What Anthropologists Can Learn from Designers (And Vice Versa)

And What Development Can Learn from Both

Last year, while earning a master’s in anthropology and development, my fellow students and I were asked to discuss whether international development is anthropology’s “evil twin” or “moral heart.”

The question gradually divided us: Those who saw development as anthropology’s “evil twin” were research-driven “purists” who did not want to forsake their academic integrity and ethical code in the largely market-driven development industry. Others, like me, saw development as anthropology’s moral heart; as action-oriented “pragmatists,” we wanted to use our anthropological values and knowledge in development practice.

My studies equipped me with scathing critiques of the development industry but no clear path for moving beyond critique to action. I did not see how I could apply my skills to the everyday realities of development, until I came to Reboot and discovered design research. The design research approach aligns with my training in ethnographic methods and immersive fieldwork, and the principles of user-centered design mirror my anthropological value system. It turned out that design research was the bridge from academia to practice that I, as an anthropological pragmatist, had been searching for.

Webs of Similarities

Day-to-day, a design researcher’s job is very similar to that of an anthropologist. Both take a semi-structured and highly immersive approach to field research, recognizing that the root of complex challenges are often just out of sight. Pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called this the study of “the imponderabilia of everyday life”: all of those factors that can’t be seen secondhand or via desk research, and instead “have to be observed in their full actuality.” Both design researchers and anthropologists pay attention to the “imponderabilia” in order to remain receptive and adaptive to unexpected insights.

Anthropologists and design researchers also share an understanding that humans and societies are multi-faceted. Both seek to not just understand how people behave, but why; they know there are many ways to interpret the meaning behind even the simplest action. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz described man as “an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” To understand those highly subjective webs of significance, we have to search for meaning, not just facts.

At the heart of this search for meaning, Geertz emphasized the awareness of subjective bias. As part of the ethnographic research process, anthropologists strive to maintain a self-awareness of how they are actors in the system they are studying, referred to in the discipline as “positionality.” They are constantly on the lookout for ways their presence as a researcher may change people’s behavior, which allows them to separate themselves from their research subjects (or, in design research, their “users”). Design research (at its best) strives for positionality by having diverse perspectives on a team to triangulate information and minimize the influence of individual biases on the research data. This positionality helps generate “user-centered” insights, as opposed to “research-centered” insights which neglect to mention the researcher’s timing, placement, and relationships within the system they are studying, and thus fail to account for potential biases.

Drawing Lessons from the Differences

Where the similarities end, design researchers have unique contributions to make to anthropology. The most exciting to me is how design research translates ethnographic insights into actionable policies. Deeply immersive and long-term anthropological fieldwork is difficult to finance and not intended to turn into actual change. Design researchers make compromises that allow them to carry out immersive and iterative research to support change within the institutional realities of development.

Academic anthropologists often spend months and even years immersed in a single place, learning the language and speaking to people across social strata about nearly every aspect of their lives. On the other end of the spectrum, the stereotypical development consultant is working on a wider regional level, with a tighter timeline and with success often measured by quantitative metrics set by large donors. Design researchers find a realistic middle-ground between these two approaches; at Reboot, for example, we often conduct research over a few three-week “research sprints,” partner with local researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the local community, and measure both quantitative and qualitative factors. While this type of fieldwork may not be truly ethnographic to the purist, these trade-offs are necessary to do deeply contextualized, qualitative research within the realities of development.


I came to my master’s program with the question: “How can anthropology improve the practice of development?” My peers in both the purist and pragmatist camps sought to make their research meaningful to the people they studied. My work at Reboot has shown me how well anthropological methods complement those of design. More significantly, I’ve seen how the unique principles and tools of both approaches to research can benefit both the pragmatists and the purists.

Futher reading.