Materials - Source: Rafael Schacter

Source: Rafael Schacter


Culture - Source: Xian Chen

Source: Xian Chen


Design - Source: Adam Drazin

Source: Adam Drazin

Anthropology, Materials, Design

Putting People First

A group of Culture.Materials.Design students conduct design ethnography for a design client on the Great Recovery Project, which looks at design issues around sustainable materials

What is Design Anthropology? What is the Anthropology of Materials?

Some people applying to us want to know more about anthropology, about design, and about materials, as these are some of the things which distinguish our course from others; so this page is presented with apologies to those who already know about this area.

Putting People First

This course is largely anthropology, and is about people, culture and society. One of the main reasons why you may want to study anthropology is that you want to work with people, and that you think things such as materials, design, or technology are really, for you, more ways of working with people. Society refers to the kinds of structures and forms which make up the ways in which people relate to one another - for example, groups, families, companies, or flows of people in migration. Culture is more about the ways in which these are constituted, the immensely varied ways in which different people experience and understand the world, and relate to one another in different places and circumstances. In cultural terms, it is not just that there are different people in the world, but that what makes a ‘person’ is very different in different places and at different times.

Neither society nor culture are simple topics, but evasive, ever-changing and complicated ones which anthropology investigates through ethnography. We are one of the largest anthropology departments in the UK, where lecturers and tutors have all had extensive personal fieldwork experience in many different communities and places across the world. We cater for a wide spectrum of postgraduate interest in the extraordinary diversity of social and cultural situations which manifest themselves in the contemporary world. A wide breadth of anthropological and ethnographic expertise is a challenging but deep way to approach culture and society.

What this ever-changing variety means is that a truthful study of culture and society is about producing questions. After a year of anthropological study, we will not pretend to provide your answers for you, but aim to give you a sense of the deeper and deeper cultural questions which you can ask, and give you methods and analytical tools to help you to address those questions for yourself.

One of the specialisations at UCL is material culture, which explores culture through material forms and objects of all kinds, and seeks to capture and understand social relationships as they unfold in the vicinity of artefacts. The Culture.Materials.Design Masters is one of three overlapping material culture masters courses - the others being Material & Visual Culture, and Digital Anthropology. The CMD core module is separate, but several optional modules overlap with other masters courses. What this arrangement enables us to do is to cater for the wide range of interests which individual students have, and keep a large and vibrant postgraduate community while also teaching in manageable groups on targetted issues.

What is Design Anthropology? What is the Anthropology of Materials?

Design anthropology is about using ethnographic work, and anthropological analyses, to inform and critique design work. The intensive, close observation of how people live, work and relate informs the ways in which products and services develop; and this is important in turn because it links back to how people feel, develop identities, and interact. It is not only a case of the failure of innovations and other creations which don’t engage with people, it is a question of how innovations and creations are relevant to society.

This is a very varied and growing field. On the one hand, there is work with technology which goes back several decades: anthropological observations and models played a part in developing ideas such as email, windows-based computing platforms, the idea of the PC, and many mobile phone applications. At the other end are critical artistic engagements, using installations or performance, often in public spaces. New hi-tech products, art pieces, or textual publications are all kinds of artefactual engagements with society and culture. Different design anthropologists have their own ways of doing the work, but in each case the driving force behind it is working with people and developing ideas about culture and society.

Design anthropology is to be found in many areas, including policy, corporations, academia, heritage, NGOs, development, and others. Wherever closely-observed work with people is engaging with physical objects, spaces, and services, design anthropology skills are needed.

As anthropology has engaged more and more with design, it has also developed ways of thinking about materials. We live in a world of materials; it is materials that give substance to everything we see and touch. Materials play a vital role in economic productivity and their selection and use is central to questions of new technologies, cultural heritage and sustainable design. New engineered materials challenge the conventional separation of the natural and the artificial, as well as other widely accepted social and technical classifications. Alongside these innovations, the reappraisal of many 'old' materials and their associated manufacturing processes plays a prominent role in many recent design innovations. As well as often being commercially viable options, materials such as adobe, timber, bamboo, and hemp evoke ideas of heritage, identity and place, but also open up issues of cultural identity.

Where materials come from, in both a historical and geographic sense, is an important aspect of how they are considered. Recent debates about waste, pollution and what should be considered hazardous materials, together with an increasing emphasis on sustainability, place materials at the heart of current environmental debates.

The anthropology of materials, then, is the study of the social and cultural implications of these developments. When we look at an object and see materials, what we see is something which we can work with, shape, take apart and reassemble, and even re-constitute at a fundamental level even if it has the same form. The study of materials forms a putative critique of how material culture happens, with much more of an emphasis on the interactivity of material things, and on the long-term biographies of materials, within which being an object or commodity is only one short phase in the lifespan.

Materials and design describe new, twenty-first century ways in which we relate with and through the material world around us.