Anthropology and design (magic): If Margaret Mead met Terry Pratchett

I’ve always felt that Terry Pratchett is underrated. He’s seen as “geeky” (but geeky is the new cool, right?), and hence too often consigned to the “Fantasy” shelf to keep company with the trolls and the elves. I’ve never felt this box does him justice, though. As Pratchett himself at one point said, “Fantasy isn’t just about wizards and silly wands. It’s about seeing the world from new directions”.

It’s for this reason that I often find myself turning to Pratchett when I need to explain what I do. The Discworld books, for all their lurid cover art, are a commentary on contemporary society. Whimsical, affectionate, and witty, yes, but also critical. Like the best ethnographies.

Group of people

A Witch’s Perspective

First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

In A Hat Full of Sky, young witch Tiffany Aching learns to listen to her “Third Thoughts”, the ones that “watch the world and think all by themselves”. I’ve always felt this was a pretty apt description of anthropological research, which gathers insight by deliberately shifting one’s subjectivity. Through participant-observation, that paradoxical dyad of anthropological research, anthropologists learn to strip away their own assumptions and become sensitive to the perspectives of others. Self-critique is an implicit part of this process – Why did I think that? What does that say about me? As a mode of research, it’s also inherently empathetic. The goal, of course, is to develop understanding and insight into the actions, motivations and conceptual logic of other people (by which I mean everyone from remote Himalayan communities to Instagram users – not mutually exclusive, by the way). Participating in others’ day-to-day lives, and walking in their shoes, generates unique insight. But the observation part of the equation is equally important. Observation lends an analytic edge to a subjective research process. It allows us to think critically – to ask why. Combine the two, participation and observation, and you have a powerful research tool.

Scene with boats

An Anthropologist’s Methodology

What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.

Margaret Mead

I was recently struck by the similarity between this saying, which is widely attributed to American anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Pratchett’s “Third Thoughts”. In this short sentence, Mead sums up so much about the value of ethnographic inquiry, of being there, following along, listening and observing empathetically. It’s not that people lie, I mean, they do of course but this isn’t what she’s getting at. It’s more that much of our behaviour is unconscious. We might not know why we do something – we’re so embedded in our context (physical, social, political…) that we struggle to extricate ourselves far enough to offer unbiased insight. An empathetic outsider, aka ethnographer, on the other hand, can offer the necessary critical distance.

Street interview

The Magic of Ethnography

I like to think that Terry Pratchett and Margaret Mead would have enjoyed dinner together, or at least would have found each other’s company stimulating. In their different ways, both took a critical view of society, one exploring this through an imaginary universe, and the other through comparisons with other cultures. Their work teaches the value of being attentive, and it’s this empathetic awareness that is at the heart of what I do as an anthropologist. Wherever I happen to be, I’m paying attention to what people say, what they do and how this is affected by context.

This holistic approach to research has a number of advantages. Embedding in a context can open a unique window onto a problem, or reveal an opportunity to design a new product. Incorporated into an iterative design process, ethnography can also help to ground you and ensure that what you’re building is well aligned with your market. Or as Pratchett puts it, listening to your Third Thoughts is where the magic begins.

Design Researcher

Sutherland Labs
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