Distraction Free Reading

Ethnographic Designs for Buen Vivir: Fieldnotes from Nicaragua

Co-Authored by Alex Nading, Josh Fisher, and Chantelle Falconer

What does it mean to find value in urban ecologies?

This question sparked our collaborative research in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, a city of some 120,000 inhabitants just outside Managua. Residents of Ciudad Sandino face persistent poverty, and they are still dealing with the socio-ecological aftermath of the Hurricane Mitch disaster in 1998.  Despite other factors that might be divisive, including a chronic municipal waste crisis, gang violence, and the uncertain legacy of Nicaragua’s 1979 popular revolution, people in Ciudad Sandino remain adamant that fostering collective political and ecological responsibility is key to building a livable urban future.  They are concerned not just with surviving in the city but with living well, or Buen Vivir.

Buen Vivir

Drawn in part from indigenous thought, Buen Vivir “implies a different philosophy of life which enables the subordination of economic objectives to the criteria of ecology, human dignity, and social justice” (Escobar 2016: 20).  Value (the general category) and Buen Vivir (the specific one) both refer to how people figure the future in the present, and how they remember futures that failed to materialize.  Buen Vivir is, in a phrase, about designs for living.

Despite extensive theorizing in anthropology and STS about Buen Vivir in indigenous territories across Latin America, the question of what Buen Vivir might look like in the urban context remains an open one (Escobar 2016: 20).  For us, understanding how Nicaraguans are addressing that question means rethinking our own ethnographic questions—about post-neoliberal development, labor, health, and ecology—as questions of design.

First, a bit of background.

In 2013, the Nicaraguan government of President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo launched a nationwide campaign called Vivir Limpio, Vivir Sano, Vivir Bonito, Vivir Bien (Live Clean, Live Healthy, Live Beautiful, Live Well). The campaign situated urban education, environmental, and economic policy within a broader, Latin America-wide push to integrate Buen Vivir into development models.

If you’ve been following recent news from Nicaragua, you will know that anti-government protestors have taken to the streets in the thousands calling for a change in government. Among other things, protestors have destroyed street signs, statues, and other public symbols of the “Vivir Limpio, Vivir Sano” campaign.  These protests may look like a rejection of Buen Vivir as an organizing principle, but such an interpretation would be a mistake. Despite claims by the Ortega-Murillo camp to the contrary, the state did not single-handedly introduce Buen Vivir into the national consciousness.  The idea was latent in local thinking about the urban life and urban futures well before the “Vivir Limpio, Vivir Sano” program came into being. The unrest only highlights that the questions that animated Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution—questions about what kind of collective life is worth pursuing—never really faded away, even after the revolution’s official end in 1990.

“Vivir Limpio, Vivir Sano” portrays Buen Vivir as a prescriptive set of behaviors, but as Arturo Escobar (2018) has argued, Buen Vivir is less a prescription than it is a question about design. If Buen Vivir names a design question, then properly understanding it ethnographically requires re-thinking research design.  To this end, we would like to briefly introduce you to what we call the “ethnographic cohort.”

Through a three-month recruitment process, we selected 35 participants from various sectors of Ciudad Sandino, including informal garbage recyclers, food producers, health workers, urban farmers, NGO workers, teachers, and city government officials. These participants have agreed to take part in a series of eight quarterly group workshops, held over two years. The cohort is comprised of people who are already self-consciously and actively exploring the Buen Vivir question, but they are all doing this in different ways. Our aim is to bring these collectives together.  The cohort is ethnographic, then, not only because it is a vehicle for answering our questions about value and ecology but also because its members (which include us as anthropologists) are all participant-observers, all experts of different types.

Though similar to the focus group, long an important if overlooked element of the ethnographer’s toolkit, the ethnographic cohort is more directly inspired by work in feminist political ecology, STS and human geography that approaches environmental problems by assembling groups of expert and non-expert participants into an experimental working group, or “competency group.”  Intentional gatherings of normally disparate actors allow scholars and group members alike to question the categorical separations between household and street, state and community, and capitalist and non-capitalist economies.

Here is a taste of how it works.

In our workshops, we employ methods normally reserved for the rarefied spaces of the design studio (or the Northern university classroom) as ethnographic techniques. For example, one of our early workshops featured an exercise in which groups produced visual answers to the question, “What is the economic value of the environment?” One group produced a drawing that depicted the un-sustainable extraction of natural resources, represented by trees. Strikingly, however, the group centered the word vida (“life”), placing a flourishing multispecies scene in juxtaposition to the lonely stumps of harvested timber (see Figure 1). We find this image instructive because while we asked for drawings about economic value, this group responded by critiquing the very premise that the environment should be valued as an economic resource, instead pointing to the entangled life of the nonhuman world as constitutive of value.

Photograph of a hand drawn image of tree stumps and plants in a river. It says "¿Cual es el valor económico del medio ambiente?" in English "What is the economic value of the environment?"

Figure 1: A drawing produced by the ethnographic cohort in a 2017 workshop.

In a later workshop, we asked participants to consider the role of narrative in conveying value, inviting them to enact different modes of storytelling. Groups shared personal histories, national myths, historical vignettes, and even comic stories. Here, we approached storytelling as a possible—but not definitive—invitation to thinking about the multiple valences of Buen Vivir.  While other ethnographers working in or with design have built such an approach by drawing from theatrical or performance studies, this idea emerged from our research in Nicaraguan schools, where teachers regularly assemble parents for escuela de padres (“school for parents”), an activity in which parents reflect on their own educational experiences in order to understand their children’s potential learning trajectories. Applied to the various designs for Buen Vivir at work in the room, this technique proved to have a leveling effect. The ability to tell a gripping story was not exclusive to participants with high levels of education, such as the teachers or city officials; it was equally present in those from more marginalized sectors.

In a third exercise, we asked participants to create concept maps related to the commonplace idea of “dignified work,” or trabajo digno. The maps themselves were somewhat predictable and tautological.  Dignified work, it appeared, was work that does not rob one of one’s dignity: work that pays well and is free of exploitation or abuse. But once the groups began discussing how to fit their own lives into the concept maps they had created, things got stickier. For example, one participant, a teacher with a university education, rejected the idea that informal garbage recycling, or “scavenging,” could ever be a dignified form of work. The recyclers in the room, however, roundly rejected this idea. One of them even stood up to say that not only her work but also that of others in the shadow economy, including even sex workers, could count as dignified.  Recyclers, after all, perform a valuable environmental service, and they maintain a surprising degree of autonomy over their time and bodies. In the right conditions, so could other marginally employed people. This exchange revealed, first, that Buen Vivir is not immune to the moralizing, progressive impulses that hamper other development discourses.  But, second, it showed that Buen Vivir—as a question, rather than an answer—also opens space for challenging those impulses.

Ethnography as Collective Design

These examples point to a potential to reimagine ethnography as a collective design exercise.  Such an exercise can be fun, repetitive, competitive, confusing, and exhausting—often all at once. At its best, the ethnographic cohort is a way of performing Buen Vivir in a speculative and imaginative mode, rather than reflecting on what it is or is not.  It is often difficult for respondents to talk about Buen Vivir in the abstract.  Paradoxically, however, when we use design games to foreground the abstract (e.g. the rules of a drawing exercise or narrative or word game), the concrete (experience, history, practical ethics) seems to become more speakable.

Again, we are not the first to suggest that ethnography might be a tool for participating in design.  For example, ethnography informs design, and vice-versa, in the making of contemporary development devices, from mobile phones to diagnostic kits. When people in economically vulnerable and socially complex urban communities like Ciudad Sandino ask themselves the Buen Vivir question, they are entering into a kind of design space, even if producing a device is not their ultimate aim. They are turning an empirical lens inward to the present in order to imagine a more liveable future. By bringing together groups of people who would not otherwise be in conversation, then, our games and exercises both amplify an already existing chatter and illustrate how even small differences in social location can shade our imaginative horizons.


Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

–2016. “Thinking-feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South,” Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 11(1): 11-32.

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