Keith M. Murphy is a linguistic and sociocultural anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His projects have examined the cultural dynamics of design, collaboration, embodiment, and gesture. He is author of the recently published Swedish Design: An Ethnography and co-editor of Toward an Anthropology of the Will. We spoke to Murphy about his work to establish design as an object of anthropological concern and his fieldwork in the Swedish design world.
Primary Materials: For many of us, Scandinavian design is synonymous with good design. Your recent book, Swedish Design: An Ethnography, offers a synthetic view of design as a “purposeful and thoughtful structuring of the lived world.” Can you tell as a bit about the book and the unique place of design in Swedish life?
KM: I never really intended to write a book about Swedish design, or at least not the book that actually ended up coming out. I’m trained as a linguistic anthropologist, and my original doctoral research was supposed to focus on the role of body language — like hand gestures, eye-gaze, and facial expressions — in face-to-face interaction, particularly in collaborative and creative situations. As it turns out, architects and designers tend to use their hands quite a bit when they talk, so following them through the design process seemed as a good place as any to watch embodied communication in action. And I ended up in Sweden for more or less arbitrary reasons. I was vaguely aware of a design tradition in the Nordic countries, but I also really like cold, snowy weather, so Stockholm was appealing.
But when I got to Sweden and started talking to designers (and just walking around, really), my focus began to change. On my first trip there I interviewed a few designers — furniture and industrial designers, mostly — with the hopes that they’d eventually let me video-record them as they worked in the studio. But as I chatted with each in turn, I grew fascinated by how they all talked about design, a fascination surely conditioned by my outsider status. For these designers, design was a way to offer small improvements to the world around them. Often these improvements solved particular problems, but a mere solution wasn’t sufficient. The things these designers designed also needed to be beautiful, to fit comfortably into people’s lives, and to somehow hit them emotionally, in a positive way, all of which seemed to be inseparable from the objects’s function. This wasn’t just a version of Silicon Valley-inspired solutionism (this was in 2003, before that particular orientation to design had exploded). Instead, it was an attitude that seemed embedded in some deeper cultural commitment to design’s — and designers’ — role in the social world. It soon became apparent that if I wanted to study Swedish designers, I couldn’t just focus on their body language.
So the object of my research shifted from hand gestures to design — although hand gestures never fully went away. It turned out that what I’d been picking up on in those first interviews has a long history in Sweden, where mundane objects, beauty, well-being, and design had all been cast in distinctly political terms since at least the late 1800s, terms generally leaning toward social improvement and care. This history of “good design” was complicated, and many books had been written about it, but where most of those pieces had focused on the who and the what of design in Sweden — famous people and iconic objects, typically — I grew interested in the how and the why of Swedish design — how does design maintain such a visible and valorized profile over such a long period of time, and why are various social actors in Sweden invested in its doing so?
And that’s what the book is trying to address. It’s an exploration of what design is, how it works, and how it’s reproduced and maintained in Swedish society, from an ethnographic point of view. That means I spent a lot of time following design through the different cultural domains that give it meaning — design studios, stores, museums, homes, schools, media sources — and talking to the different people for whom design matters — not just designers, but also curators, journalists, design students, artists, and ordinary Swedes. I began to realize that Swedish design isn’t just one thing, and it can’t faithfully be reduced to any single element, whether it’s a particular object, or a modernist geometry, or a set of associated values, or particular design practices, or well-known designers, or IKEA furniture, or whatever. To answer the basic questions I’d asked, I needed to account for all of this stuff at once, and for how it’s all brought together as what Clifford Geertz calls a “cultural achievement,” such that the complex material-ideological-formal entity called “svensk design” (Swedish design) holds some meaningful purchase in Swedish society.
And from there, using the Swedish case as my starting point, I tried (and am continuing to try) to build an argument for how to study design in general as an anthropological object of inquiry, distinct from (though of course contiguous with) artifacts, materially, art, processes of making, and other related topics.
PM: Your book draws on a variety of tools to analyze design as “a series of interlocked and homologous forms of life”–connecting objects, discourse, and embodied practices. Can you talk about how you developed a method for tracking design as a “cultural phenomenon”?
KM: The approach I developed in building the argument in the book stemmed in part from the modest empirical stance I adopted in my fieldwork. I don’t mean that in some special sense. Because I went into the project without any particular preconceived theoretical position with regard to “what design is” directing my gaze, I was able to just track different resonances wherever they seemed to emerge, and then follow them wherever they led me.
But it’s not just that. I think training in linguistic anthropology really encourages you to be patient with finding meaning in small details. And in the particular style of linguistic anthropology I was trained in, small details — a short pause before a turn of talk, a fleeting hand gesture, a raised eyebrow — are always seen as meaningful within some larger and more complex ordering of mutually corresponding social forms (gestures co-occur with talk; body posture is affected by space and material objects; word-choice is often influenced by the formality of a situation). All of which is to say, uncovering the semiotic ecology, as Charles Goodwin would phrase it, in which stuff necessarily and relevantly relates with other stuff, is pretty much what I’d been taught to do, though at a smaller scale.
I think there’s a second way in which thinking through language influenced my perspective. In sociolinguistics, it’s commonplace to treat variation as a norm of social reality. But in many cases what we’re talking about is variation within particular limits. Take phonetic variation. I may pronounce the first phoneme of the word “orange” differently than you, and a third person may pronounce it differently than both of us. In each case the “form” of the phoneme is different — they actually sound different from one another — yet in the stream of normal conversation, we will all unproblematically treat those three different phonemes as instances of the same sound (unless, of course, the difference is marked as culturally linked to some specific “kind” of person). Speakers tend not to notice these different unmarked phonetic forms as they talk, but sociolinguists can find worlds of meaning in those differences, as well as differences in intonation patterns, syntactic ordering, vocabulary, etc. I don’t want to overstate the analogy here, but I do think that a sociolinguistic sensitivity to how people render different forms as being “meaningfully similar” and “meaningfully different” — within various semiotic ecologies — has partly shaped how I’ve approached studying design methodologically, particularly in terms of how forms of different kinds (e.g. geometric, discursive, political) are rendered “meaningfully similar” in practice and over time.
PM: In addition to this fusion of methods, you make a compelling case for increased dialogue between the history of design and the ethnography of contemporary design practice. What do we gain in thinking about the past and present of design simultaneously?
KM: Obviously, design history and ethnographic studies of contemporary design practice both matter, as do other design studies approaches. But the methodological differences between them produce different sorts of theoretical and conceptual portraits of design’s place in the social world. Design history tends to focus on big names — well-known and influential designers and architects, or well-known projects or objects — while de-emphasizing the support networks that allow those big names to emerge. And by relying primarily on after-the-fact interpretation of already-exiting stuff — designed objects, archival materials, interviews with insiders, and so on — very particular kinds of narratives (often “great man” narratives) tend to emerge in one form or another. I should say that this isn’t necessarily a critique of design history (I’m no exception to this way of using historical material in my own work), but rather an observation about how particular ways of working produce particular kinds of results.
In contrast, using ethnography to understand contemporary design work offers an otherwise unavailable perspective. For one, I’ve intentionally chosen to focus on non-famous (or not yet famous!) designers because most of the design work being done in the world is done by these sorts of people, not Zaha Hadid, Philippe Starck, or Massimo Vignelli. Attempting to understand the general social place of design by focusing on big names confuses the most visible outliers for the norm, and this in turn inevitably distorts the portrait that is painted in favor of the powerfully connected. This isn’t to say the big names don’t matter or aren’t influential, of course, just that they aren’t all there is. An ethnographic approach that centers the everyday experiences of regular designers doing mundane design work offers an angle on designing as a complex social process that is all but impossible to get from a focus on big names alone.
An ethnographic approach also allows us to examine not just designed forms as they exist — buildings, furniture, typefaces, of whatever — but also where and how those forms emerge, both in the studio and in the wider social contexts in which designers operate. Design is subject to countless pressures from countless sources. Designers are aware of many of these pressures, and they figure prominently in designers’ own self-reflections of what they do. But many other pressures are largely unavailable to reflection, and thus never end up making it into dominant accounts of “what design is all about.” But ethnography has the capability of uncovering many of those pressures, assessing them, interpreting them, and tracing their relations. Ethnographers can follow how forms travel between and among different cultural domains in almost-realtime, and in that traveling how forms are given shape by a range of discourses, ideologies, and practices — especially those that aren’t obviously designerly. And ethnographers can carefully trace not just how forms relate or co-occur, but how they are made to relate by particular (kinds of) social actors in their own social worlds, as I try to analyze in my book on Swedish design. Indeed, there are lots of ways to study design, and I think a mixed-methods approach is probably the best, including a healthy portion of both historical detail and ethnography.
PM: Your book engages a number of literatures emerging from the “material turn” in recent decades, particularly in anthropology and science studies. However, you also note that your book is an attempt to think beyond the terms of these debates. What works on these topics were particularly important to your project? And how do you see contemporary scholarship relating to now-classic considerations of things and materiality?
KM: I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without having absorbed a tremendous amount from earlier theoretical and empirical treatments of the material world. One of the most obvious influences from science studies is treating the design studio as analogous to the laboratory as a practical site of knowledge production. I’m also quite indebted to early ethnomethodological versions of STS, most notably those of Michael Lynch and Charles Goodwin (one of my mentors), whose work in particular promotes close attention to the continuities between materiality, discourse, social action, and more. Daniel Miller’s sustained analysis of the dialectical relationship between materiality and subjecthood compels us to see things in new ways, and Tim Ingold’s critique of hylomorphism was absolutely instrumental in sending my mind in new directions when I first read it. Alongside this literature, there’s much to be culled from various social scientific accounts of art and aesthetics, including Bourdieu’s critique of both taste and cultural production, Alfred Gell’s semiotic analysis of art, and even Boas’ early attempts to locate cultural meaning in indigenous forms. In general I’ve definitely drawn inspiration from both “objectivist” perspectives (what I think of as those influenced by Marx, Saussure, Levi-Strauss) and “subjectivist” perspectives (those influenced by phenomenology, Weber, and other interpretevist lines of thought), and while some orthodox stances might argue these are fundamentally incompatible positions, I’m trying to show how really they aren’t.
PM: It seems like “design” today is both enormously successful and increasingly ambiguous. We now have design thinking, design research, and designed experiences, among other things. How can an ethnographic approach help us understand design’s contemporary transformations?
KM: This fundamental ambiguity of design is precisely why I think it’s such a wonderful topic for further exploration. Part of the challenge I set myself in my work in Sweden was to try to figure out “what design is” without assuming it into existence, which is to say, without starting from some taken-for-granted priors and proceeding from there. My thinking is that if you start with any of the dozens of versions of design — not just disciplines like architecture, industrial design, graphic design and so on, but also design thinking, or “problem solving,” or “form-giving,” or “process” or “technology” — then the particulars of your preferred premise are likely to canalize your research trajectory, and the general portrait of design you paint is bound to “look like” the very thing you started with. I’m certainly not immune to this tendency in my own writing. However by starting from the premise that design manifests differently in different contexts, that it takes many complex forms, and is distributed differently across various cultural domains, you’re better prepared to begin the ethnographic work of figuring out what design is, how it holds together as a cultural phenomenon, and why it matters to the wider social worlds you’re studying. And as it turns out, that’s much harder, and takes much more time, than it would seem at first blush.