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Elizabeth Chin and Her Contribution to Social Design

Social design involves the use of specific approaches with the aim of providing solutions to societal problems with the help of interventions to change the lives of people. The social design addresses complex social issues. David Stairs and Eric Limarenko explore the concept of social design in their documentary “Digging the Suez Canal with a Teaspoon”. In their documentary, several interviewers provide their opinions on social design and discuss their works in the area. It is the first attempt to use the cinema to explain social design. It gives the opinions of the interviewers on social issues and how they have attempted to solve the problems identified in the social structures. This paper will focus on Elizabeth Chin, an anthropologist, her work and ideas and how they have been significant and contributed to social design.

Elizabeth Chin is a professor who works in Pasadena at the Art Center College of Design. Her work focuses on issues such as race, consumption, and vulnerable youth who are tackling complex issues in their lives. Her work is centered in Los Angeles and Haiti. She has collaborated with the police department in Los Angeles and several schools. She also teaches dance in Haiti writes and is the chief editor of “American Anthropology”. Her work attempts to examine the ethnographic voice to create the decolonization of anthropological knowledge (Chin E. J., 2021). Some of her publications include the” Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture”. In this book, she explores the experiences of the young financially disadvantaged black man in the consumer culture. She talks of the blinded loyalty where the black child will attempt to purchase the latest version of “Nike Air Jordan’s”. She attempts to understand how the black child is lives poorly in an ironically wealthy society. This publication is a result of two years spent in New Haven and Connecticut where she interviewed poor children on their sources of money and their specific expenditures. She, however, notes a difference in the consumption of one black child, Davy, who had twenty dollars and had the option of buying a spiderman figure or walkie-talkie set. The child chose to buy the walkie-talkie set so that he could share with his sibling. Davy struggled with this decision but after much contemplation, he made his decision. This showed that other black children were not concerned as much with social status contrary to popular opinion. Her work in this publication depicts the issues of consumption in the black society and the social inequalities that exist such as race, gender, and societal classes.

Elizabeth Chin further explores the concept of consumption in a rather unconventional and probably provocative book by Elizabeth Chin, “My Life with Things”, Chin meditates on the kind of relationship she has with things particularly consumer goods, and gives a political and anthropological critic. She focuses this on items used daily such as the knobs to the cabinet and how consumption has a meaning that is personal and social. She explains how she used shopping to deal with a miscarriage. She bases her rhetoric on Karl Max and the relationship he and his family had with their possessions (Chin E., 2016). She gives an honest opinion on her attachment to belongings and how she relies on them as she has a complicated relationship with her belongings. In her work in this book, she encourages her audience to take a personal account of their consumption tendencies and assumptions they may have. This book gives a rather rich and honest insight into auto-ethnography. Her work depicts the connection people have with things and others in society. It leaves the audience with the question of what could be done differently.

The work of Elizabeth Chin includes projects like the “Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology: Using Fiction to Explore Facts”. She suggests that design relies on postulation to create an imaginative picture of objects free from reality in terms of time constraints and limits in technology (Chin E. J., 2021). In this project, Chin responds to race and racism in the sector of art, design, and anthropology. Here, she addresses the sensitive issues that people avoid saying and keep in secret (Chin E., 2016). The anthropological work of Chin helps in approaching work in a broad perspective and motivates ideas for coming up with new and innovative ways of doing things. It also helps in the definition and understanding of what expansive knowledge production is.

Her work in anthropology gave her the necessary tools and continuing strategies to decolonize design through the privilege of language, visuals, and text (Chin E., 2017). In an interview, Chin explains that she is trying to discover things such as why technology looks the way it is and why you cannot wear” GoPro” and “Black Lives Matter” and go to church (Persaud, 2018). In the Laboratory project, she tries to expand design beyond the white field by integrating other races. This uses design and performance to explore race. The project took 14 weeks where Chin’s team made lab suits out of an African wax fabric. They later walked around the city to derive an understanding of the properties. They use an afrodiasporic and afrofuturistic approach to create material with color using technology. The logic behind this is that people who are afrodiasporic were the first to travel to space as they were abducted by aliens and they are the future.

Some of her work addresses concerns in a spectrum. In Haiti, she worked with a school in a small village in the rural areas. The school is an approximately 20 year’s old leader in Haiti, which teaches, in the native language, Creole. With the help of a colleague, they set up an electronic lab station that has become resourceful in the community. They would work with the teachers and later in the afternoon with the students. The goal of starting the lab was to give the people in the village equipment, knowledge, and techniques as a stepping-stone for pushing forward towards progress. Her wonderful work encourages an English teacher to take up the position of an art teacher (Persaud, 2018). The impressive thing about this project is that they used locally available which is easily affordable to ensure that the school can make repairs and maintain the equipment. Her work in Haiti is more than just the search for public appreciation and image, their model aims at making people in the developed county have the ability to work with technology. Her approach is using strategies to help enhance a situation such that people can increase their skill capacity and attain growth.

In “Digging the Suez Canal with a teaspoon “she talks about how design education lacks the basic element of the critic of capitalism. In her opinion, if you want to make a difference, you have to be able to ask questions. She further discusses a project she had assigned to her students on homelessness. She gives a unique perspective on the homeless person and that it does not imply that they sleep on the street but could be someone who just got out of jail (Stairs & Eric Limarenko). She suggests that social change requires a critical investigation on what the problem is to find the solution. The problem, in this case, is the housing crisis, high unemployment rates, and medical care. She also talks of how you cannot use products to solve social problems. She believes in changing the situation in society by adding value.

In conclusion, social design and its method attempts to find answers to questions about the society and how they shape the society. The aim of the social designers is to cause a social change through an understanding of what the problems are in the society. There are many social issues that need to be addressed but which many people shy away from. Designers provide a structure for addressing the problems and cause an effective change. In the documentary “Digging the Suez Canal with a teaspoon “by David Stairs and Eric Limarenko, the creators addresses various perspectives of social design the interviewees have. Elizabeth Chin, an anthropologist, writer and educator uses her knowledge of anthropology to address social design. Her areas of interest are race, consumption, and the marginalized youth. She uses her literary works and projects to attempt to cause a social change. From her work, she makes a critical analysis of society to identify a problem. After recognizing the problem, she uses her resources and knowledge to solve the problems in the society. Some of her work has addressed the consumption of the poor black child in the wealthy American society, her consumption, and the importance of technology in the society. We also draw the need for the inclusion of color in arts to diffuse the common white aspect. Her works give an understanding of what the society entails and how it can attempt to solve the complex societal problems that many people are afraid to venture into.

Works Cited

Chin, E. (2016). My Life with Things. Duke University Press:

Chin, E. (2016). Using Fiction to Explore Social Facts: The Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology. The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography 504-515.

Chin, E. (2017). On Multimodal Anthropologies from the Space of Design: Toward Participant Making.

Chin, E. J. (2021). Elizabeth J Chin.

Persaud, C. (2018). Imagine Otherwise: Elizabeth Chin on Dancing Beyond Whiteness.

Stairs, D., & Eric Limarenko. (n.d.). Digging the Suez Canal With a Teaspoon.


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