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New Year’s reconciliations: Un-doing the New Year’s resolution

Sunset at the Big Rann (White Desert) in Gujarat, India. Elizabeth Tunstall

Happy Solar New Year 2015! Don’t ask me what my New Year’s resolutions are this year. I stopped preparing resolutions because, as a ritual, it seemed to focus too much on imposing the will upon that which people perceived to be negative. For example, the common New Year’s resolution that “I will lose 5 kilos weight” proposes a set of activities (ex. going to the gym, eating less, no chocolate) that will discipline a negatively perceived too fat body.

According to psychologists Carol Ryff and Corey Keys, the pursuit of meaningful goals, which is the essence of the New Year’s resolution is one of factors of well-being. But, self-acceptance is another factor as well. Each year listing all the imperfections in my life was negatively affecting my well-being, so I wanted to change this.

In 2013, I proposed a set of New Year’s reconciliations whereby I would list the things that I would accept that I cannot change for the coming year. It became part of my annual ritual in self-acceptance.

From the perspective of Design Anthropology, I have three New Year’s reconciliations:

First, neither Design Anthropology, design, or anthropology will save the world, and that’s okay.

CDC Response team room to 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. CDC Global/Flickr

When the Ebola virus epidemic was at its peak, there were articles in the media discussing how the Ebola epidemic needs anthropology or needs design thinking.

In anthropology, the research of medical anthropologists Almudena Marí Sáez, Ann Kelly and Hannah Brown is exceptional in showing how an understanding of cultural practices can assist in mitigating the spread of Ebola. The collaboration between OpenIDEO and USAID led to 600+ ideas generated for how to address the epidemic, with 28 selected for highlighting. Whether any of them have been implemented is not clear on the website. Yet in neither case, did anthropology or design save the world from Ebola.

When you are a young field like Design Anthropology, you often want to prove your importance. Providing solutions to disaster situations is a good way for a field to get noticed by high-level decision makers. I discourage my students and myself from this field-as-hero paradigm.

For me, it will always be a collective of people and their combined knowledge that will save the world. Thus, I reconcile myself to the fact that Design Anthropology might only make a very minor contribution to addressing the challenges of the world and that its humility is necessary to keep the space open for others to contribute.

Second, the principles of Design Anthropology are misaligned from most dominant paradigms of the world, and that’s okay.

Seven principles of Design Anthropology. Elizabeth Tunstall

This year, I gave a keynote address at the Emerging Practices conference at Tongji University in Shanghai. The main topic was the seven principles of Design Anthropology. Patrick Whitney, director of the high-ranking Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, made the comment that while my presentation was a lovely sentiment, it was out of step with what is happening in business. I agreed with his assessment.

While Design Anthropology originated as a practice in the business context, I have positioned my approach to the field as a critical one that advocates for systems of social, cultural, and economic justice. To the extent those systems do not exist, especially in the business context, Design Anthropology will be misaligned with the dominant paradigms of the world.

This has significant implications for the “success” of the field, because fields that are successful in prestige, money, and powerful allies do not challenge the underlying structures of inequality that makes the world unjust for many people. I reconcile myselt to the fact that pushing Design Anthropology as a critical practice for social and economic justice results in the field’s further misalignment with dominant paradigms and thus potential marginalisation.

Finally, the love that you give to people or communities who do not love themselves will not be accepted, and that’s okay.

By love, I do not mean the Disney, romantic comedy kind of love, but rather the openness that one has to experiencing another. Sometimes in Design Anthropology, we work with people or communities that are not ready for what we have to offer. Especially when people live in fear, anger, or hurt, they close themselves off to their own experiences, let alone experiencing others.

In the field-as-hero mode, design anthropologists sometimes seek to mitigate the fear, anger, or hurt people experience with promises of cultural understanding and of skills to help co-create new solutions to their problems. We then get hurt when this is rejected, and thus close ourselves off from experiencing as well.

By reconciling that the love given will be rejected if the people or community is not ready, one can maintain one’s openness to the experiencing of another. As a young field, staying open is important because we never know when a group of people or a community might be ready for what Design Anthropology has to offer. We have to be ready when the time comes.

Again, Happy Solar New Year 2015!

What would be your solar New Year’s reconciliations for 2015?

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