Idiotic encounters: experimenting with collaborations between ethnography and design

Andrea Gaspar
University of Coimbra

Two contrasting ways of conceiving design-anthropology engagements can be considered: 1) a collaboration where designers remain designers and ethnographers remain ethnographers (Suchman 2011, Yaneva 2009): in this relationship, designers design while ethnographers observe, analyse and have a critical role – but relational resources are not fully explored; and 2) a more relational, open and unpredictable kind of collaboration where ethnographers and designers may become ‘idiots’ to each other (Michael 2012a; 2012b), Rabinow & Marcus 2008). It is the latter possibility that my article explores.

Based on my fieldwork in a design studio of Milan, I present situations that refer to my encounter with a different way of conceiving creativity and performing ‘the new’. Design and ethnography perform relationality and therefore creativity in very different ways. While in ethnography it is what comes from the outside (which is obviously also processed inside, through interpretation) that is considered generative, in design it is rather what is processed inside (through authorial creativity) that is performed as generative. While involved in the process of learning what being creative in design terms requires I was also exposed to its transformative effects. Thus, my ethnography went far beyond the description about these different ways of bringing the new into being – it ended up exploring those very same ways for my own ethnographic engagements with the design world. In this article I present my participation in a conceptual design project as an ‘engagement event’ and discuss how the “disruptive character of the idiot” (Michael 2012a; 2012b) opens up new (epistemological, creative, professional) collaborative opportunities for the ethnographers of the contemporary (Westbrook 2008).

Andrea Gaspar


Andrea Gaspar is currently a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Coimbra. She worked as a postdoctoral research assistant in the exploratory project “The importance of being digital: exploring digital scholarship and digital methods” at CES (Centre for Social Studies), University Coimbra. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester (2013), with a thesis based on her fieldwork in Milan among a group of interaction designers, entitled “‘Where does the new come from?’ An ethnography of design performances of ‘the new’”. Focusing on designers’ specific processes of production of the ‘new’, her thesis developed into an anthropological engagement with the STS approaches to innovation. This project stimulated her current interest in exploring the possibilities of collaboration between anthropology and design.