POST 5: Ethnographic insight into social issue

James Meland-Proctor

The idea that design is a practice that can structurally change systems rather than solely creating visual material for, is an idea that is being embraced by academia and wider practice more and more these days. One way in which we have been experimenting with this idea is through ‘quick and dirty’ ethnographic research, in which we have asked a fellow classmate to be a research participant in facets of our individual research projects. Last week, I assigned one of my class mates to undertake the recording of events that he viewed as inherently unfair and return with his findings. However, while in a class of visual communicators and under the circumstances, he only listed what he saw as the top 5 things that he found to be the most unfair. When asked how he would visualise them, it became apparent that more time and insight than a simple mind map would be necessary to graph and visually collate his findings. Although, he had been successful in narrowing down what he viewed to be the top most unfair things that he had overheard or had been told directly.

Friend has to pay upfront to do a ‘IN:SEARCH’ type thing at Macquarie Uni, no HECS available

Work at a fancy restaurant at the casino where people were spending unfathomable amounts of money and then saw homeless people everywhere on the way home

Guy coming up and asking for money while I was waiting for the bus one night

Friend’s younger brother wasn’t allowed to run for school captain at his Catholic school because he believed in a different religion

It is clear that a majority of the things that he found unfair were financially situated, in that there were structural inequalities which existed as a result of apparent unfair distribution or unjust distribution of wealth. Though as casinos and high end restaurants may be places where people spend and consume great amounts, and the presence of destitute people may indicate an apparent level of inequality, these in themselves are starting points for questioning why this is so.

In my own shortcoming, I had set the brief a bit too broadly. I phrased the task to be things that he found unfair; or ‘fucked up’ as more colloquially put. The casual prepense of our class interview, we may have taken a humorous stance as to what we would consider ‘inherently’ unfair or fair. This was a parameter which I should have outlined more specifically. Nonetheless, he did return with fairly accurate outcomes which I was more or less looking for. However along with this, I realise there was more of a need to categorise these findings under certain types or levels of unfairness. From there, it would have been a whole lot easier to systematise a visualisation for these findings in a manner appropriate for the context and what he encountered in the field.

What I can conclude from this study is a confirmation of previous knowledge in that unfairness is determined by factors beyond our control. The level of injustice is more complex and not apparent to most of us a lot of the time, because it seems so unfathomable. One video which may be apparent for an American context, faces us with a staggering visual confrontation of these things at play (Visualizing Economic Inequality, 2016). It is only when we start to treat ethnographic research as a mood board for the potential to raise awareness of social problems with designerly thinking, is when these rather easily dismisssed and what seems like personal interpretation; can be collated into compelling visualised research and proof.

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(Visualizing Economic Inequality, 2016)


Visualizing Economic Inequality 2016, YouTube. viewed 30 August 2016, <;.