Accepted Paper:

Arresting Design: the work of the studio of material life  


Adam Drazin (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

Design anthropology challenges notions of stopping points and flows in social life. Artefacts produced by the Studio of Material Life at UCL provide an opportunity to think critically about the role of ideas of 'thing' and 'person' in the cultural field of design.

Paper long abstract:

Design anthropology presents fundamental issues for the study of material culture in anthropology. There are a range of ways in which anthropologists have thought about the relation of material things to processes, particularly in relation to generative agency (McNay 2003) within the cross-cutting personal identities of industrial modernity. Objects are often characterised as social 'stopping points' in the building of these identities and relationships, whereas design anthropology (Binder et al 2011) frames material things as more mutable and processual, as works-in-progress between more stable social states occupied by persons. Notions of progress often hinge on such understandings of material culture.

This paper presents a range of experimental work undertaken by postgraduates at UCL as a part of the Studio of Material Life initiative. Over the past six years, postgraduate design anthropologists have undertaken small projects with nearly twenty different institutional collaborators. In evaluating a range of artefacts produced, the paper will focus with examples on three key themes: firstly, working to render contextual material things as 'questions', rather than them appearing as cultural 'answers'. Secondly, attempts to 'arrest' design work, to create anthropological spaces and moments within a contextual design process to re-imagine cultural issues, which future design work might address. Thirdly, the paper examines the work of distinguishing and privileging persons above things, against intellectual currents which emphasise entanglement.

In sum, the paper experimentally attempts to rehabilitate ideas of 'thing' within a broadly processual design anthropology, and hopes to invite debate on these issues.

Panel P062
Design Anthropology: Uniting experience and imagination in the midst of social and material transformation