RELATED TERMS: Sociology; Ethnomethodology; Agency; Actor Network Theory

Anthropological research may provide some methodological guidance in the understanding of the design of narrative environments as a complex cultural and social practice.

Much like the discipline of anthropology since the 1980s, the design of narrative environments is concerned to engage with two sets of closely interrelated terms. As listed by Ortner (1984), they are practice, praxis, action, interaction, activity, experience, performance, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the doer of all that doing: agent, actor, person, self, individual, subject. It is in the context of the relationship or, more properly, the entanglement, of the doer and the doing that the notions of actant and actantiality have arisen, for example in the context of actor-network theory.

The use of such terms seeks to de-centre the subject as the sole source and origin of meaning-production and action and to distribute meaning-production and agency among human, non-human and more-than-human actants, all of whom may be said to be non-originary or, in other words, equally originary, a situation for which the Derridean term differance or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising, dependent co-arising or interdependent co-arising may be appropriate, and with which the notion of actant-network seeks to engage.

Ortner further comments that even though she has taken practice as the key symbol of the anthropology of the 1980s, another key symbol might equally have been chosen: history. The set of terms clustered around history includes time, process, duration, reproduction, change, development, evolution and transformation. Taking history as the key term, the theoretical shift in anthropology, rather than being seen as a move from structures and systems to persons and practices, might instead be seen as a shift from static, synchronic analyses to diachronic, processual ones. Seen in this light, the shift to practice becomes one wing in the move to diachrony, on which emphasises micro-developmental processes-transactions, projects, careers, developmental cycles, and so on.

The other wing of the move to diachrony, the macro-processual or macro-historical. itself has at least two trends, Ortner argues. The first, the political economy school, seeks to understand change in the small-scale societies typically studied by anthropologists by relating that change to large-scale historical developments, especially colonialism and capitalist expansion, external to the societies in question. The second is a more ethnographic kind of historical investigation, paying greater attention to the internal developmental dynamics of particular societies over time.

The design of narrative environments is attentive to the concepts clustered around practice and agency; to the concepts clustered around history and change; to the practices of ordinary living; and to the intertwining of the local and small scale with the more global and large scale.

The design of narrative environments seeks to take into account all three aspects of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s (1967:61) epigraph: “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product”. In other words, the design of narrative environments acknowledges that society is a system, that the system is powerfully constraining, and yet that the system can be made and unmade through human action and interaction. It adds, however, the further recognition that human action and interaction is thoroughly mediated by designs of different kinds and dimensions. The design of narrative environments is also aware of the paradox that although the human world is pervaded by designs, that world as a whole is not ‘designed’ as such.

The paradox is that although actors’ intentions are accorded central place, major social change does not for the most part come about as an intended consequence of action. Change is largely a by-product, an unintended consequence of action, however rational action may have been. (Ortner, 1984). Thus, to say that society and history are products of human action is true only in a certain paradoxical sense. They are rarely the outcomes the actors themselves set out to create. As Michel Foucault puts it: “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does”. (Personal communication, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1983, 187)

The design of narrative environments thoroughly engages with this paradoxical character of design: that the design outcome diverges from the intention and that design practice is most often engaged with situations that are themselves the unintended consequences of prior design intentions and actions. They are in that sense re-designs in a process of continual re-designing.


Berger, Peter, and Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Dreyfus, H. L. and Rabinow, P. (1983) Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics. 2nd edn. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ortner, S. B. (1984) ‘Theory in anthropology since the sixties’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26(1), pp. 126–166. doi: 10.1017/S0010417500010811

Digital ethnography

The exploration of the impact of digital technologies on cultures and the constraints of cultures on the development of digital technologies. An example of a group performing digital ethnography can be found at Mediated Cultures:

Physical anthropology

Placemaking in Anthropology

Cyborg anthropology