Hunting and Design

I have hunted, but I am, truth be told, not a hunter. I am one of the millions of people who consumes meat without as much thought as it probably deserves and certainly less effort than it should entail. But I am also a former chef and having learned that trade well before I went to graduate school, I acquired a deep appreciation for where my food comes from and what it takes to get it, including the process of slaughter and butchery. Hunting is an inseparable part of life and has been since the dawn of humankind. And so, while I have never been an avid hunter, the art and craft of it has always fascinated me.

The average hunter is white, rural and male. His father hunted, and he likely either hunts close to home or makes an annual pilgrimage back to his home to hunt once or twice a year. This description describes several friends of mine – one an artist originally from rural Kansas, one an industrial designer from upstate New York, and one a bartender in Albuquerque. All of them had abandoned hunting at one point in their lives but returned to it. There are more who fit the description, no doubt. They are part of a slowly growing segment of the local food movement which has begun to explore hunting as a way of feeding themselves.  As of yet however, this movement has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.  Authors such as Michael Pollan have ventured into hunting to provide anecdotal examples in popular media, but the concept has been largely ignored elsewhere. And that, surprisingly, includes anthropologists. 

A quick search of recent anthropological articles related to hunting supplies a multitude of articles related to the world at large. However, anthropologists have provided virtually nothing related to the 13+ million people who currently hunt in the United States. In one of the few ethnographies of American hunting culture, Marc Boglioli highlights the traditional anthropological division between the “noble savage” and the “ignoble Westerner”.  Researchers and the public-at-large celebrate animist spirituality of indigenous hunting and traditional subsistence patterns in the ethnographic other, but run from the modern American hunting industry and “you might be a redneck if…..” jokes. 

Sustainable Food: Despite the lack of anthropological interest in modern American hunting, it has the potential to be an important and powerful part of the local food movement and sustainable food systems. As an example, the white-tailed deer population in the United States was decimated by the beginning of the 20th century. In the intervening 110 years, this population has grown exponentially. Left unchecked, which it largely would be without hunters, deer populations can double about every three years. Human management of deer is essential to modern herds. The vast food resources and essential ecological management provide important opportunities to address the pillars of the local food movement.

Sustainable Environments: Today, therefore, the sustainable management of hunting is increasingly important, and the respect for hunting traditions provides a bond between hunters and the landscape. This bond is preserved through the rituals and traditions associated with hunting. The preservation of old hunting traditions starts with what is known as the “communion.” This communion is the first of all hunters’ moral and ethical promises to behave, with utmost respect, towards wildlife and nature. The basis of hunting traditions and rituals is the respect towards wildlife and to the game that is caught, manifesting as an important part of the hunter’s life throughout the year, not just during the hunting season. Hunters demonstrate this respect in many places and manners: in nature, in the forest, through hunting, on social occasions, and also in their personal life. Yes, the argument can be made that hunting has become commoditized. And there is the obvious negative example of trophy hunting. But increasingly, hunters are returning to or newly embracing the ideas that 1) procuring your own meat is important to understanding what you eat, 2) hunting requires a deeper connection with nature, and 3) hunting reflects of a broader philosophy about how the planet works.

Hunting and Design: So what does any of this have to do with design or marketing? Hunting is an example of a complex system that we have simplified to the point of caricature. As fewer people engaged in it over time, we have allowed our positivist sensibilities to get in the way of critical thinking. Now, as people return to it, we’re forced to recognize that hunting is a complex system. As much as we like to simplify things in business, it doesn’t mean we can afford to do so before we fully understand the complexities of a problem. We can’t move from A to Z without thinking through the other letters of the alphabet, what letters even represent, what needs are satisfied through the written word, etc. In other words, hunting reminds us that things aren’t always as simple as they seem.

Unlike simple problems, like figuring out how to debug and optimize a piece of code or designing an aesthetically pleasing product, wicked and complex problems (like rising inner city crime, rural to urban flight, or sharing of medical information) require developing a different kind of mindset and expertise that can deal with the scale, intricacy, and interconnectedness of these problems. As the distinctions between the natural world, built environment, and culture and society become increasingly blurry, and as the role of designers expands from dealing with straightforward, simple problems to tackling larger systemic issues, we can also no longer talk about design outside of its role in determining the shape and form of these systems, models of aspects of the world that can articulate and guide intentional, planned change.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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