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Ethnography

Prompt: User Research in a social group, based on their aural landscape
Class: Ethnographic Research at National Institute of Design, India
Duration: 5 Weeks
Role: Ethnographic Research, User Interviews
Tools: Participant Observation, Long Interviews

Outcome: Project Report [PDF]

The aim of the ethnography project was to understand the aural life world of a social group or a community through which we can comprehend their lived experiences & understand sounds that are meaningful to the group or the community. After interpretation and synthesis, the findings were to be mapped and converted to a tangible artefact.

The project demanded to study

  • The daily lifestyle of the members of social group
  • The power relation from their perspective,
    1. How power relation is established between the group as a unit and outsiders (Customers, traders, and other individuals),
    2. How power relation exists within the individual members of the group.
  • The community activities practised by the group members as a team.
    This includes any craftwork they perform, business activities, the way they communicate with each other and with outsiders, and all such relevant activities.
  • The sounds which are meaningful to the group:
    – The sounds which are obvious in the physical environment where they work,
    – The sounds which are meaningful and which social group is aware of,
    – The sounds which are meaningful and which social group is NOT aware of,
    – Absence of sound, if any,
    – Possible reasons for all of these.

 

The social group selected for the ethnographic study consists of people working at a stationary shop named VS Stationaries, at Infocity, Gandhinagar. Based on five weeks of studies, participant observations and long interviews, a phenomenological research report was developed.

Artefact

Artefact made for the social group after studying daily activities, business and the lifestyle of the social group is a tangible object that makes the group aware of their own aural world and lived experiences, through the interaction they perform with it.

I started off with listing down all the keywords used by the social group to describe their business, lifestyle, family and the way they perceive life in general. The keywords played an important role in deciding the form and color of the artefact. The focus was on a larger socio-cultural picture and how they see themselves in that perspective.

Initial Concepts

Following were the keywords mentioned by the group.
1. Business: Monotonous, Structured, Stable, Organised, Bound within well-defined boundaries
2. Lifestyle: Saaf-sutaraa, Simple yet functional, Self-sustained, Well maintained
3. Family: Joint family, One unit that compiles different individual entities, Structured roles, Status (Derived from the objects associated with affluence, eg. cows)

The appropriate form for these keywords is a cube. Cube is the simplest structure in three dimensional Euclidean geometry and also the simplest structure to perceive and construct. A cube looks same from all the sides, with equal faces of same sides, which makes it well suited for the attributes like monotonous, stable, structured and organised. Also it clearly distinguishes the inner and outer space with well-defined boundaries.

Form

The artefact is a 15cm cube with all white surfaces, with a circular dial on the top face. The dial metaphorically represents the clock and suggests the sense of time progressing constantly. I wanted to show two things for which I chose the circular dial:
1. The work done by the social group is bound within a defined frame, and
2. Day in and day out, they work on it. (‘business is me and I am business’, as Jitu bhai says in a long interview)

As Jitu bhai mentions, he is totally possessed by the business and that is what he is inside, although it is not clearly seen. Also as described by Jitu bhai and Pintu bhai, they both are from joint family where they are one unit that compiles different individual entities. To reflect these facts into the artefact I thought of making its design integrated and structured from the inside as well, even if the inside of the cube will not be visible. The final form is constructed with laser-cut pieces of 1/8″ birch wood.

Color

White color was a natural choice to represent the keywords saaf-sutaraa and well maintained. Also the group members think that their lives are monotonous without any excitement, which is portrayed in the artefact by not using any colors.

Interaction and Sound

The synthesis mentions that this social group produces rhythmic sounds as they work, and that connects back to their nature of keeping things organized and well maintained. To address this, the artefact is designed in such a way that it creates recurring sound when operated. The rhythmic sound produced by the artefact does not literally represent any particular part of activity or sound meaningful to the group, but it collectively represents the recurrence and the nature of keeping things organised and well maintained.

An association emerges from the study, ‘Meaningful sound is the one that is produced when you work.’ Conversely, no meaningful sound is there when you do not work. There were other sounds as well in the field, but the significant ones were those produced by the group itself when they work.
The artefact therefore
1. should produce sound when it is interacted with, and
2. should NOT make any sound when it is not operated.
Hence the interaction was narrowed down to tactile and aural perceptions.