Spatial Ethnography Lab

Spatial Ethnography Lab (SEL) is a space for experiments at the intersection of social science research and design led social change, specifically focusing on informal urbanism.  The lab brings together anthropologists, urban planners, designers and data analysts with significant experience working at multiple scales and through a range of modalities.  This lab is committed to developing new methodologies connecting ethnographic research at the local, micro-scale, to research at increasingly larger scales through the use of data visualization techniques and landscape ecology analysis.

SEL is conceived as a service that can be put together with or without a client, to investigate specific and local intersections between people's experience, conceptualization and operations with each other and their environments.  Based on this "thick data," we develop and test multiple possible scenarios.  To do so, we generate narrative (data/documentation, knowledge/concept, media such as text/film/image/drawing/cartography/scripting), strategies (institutional, policy, political, business plans, models), materials (planning instruments, spatial/terrain/object) projects and processes (workflows, long-term effects and contingencies) useful for actors with different positioning, agency and interests.

SEL builds on the gaps that exist between researchers’ interest and platforms in the rigorous production of knowledge and designers’ interest in projecting, iterating and intervening. We rely upon collaboration and phase disciplinary roles and methods to maintain rigor and bridge this researcher-designer gap.  We move with, record and interpret experiences conveyed by embedded actors, contextualizing and structuring ways of understanding and valuing.

As designers we communicate between actors and institutions, iterating on how this research might be synthesized and projected for context-specific and generalizable value.  As ethnographers, we trace particular processes of global significance and scale such as the development of real estate markets and the ways in which they are embedded in different local contexts and sites.  Rather than begin with the local as a particular cultural instance or a pathology or failure of a global ideal, we reveal the specificity of emergent processes and tools as they shape global processes.

Since 2014, SEL has focused on planned urban change in the city of Mumbai as its primary ethnographic focus.  Its work in Mumbai will be published in book form as 50 Ways to Game a City, co-edited by Vyjayanthi Rao Venuturupalli and Vineet Diwadkar.  SEL has also collaborated with scholars and designers working on Rio de Janeiro and other cities in the post-colonial world to expand and test new methods for studying urban change.  Occupy All Streets: Olympic Urbanism and Contested Futures in Rio de Janeiro, co-edited by Bruno Carvalho, Mariana Cavalcanti and Vyjayanthi Rao Venuturupalli, is a related book project building on SEL's network.