article "Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?" focusing on Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase. Jan certainly seems like a fascinating figure doing real important work and I’d love to meet him one day. If you haven’t read the article, go do so, now. 

The article also points toward a question I’ve been wanting to raise for a while: why is anthropology such a dominant model for apprehending contemporary culture? To be sure, anthropologists have long been an avant-garde of research, going out to study the unknown, their work sometimes applied for imperialist or corporate purposes. Anthropology’s focus on the individual has also led to a political concern with preserving existing ways of life against the encroachments of top-down power and toward supporting everyday culture. More recently, anthropology has informed some of the best work in science and technology studies, demonstrating the radical transformations in life that are taking place today.

But anthropology is only one mode of understanding behavior and societal change. Sociology is another and has reacted in its own way, most notably by developing social network theory to deal with the vast changes in interpersonal relationships happening as these are maintained beyond simple propinquity.

What of history? To return to last week’s theme, why is it that historians have ceded their need to understand the contemporary world to other disciplines? Where is the historiographic innovation needed to understand the contemporary? When will we begin the work on the theories of history necessary for understanding our world?  

This is not a complaint against other disciplines but rather one against my own. Other fields have responded to the changes in the world around us. History is a laggard.

For all of its departures from traditional method, Blue Monday was a first attempt to deal with these conditions from a historical perspective. Watch this space for more. 

 

 

* Disclaimer: Academe, I’m afraid, is a bit of a Franciscan venture or at least such has been my experience. Alas, we don’t have any funding, but working at Studio-X is certainly cheaper than going to school and unlike a typical architect’s office, I give my interns full credit on work they do and a lot of independence.

 

I’m behind again. The Infrastructural City is back in my lap for more finishing touches on the design so I’ve been working on that fiercely. One day you’ll forgive me. I’ve also been working on new plans, which will be announced in detail here soon. Interested in a research-based internship on telecommunications and urban life over the summer?* Contact me. 

A week ago the New York Times carried this lengthy article "Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?" focusing on Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase. Jan certainly seems like a fascinating figure doing real important work and I’d love to meet him one day. If you haven’t read the article, go do so, now. 

The article also points toward a question I’ve been wanting to raise for a while: why is anthropology such a dominant model for apprehending contemporary culture? To be sure, anthropologists have long been an avant-garde of research, going out to study the unknown, their work sometimes applied for imperialist or corporate purposes. Anthropology’s focus on the individual has also led to a political concern with preserving existing ways of life against the encroachments of top-down power and toward supporting everyday culture. More recently, anthropology has informed some of the best work in science and technology studies, demonstrating the radical transformations in life that are taking place today.

But anthropology is only one mode of understanding behavior and societal change. Sociology is another and has reacted in its own way, most notably by developing social network theory to deal with the vast changes in interpersonal relationships happening as these are maintained beyond simple propinquity.

What of history? To return to last week’s theme, why is it that historians have ceded their need to understand the contemporary world to other disciplines? Where is the historiographic innovation needed to understand the contemporary? When will we begin the work on the theories of history necessary for understanding our world?  

This is not a complaint against other disciplines but rather one against my own. Other fields have responded to the changes in the world around us. History is a laggard.

For all of its departures from traditional method, Blue Monday was a first attempt to deal with these conditions from a historical perspective. Watch this space for more. 

 

 

* Disclaimer: Academe, I’m afraid, is a bit of a Franciscan venture or at least such has been my experience. Alas, we don’t have any funding, but working at Studio-X is certainly cheaper than going to school and unlike a typical architect’s office, I give my interns full credit on work they do and a lot of independence.

 

2 thoughts on “on research, cell phones, and the anthropological model

  1. It’s really very interdisciplinary, not just anthropological
    I, too, was fascinated with the article (and Mr. Chipchase is top-notch when it comes to energizing his researchers and sharing his insights). It made me really miss design research. In 2006, I spent a summer at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore and conducted my own study on mobile phone sharing and urban space, looking at a connection of behavior, family and other interpersonal dynamics, and how all of the above fixed space in various ways.

    To your point, Kazys, it seems like effective design researchers have more tools than anthropology in their toolkit. How do objects and dynamics fit together in a situation? Science technology studies (STS) and variants of actor network theory emerged from sociology but certainly offer frameworks for understanding. History plays in as well in a variety of ways. And from an architectural and urbanist standpoint, understanding how space gets used and occupied, how a slums work compared to contemporary middle class environments…

    … which brings me to another point. Much of this work (that is, design research) seems to occupy some kind of middle space between not only between anthropology, sociology and urbanism, but also interaction and product design, human-computer interaction, communication studies and geography, to name a few. There is not one single field that accepts this and calls it home. I think this indicates just how interdisciplinary design research is– and needs to be. Where it would be easier if it were the product of just one field, it provides better insights when it relies on several fields to grant insights. (There could be an argument about the importance of rigorous method, I realize, but my approach has always been deeply interdisciplinary and always will be.)

    1.  
      Agreed, but what I’m

       

      Agreed, but what I’m really after in this brief post is the suggestion that it isn’t so much design research that is adopting anthropology as a model as society as a whole. Take Hal Foster’s essay on the "Artist as Ethnographer" as a starting point, if you will, and take note of the critique, which I find compelling, as I do so much of Hal’s work. But whereas Hal was writing in the mid-1990s, a time in which globalization and demographic fragmentation put pressure on dominant models of thought, today the pressure is also very much from the changing terrain of networks. By this I do NOT mean to discount these key questions of identity. Indeed, as far as I can see questions of identity are way way more complicated than they were in the early 1990s and are only going to become more pronounced. The down side of all this is that we continue to lose our capacity for historical understanding. There’s nothing wrong with interdisciplinarity, per se, but history seems to be unable to provide ways of apprehending the changes around us. For a discipline that by its very nature investigates change, this is a major problem, a problem I can’t excuse any longer.    

       

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