Asee peer logo

Applying interpretive knowledge based on anthropological methods to engineering design

Download Paper |


Middle Atlantic ASEE Section Spring 2021 Conference



Publication Date

April 9, 2021

Start Date

April 9, 2021

End Date

April 10, 2021

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Thomas E Ask P.E. Pennsylvania College of Technology

visit author page

Thomas Ask is a professor of industrial design at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, an affiliate of Penn State University. He served at a visiting professor of mechanical engineering at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia during which time he pursued ethnographic research related to fishing boat design.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Combing engineering and ethnography allows designers to gain insight into user preferences and non-mechanistic concerns of populations that differ from the designer. These non-mechanistic issues can be guided by research rooted in interpretive methods connected with anthropology. Studying people’s behavior and attitudes requires research instruments rooted in the social sciences, specifically, observation, interviews, questionnaires and focus groups. These ethnographic methods improve engagement of differing and distinctive populations. Analysis of this qualitative data nurtures more appropriate design solutions for a researched population. This paper presents an overview of some ethnographic techniques most suitable for engineering design and shares examples of product designs moderated by ethnography.

Thematic analysis as it applies to affinity congregation will also be presented. This process aids design work done by different subject matter experts. It also allows individual students or other participants to have a voice in evaluating design problems. Affinity congregating focuses on individual problem solving prior to group activity. This approach reduces adverse effects of group dynamics from overwhelming the individual during the ideation process and theme or affinity identifications.

Example of student and professional work are also presented with a focus on surprising insights learned from ethnographic study. The work represents a consumer product, medical device, transportation, animal training, and broad approaches to providing palliation for those at the end of life in resource-poor areas. Specifically, the examples presented are a popcorn popping system, orthopedic surgical device, dog scent trainer, fishing boat design, and palliative care package.

Ask, T. E. (2021, April), Applying interpretive knowledge based on anthropological methods to engineering design Paper presented at Middle Atlantic ASEE Section Spring 2021 Conference, Virtual . 10.18260/1-2--36285

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015