About the Class

Fall 2021 | Thursdays 1:55 – 3:45 @ 6 E 16th St #902 | + Weekend of October 16-17, 2021
Shannon Mattern | matterns@newschool.edu I sign up to meet with me
Teaching Assistant: V. Lee | vlee@newschool.edu 

Paul Strand, Central Park, 1915, via MoMA

In this workshop, a part of the Anthropology and Design graduate minor, we partner with an external design organization to engage in collaborative ethnographic research. We will examine a range of design ethnographies; explore both traditional ethnographic methods and design research methods; and apply those methods in collaboratively studying a design object, site, system, process, and/or event. While our primary goal is to reflect critically on the design subject itself – asking how ideas are materialized, how expertise and power are negotiated, how collaboration is orchestrated, how communities form around design projects, and so forth – our work will also likely be applicable in informing design practice.  

In Fall 2021, we’re partnering with Open House New York, an organization dedicated to educating New York residents and visitors about the design and functions of the city through year-round events and tours, and particularly through its annual OHNY Weekend, when hundreds of city sites (many of which are typically inaccessible) are opened up to the public. This year’s OHNY Weekend takes place on October 16-17; students will need to be available this entire weekend to attend tours and events, both physical and virtual (pending pandemic restrictions). We will begin our semester by liaising with OHNY leaders, focusing in particular on the organization’s work to adapt to our new pandemic condition by designing complementary physical and virtual platforms; its collaboration with smaller, less-well-resourced organizations and marginalized communities; and its role in advancing racial equity and pandemic recovery. We’ll also work with some of OHNY’s local partners to observe and contribute to their own engagement with their communities through OHNY Weekend. On the Weekend itself, we’ll serve as participant-observers, enrolling in tours and events, and observing and interviewing other participants. Ultimately, we want to understand, and help OHNY understand, how it contributes to New Yorkers’ civic engagement – especially in their local neighborhoods – and how the organization could better reflect and reach New York’s diverse places and populations.


Over the course of the semester we’ll work together to…

  • assess the value of ethnographic research not only for academic anthropology, but also for design writ large and myriad other professional fields and public projects,
  • consider what anthropologists – regardless of their specialty – can learn by conducting ethnographic research on design, with designers, 
  • familiarize ourselves with traditional approaches to academic ethnographic research; question how those approaches must be adapted for collaborative, applied work; and evaluate the epistemological, aesthetic, ethical, and political implications of those adaptations,
  • recognize that ethnographic field methods, modes of analysis, and means of publication can, and should, be designed – and work together to design processes that suit the specific parameters of our project,
  • design processes of collaboration that embody our shared values and foreground our support of, appreciation for, and accountability to one another, 
  • reflect continually on how our evolving processes uphold our own values and our obligations to our external partners, 
  • negotiate between our own intellectual and creative interests and ethical commitments, and our external partners’ needs and commitments,
  • design creative means of communicating our work so that it does justice to our research while also engaging and serving our external partners (and convincing them of the distinctive value of our work!), 
  • reflect on how our work together has helped us to cultivate practical research and design skills, collaboration / teamwork skills, creative problem-solving skills, project management skills, and aesthetically and rhetorically savvy communication skills that are applicable in a wide variety of academic and professional fields – and devise means of communicating those qualifications to (potential) advisors, employers, funders, and other gatekeepers