Hugh Raffles on ethnography

Found in an interview of Hugh Raffles about his recent work. He starts off with its anxiety towards theoretical branding and moves to his own ethnographic practice:

“I'm always wary of branding and work pretty hard to not be brandable, quotable, transposable, or in any way modular. I want to encourage people to think about questions in expansive and maybe subtle ways. Taking a key word and inserting it as a stand-in for something often means not having to think through a question or phenomenon more carefully. I guess I’m especially worried about what the impulse to branding--and the rewards for branding--do to graduate students. People start to think there's a currency to a particular type of work and they start referencing it because they think it's a shorthand way to demonstrate a fluency and an up-to-dateness. (…) These types of trends tend to have a limited shelf life too, so right now everyone feels they have to jump into this swimming-pool or else they’ll be missing the fun. But I worry about the students who are enjoying splashing around right now and can’t get a job in 5-7 years’ time because the fad has passed and we’re all doing Inter-Galactic Inorganic Ethnography (that’s IGIE). It may not sound like it but this is actually friendly criticism from a fellow traveler who is excited to see the range of work expanding but just concerned by the emergence of new orthodoxies. I worry that the fashionable is a poor sign under which to do intellectual work. (…) It’s important to not be preoccupied with making mistakes and to be willing to take intellectual risks. It’s also important not to feel that you have to declare some theoretical allegiance or belong to a movement. Of course, you can and should build upon prior intellectual work without being trapped in it and it’s important to have a strong genealogical sense of your own and others work. Obviously, though, these questions are different for students and faculty. There are different institutional contexts and constraints at play. Students have to be very savvy about navigating the discipline while retaining their intellectual independence, particularly in such a tight and shifting market. I’m certainly not utopian about it but I’d like us to be better at creating environments in which people can take risks. The graduate education structure of grant-giving, dissertation-writing, etc., tends to enforce a defensive mode of scholarship, and faculty, too, are rarely given the breathing-space and opportunity to explore radically new directions in their work (…) I’m guessing my project will turn out to be more ethnographic than much of the recent work and less concerned to explicitly generate ‘theory"‘“

Why do I blog this? Some interesting thoughts here about “the discipline” and how to make it… more “spontaneous” perhaps and less tied to labels and theoretical labels, while at the same time focusing on descriptions.

End of the Year Swimsuit Spectacular Booklet

Do these selfies taken by two people who don’t know each other give us a glimpse of the future? Will the ever-increasing use of technological devices reconfigure our bodies? Will it affect our posture even in the most banal situations?

Those are some of the questions we asked in Mobile Ordinary Gestures, a booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. Without claiming completeness, this selection represents a pictorial archive documenting people intriguing interactions with mobile technology.

Similar to Curious Rituals, we use this type of visual ethnography as signals of change of the present from which to extrapolate when designing futures. The documentation of this current body language can also inform the adaptation of current interfaces, or the creation of products that can support, help or benefit from the gestures and rituals we found.

Get a free digital PDF from our shop, or purchase a normal, human, non-streaming, non-downloading, non-data-using media “hardcopy” through

Paperback by Nicolas Nova (Near Future Laboratory) in collaboration with Constance Delamadeleine (Future Neue)
Publisher: The Near Future Laboratory
Published: October 1, 2016
Language: English
Pages: 68

Weekending 06202010


Last weekend was a trip to Santa Cruz for the retirement jubilation of a professor and mentor from grad school, Jim Clifford. He reminded me that retirement isn’t quite the right word. I believe him when he says he’s looking forward to doing more of the fun intellectual work rather than the prickly hassles of university bureaucracies.

An outcome of the weekend and thinking back on the days when I was more solidly in academia and starting to look for ways to knit together the intellectual tools with the more parochial *industry opportunities that were out and about in the late 1990s. I remember hearing about someone at MTV who was doing what they called “ethnography.” ((Another outcome was a reminder as to how positively obscure and technical academic dissertations titles can be. Sort of like service manuals for ideas or something.))

Through Jim, who is trained as a historian and may be best described as a historian of anthropology, and Donna (pictured above) I learned about anthropology from a sort of *critical perspective, meaning the nature of it, how it has a history and role in the organization and making of culture and so on. And of course at the time there were fascinating discussions about *corporate ethnography, work-place studies, institutional culture studies and all this. It was happening a bit not too far away. Lucy Suchman at the time was nearby and others at PARC back when that’s what it was and we’d all spend time grappling around. But I remember this MTV guy in particular. A guy from MTV..doing ethnography. When I saw the documentary that contained his ethnography, it started with him rolling up to some teenager’s house in a black town car and sitting with him going through his closet and asking him about his guitar. I thought I’d never stop throwing up.

The recollection of that over the weekend and then thinking about the design research penchant for puttering off to far away places to do embedded field studies or whatever, then coming back and putting up lots of post-it notes to sort out what is what, and what should be made and why. Well — I think I’m a cynic on that practice now, and maybe I just haven’t seen the example of that work that’s thicker than paper in its substance. I enjoy getting out and away and it’s a good way to focus on a topic, and maybe that’s it. An informal field trip to turn the studio inside out for a spell.

In my experience — which isn’t broad and wide, but it’s not nil, either — the outcomes are not entirely that which could arise with a small team of engaged, thoughtful designers prepared to refine and hone and question their own assumptions without the need for a trip advisor and hundreds of interviews. Keen observation and thoughtful reflection may be what some people in the corporate design research world call *ethnography when they haven’t a clue and want to back-load their justification for expensive trips.

It may not always be called ethnography, but I suspect these design research embedding trips often lean heavily against the authority the ethnography can bestow. Going native in a way and then returning to explain — all the trappings and snappings that lend this authority to the work in naive eyes..we’ve been to the other side and are now coming back with the primal formulation that authorize us. The translation of experiences into insights into principles into recommendations is a slippery slope. And so is the near opposite, which would be *we know best what you people there in dusty, rank parts of the world need.

Anyway, that popped into my head during last week and while looking at a fascinating body of work which was the product of what I personally thought might’ve been excessive jetting around to out of the way places ((not really)). There was one crucial insight that came out of all that work, and the one principle which I think just about justifies it all. But, I’m nearly convinced that that one nugget could have come otherwise. Then again, it’s easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight.

Well, that was that.

In other news, I finished the short, short essay I promised for the 01SJ festival catalog. That was both fun to do and good way to rev up the writing chops, as I have another writing deadline on a similar topic due at end of July for the Swiss Design Network conference. Also, reasonably good progress on stuff in the studio, although it’s getting vacation-y and quiet as we enter into the summer months.
Continue reading Weekending 06202010