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Material Culture

According to art historian Jules Prown, material culture is the manifestations of culture through material productions (Prown and Haltman 2000). Examples of the material culture we interact with, use, live in and among consist of–but not limited to–clothes, pens, books, tools, cars, computers, art, buildings, and landscapes. The underlying premise of the study of material culture is this: objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them; and by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are apart (Schlereth, 1982, Prown and Haltman 2000).

The study of material culture within sociology and anthropology regarding commodity and consumption of objects in analysis of society and culture includes some of the foundational thinkers within each discipline such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Bronislow Kasper Malinowski, Pierre Bourdieu, and Marcel Mauss. In studying distinct cultures, the work of Malinowski (1922) and Mauss (1990) led to decades of discussions that emphasized the capacity of objects to sustain social relationships and manage cultural order. This gave rise to an anthropological interest in a strand of thought among Marcel Mauss, Pierre Parlebas, and Jean-Pierre Warnier and others that suggest embodied practices of material culture can help us gain deeper insight into how human beings engage with particular objects every day to generate various subjectivities within the culture. Discourse among sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, Bruno Latour, Tim Dant and others sparked interest in the study of material culture to explore the ways in which objects shape people and society. Representative of this strand of thought are the words of Dant who says it is the direct interaction between individuals and material objects that culture is mediated: the objects have embedded within the materiality of their design and manufacture a series of cultural values that shape the practices, both body and mind, by which those objects are used (Dant 2005).

The studies of material culture and embodiment are also of interest to French psychoanalysts such as Serge Tisseron. Tisseron suggests that in understanding the place of material objects in society we must recognize that objects are not just extensions of our motor and sensory organs: they are, more fundamentally extensions of our mind (Dant 2005). Within religious studies, scholars such as Lisa Usherwood, David Morgan Anthony Pinn, and Gordon Lynch suggest that the study of embodiment is theologically and religiously vital and significant. Their work opens up new possibilities for analysis of human production for its religious and theological significance. In this regard, for Pinn, art and aesthetics become modalities of analysis useful in embodied theological thought in that they point to, through and in bodies to express the wishes and fears of existence (Pinn 2010).

The distinctiveness of the study of both embodiment and material culture is its very interdisciplinary. Against this background, and in conversation with it, scholarly inquiries can focus more closely on the way material aspects of our embodiment condition constitute social categories and our lived subjectivity. Our interactions with material culture are integral to our sense of self-understanding as embodied subjects in relation with embodied others, and configure social meanings and belief patterns are inscribed and lived. The range of such encounters ensures that matter and meaning, nature and culture are mutually articulated, and that variability exists across contexts and across the significance of self and other.

Works cited

Dant, Tim. Materiality and Society. England: Open University Press. 2005.

This book challenges the traditional notion that consumption is the principal relationship with material culture in our lives, and argues that through material interaction with objects around us that we confront our society.

Malinowski, B. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922. The book provides a detailed ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders living on the islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The ethnography is based heavily on observation rather than theory. He aims to prove the scientific credibility of ethnographies in particular, and anthropology in general. Through participant observation he relays his account of living amongst the Trobriand Islanders that provides a holistic picture of their society. Through the lens of the Kula exchange, he considers multitude of aspects of their society.

Mauss, M. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.1990.

Mauss describes the obligations to gift-giving. There are obligations to give gifts, the obligations to receive them, and the obligations to return the gift. He argues that gift-giving is immersed in morality, and by giving, receiving and returning gifts, creates a moral bond between the persons swapping gifts. Mauss lays the foundation for a critical understanding of the nature of social relations.

Morgan, David. Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. New York: Routledge. 2010.

This book provides insight into how religious beliefs are rooted and sustained in material practice. Morgan argues that by breaking down mind/body dualism, the study of religion can take a closer look at what people do, how they feel, the objects they exchange and display to investigate beliefs in everyday practices of religious devotion.

Pinn, Anthony. Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought. London: New York University Press. 2010.

Pinn aims to present theological concern for embodiment—with the body as the primary source and shape of theological inquiry. Within this context, the body is interrogated for what it might offer in terms of the form and content of black theology.

Prown, Jules D., and Haltman, K., eds. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2000.

American Artifacts serves as a reader for a course in material culture studies. The introductory essays defines and presents what has become known as the “Prownian analysis”—an approach that involves selecting an object and then subjecting it to detailed description, deduction, speculation, research, and interpretive analysis, as well as how the Prownian analysis can be applied to understand objects which contain meanings not ordinarily expressed in writing.

Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.1982.

The book charts and assesses the complicated history of the American interest in material culture, and addresses the American scholars pursuing such research in the United States. He identifies the major landmarks and lines of development and interaction of the intellectual and cultural landscape of the study of material cultures since 1876.

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