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material culture

  The relationships between people and things. The definition of \'human\' has often turned on two supposedly unique human capacities: language and tool-using. But whereas the first capacity has been studied almost to distraction and has its own special discipline — linguistics — the second has remained scattered over several different disciplines, often as a minority interest. With the advent of material culture studies, however, this position is changing. An alliance of writers in areas as different as anthropology, archaeology, art history, fashion, social history, psychology — and human geography — has found a common concern and a common cause.

Where were the dominant traditions of material culture studies invented? The first location was anthropology. The fascination with objects as diverse as conch shells and totem poles, pigs and pottery, and houses and henges meant that, from an early point in the history of the discipline, anthropologists lived in a world of things. The second location was archaeology (and ethnology). Archaeologists have often only had things with which to trace the trace of past civilizations. And the third location was the \'semiotic revolution\' of the 1960s stimulated by writers like Barthes (1972) which attempted to read consumer objects as texts.

Yet much of the recent history of material culture studies might be interpreted as a reaction against the semiotic model with its emphasis on interpretation and a corresponding desire to give things their proper place and allow them to, in some sense, \'speak back\': objects become \'persons\' (Gell, 1998). It is also an attempt to capture the virtuosity that is a vital element of the human use of things: they have to be used in skilled ways (Hutchins, 1995). Thus, material culture studies link naturally to many recent theoretical currents like actor-network theory and non-representational theory. In particular, material culture studies have interlinked with current work on consumption to the point where they are often one and the same thing.

And human geography? This has had a long tradition of work that has emphasized the materiality of culture, from the work of Carl Sauer (see Berkeley School), through the quasi-ethnological work in North America on folk objects like covered bridges, to modern work in Scandinavian countries on aspects of modern life as different as fishing boats and dance pavilions. Yet what is remarkable is how little of this work has intertwined with the wider domain of material culture studies. The real point of contact with human geography has been in the explosion of work on consumption. Here there has been — and will continue to be — a high level of interchange and cross-fertilization. (NJT)

References Appadurai, A., ed., 1986: The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Barthes, R. 1972 [orig. pub. 1957]: Mythologies. London: Fontana. Csikzentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. 1981: The meaning of things: domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gell, A. 1998: Art and agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hutchins, E. 1995: Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Miller, D. 1987: Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.

Suggested Reading Journal of Material Culture (Sage, London) (Three issues per year). Things (London) (Two issues per year).



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