Friday, 28 May 2010

Material Culture Studies: a reactionary view

[The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (OUP 2010, xviii+774pp, 98 figures, 2 tables, edited with Mary Beaudry) was published in August 2010. Full details of the contents are here, and copies of the book can be ordered here.
This paper is the introductory chapter to the volume, written with Mary Beaudry. The text is below, and I have also uploaded a pdf of the chapter to my page.

Cite this paper as: Dan Hicks & Mary C. Beaudry 2010. Material Culture Studies: A Reactionary View. In D. Hicks and M.C. Beaudry (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-21.]

Introduction. Material Culture Studies: a reactionary view
(Dan Hicks & Mary C. Beaudry)

Four years ago, we worked together on another editorial project—The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology (Hicks and Beaudry 2006a). At the time, historical archaeology was emerging as an area of anthropological archaeology that was witnessing new discussion, energy, and innovation; it is still more vibrant today. Researchers using archaeological methods to study the modern and contemporary world have found themselves in the middle of a broader current of cross-disciplinary interest in the material dimensions of the world. In assembling that book, therefore, we started to think through why the archaeology of the modern and contemporary world—a long-standing backwater of anthropological theory and practice—might have been experiencing such resurgence. In our introduction to that book, we suggested that historical archaeology might represent one place in which anthropology could contribute to current interdisciplinary debates about material things. We were particularly interested in the idea that these debates and currents might develop into a broader ‘material turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, and in whether such a material turn would shift beyond an earlier ‘cultural’, ‘linguistic’, ‘literary’, or ‘textual’ turn associated with the scholarship of the 1980s, or else constitute simply an extension of its representational logic (Hicks and Beaudry 2006b: 6–7; see for example Preda 1999; Pickett 2003: 5). Without doubt, the period since the late 1980s had witnessed a fast-expanding literature in ‘material culture studies’ in which archaeology and anthropology have played a central role. But increasingly this literature was characterized by a dissatisfaction with what we might term purely culturalist studies of material culture, which served simply to reduce things to meanings, or else to social relations (Pinney 2005). As anthropological archaeologists, we were bothered by the idea of material culture studies as representing a new crossdisciplinary field of enquiry, rather than a place for conversation in which archaeology and anthropology might make more distinctive, more situated, and more modest, contributions. So, when we decided to work together again on a Handbook of Material Culture Studies, it was for two reasons. One was to explore, to gather together, and to celebrate a diversity of approaches to ‘material culture studies’ in anthropology, archaeology, and the related fields of cultural geography and science and technology studies (STS). The other was to try to pin down where our reservations about the idea of such a ‘material turn’ came from.

Material culture, objects, materiality, materials, things, stuff: a rock-solid, firmly grounded field for interdisciplinary enquiry is provided, it appears, by research that considers (to use the obligatory pun) what ‘matters’. The idea of material culture studies represents, then, for many a prototype for post-disciplinarity (e.g. Miller and Tilley 1996; Tilley 2006b). The purpose of this volume is to call that idea into question. In doing so, we set out what is perhaps a reactionary view of material culture studies, which involves unpicking the culturalist uses of materials that developed during the 1980s and 1990s. In this introduction, we want to explore this argument and to explain the editorial direction of the volume by reviewing some of the key arguments put forward in the five sections of the book: (1) disciplinary perspectives; (2) material practices; (3) objects and humans; (4) landscapes and the built environment; and (5) studying particular things.

Disciplinary Perspectives
The sentiment that a turn to the material represents a viable alternative to a pure culturalism, which still allows for an avoidance of the grand narratives of structuralism or traditional Marxism, has become increasingly common over the past decade. But does ‘letting things in’ to research mean the same for different disciplinary traditions and practices? Do different disciplines let the same things in?

Today, things are everywhere in the social sciences and humanities: from history and geography to literature studies, philosophy, and sociology. In the bookshops and libraries, accounts of particular commodities crowd the shelves of the modern history section: studies of cod (Kurlansky 1997), salt (Kurlansky 2002), chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996), opium (Booth 1996), tea (Moxham 2003), or tobacco (Burns 2007) proliferate. In their academic journals, geographers are embracing new vocabularies: cultural geographies of ‘a more-than-human world’ (Whatmore 2006), human geographies that accommodate ‘nonhuman social partners’ (Murdoch 1997: 328), and calls for a more general ‘re-materialization’ of geographical thought and practice (Jackson 2000; Lees 2002). In literature studies, Bill Brown (2001, 2003) proposes ‘thing theory’. In philosophy, Jane Bennett (2001: 92) develops the idea of ‘enchanted materialism’ to critique Weberian narratives of modern disenchantment. In sociology, Momin Rahman and Anne Witz (2003) interrogate the ‘elusive quality of the material in feminist thought’.

The intellectual points of reference in the study of things in different disciplines are always, to a greater or lesser extent, overlapping. But key texts are read through disciplinary traditions, and their reception diverges as particular disciplinary methods are put into practice. Things are therefore less straightforward than they might seem.
Consider what the idea of material culture studies in the five disciplines that we gave as examples above involves. Historians have worked in intellectual traditions that include a range of forms of material histories—whether Marx’s ‘materialist conception of history’ (Engels 1999: 79), or the historical materialism of Ferdinand Braudel (1973), or Asa Briggs’ (1988) attendance to Victorian Things. These are generally united in an understanding of objects as ‘alternative sources’ that can complement documentary materials in answering the questions posed by economic history and social history (Harvey 2009). Geographers’ interests in things have related to long-standing efforts to understand the constitution of lived space. These interests have been polarized perhaps more strongly between on the one hand the use of particular forms of Marxism to focus on ‘material and social conditions’ (Harvey 2989: 327) and consumption and commodity chains (Jackson 2000), and on the other the more recent extension of ‘human’ geographies into the study of non-human animals, or new technologies, or ecologies: in ‘hybrid’ studies populated by cyborgs and ‘companion species’ and ‘the implosion of trope and flesh’ evoked by Donna Haraway (1991a, 2008: 383n11; see Whatmore 2002), in the heady mix of ideas about materials, space, politics, and affect drawn from Gilles Deleuze, Michel de Certeau, Baruch Spinoza, and Alfred North Whitehead in nonrepresentational theory (Thrift 2007), or in geographical discussions of ‘material imagination’ (Anderson and Wylie 2009: 318). Sociological accounts, it comes as no surprise, have focused on the involvement of objects in social relations. They have similarly taken a range of forms: ranging from constructivist studies of scientific knowledge (SSK) (Latour and Woolgar 1979; Knorr-Cetina 1981; see Preda 1999), to Michel Foucault’s (1977a) model of material constraint, to Anthony Giddens’ (1981) critique of historical materialism, and to the consumption studies of the 1980s (Campbell 1987). In cultural studies, these interests have run from Raymond Williams’ ‘cultural materialism’ (1958) to the idea of ‘Doing Cultural Studies’ by studying the Sony Walkman (du Gay et al. 1997). Brown’s ‘thing theory’ requires a reading of Martin Heidegger’s (1971 [1949]) essay on ‘The Thing’. Bennett's account of modern enchantments draws now from Henry Thoreau’s ‘attachment to the Wild’, now from Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ description of the instability of physical systems (Bennett 2001: 14, 101; cf. Prigogine and Stengers 1984). Rahman and Witz use Judith Butler to make a connection between ‘the performativity of gender’ with ‘the question of the materiality of the body’ (Butler 1993: 1).

Marx, Braudel, Deleuze, Giddens, Haraway, de Certeau, Spinoza, Williams, Heidegger, Foucault, Stengers, Butler. These overlapping points of theoretical departure for different disciplines’ studies of material culture are, of course,within each discipline the subject of debate and argument (Buchli 2002a). But in practice, in the intellectual triangulations through which historians, sociologists, and others locate their enquiries into material culture—in the different ways that social theory or philosophy is put to work—disciplinarity still holds a strong influence. Drawing attention at the outset to the different disciplines that are drawn into dialogue with each other in this volume about ‘material culture studies’ is therefore particularly important.

This book gathers together a range of different perspectives upon material things that emerge from archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology, and from complementary work in geography and STS. The chapters have been assembled to provide a snapshot of the wide range of approaches to material things that emerge from putting distinctive methods into practice, and working within particular traditions of practice and enquiry. These range from archaeological methods for examining material culture—in the laboratory (Jones 2002a) or the museum (Edwards et al. 2006), through landscape survey (Hicks and McAtackney 2007), or through excavation (Edgeworth 2003)—to qualitative and quantitative approaches in sociocultural anthropology (Epstein 2002; Bernard 2005) and the methodological challenges of postcolonial museum ethnography (Henare 2005a), the range of research methods used in human geography (Cloke et al. 2004), and what Annemarie Mol calls the ‘praxiography’ of STS (Mol 2002; also see Law 2004). For each of these four disciplines, the idea of material culture is both understood within particular intellectual trajectories, concerns, and debates, and as emerging through the answering of particular research questions, in the mise-en-scène of field practice. As field sciences, archaeology, anthropology, geography, and STS can bring a particular awareness of how research performs objects: how things emerge through research practice, rather than simply being bound up in social relations or webs of meaning. The status of objects as the provisional effects of contingent practices is, we suggest, precisely the same for other disciplines, and also for the vernacular material practices studied by anthropologists and others: these contingencies are, however, particularly clear in the practices of fieldwork. An awareness of disciplinary methods, and disciplinary histories, is a crucial first step in any adequate account of contemporary material culture studies.


Part I of this volume explores a number of different disciplinary perspectives upon the idea of material culture studies. In conducting an ‘excavation’ of the idea of material culture in British archaeology and social anthropology, Dan Hicks (Chapter 2) argues that the field has developed in two main phases: the emergence of the idea of ‘material culture’ in the second quarter of the twentieth century, especially in museums, as a counterpoint to Durkheimian social anthropology; and the emergence of the idea of ‘material culture studies’ as a way of bringing together structuralism and interpretive/semiotic approaches in the 1970s and 1980s. This second process, which he terms the ‘Material-Cultural Turn’, provided a provisional solution to the critiques of a purely cultural turn in these fields by apparently reconciling relativism and realism, especially through the use of the practice theories in Bourdieu and Giddens. However, more recently a number of critiques from within material culture studies, especially relating to the limitations of the textual analogy of material culture, and arguments about the extension of ‘agency’ from humans to material things, have led to an unfolding of the idea of ‘material culture’. Hicks argues that recent thinking in archaeology and historical anthropology provides a basis for retaining the coherence of the idea of material culture studies by understanding things, and also the knowledge that is generated by studying them, as events and effects. As well as studying the involvement of things in historical processes or their effects upon human life, such a perspective breaks down the distinction between the researcher as subject and the object of scholarship. The implications of such a move, which Hicks describes as moving from the idea of ‘the humility of things’ to that of acts of modest witnessing (after Haraway 1997), are to call into question the idea of material culture studies as a post-disciplinary field. Instead, Hicks argues that an awareness of the contingency and partiality of our knowledge of the world is not a limitation of studying things through particular methods or disciplinary lenses: instead, this is precisely its strength. We shall return to this argument in the conclusion of this chapter, in relation to the relationships between actor-network theory (ANT) and material culture studies.

As well as archaeology and social anthropology, Part I of the book also draws together disciplinary histories and perspectives from cultural geography, folklife studies, historical anthropology, and STS. In their account of ‘material geographies’, Ian Cook and Divya Tolia-Kelly (Chapter 3) take stock of recent calls for the ‘rematerialization’ of cultural geography. They find that the idea of materiality in geography encompasses a very wide variety of concerns and theoretical approaches. Cook and Tolia-Kelly therefore choose to focus their discussion around a particular contemporary event: the wrecking of the container ship MSC Napoli off England’s south-west coast and the subsequent arguments over the fate of the commodities washed up on the shore: a sequence of events that was unfolding as they were writing the chapter. Through three themes—landscape, commodities, and creativity—the authors demonstrate the complexity that is revealed as soon as abstract concerns with materiality are put into situated practice.

In Chapter 4, Robert Saint George traces the development of an often neglected field in material culture studies: folklife studies. This historical account traces nineteenth-century studies of ‘folk’ artefacts, early twentieth-century studies of geographical distributions of customs and archetypical forms of houses or crafts, the rise of open-air museums, and the emergence of folklife studies as a ‘transatlantic intellectual formation’ after its practice was introduced in the United States, often as means of detailing the transfer and adaptation of European traditional cultures in new settings: such as Pennsylvania German, Pennsylvania Dutch, etc. Reviewing the work on material culture in folklife studies since the 1970s, and drawing especially on the writing of Henry Glassie, Saint George provides a new account of the emergence of a distinctive tradition of ethnographic material culture studies on the American East Coast.

In Chapter 5, Ann Stahl considers the place of material culture in historical anthropology. Reviewing the idea of material histories, she begins with James Deetz’s demonstration that material culture studies can bring much more than simply a new range of sources, to complement historical documents, to our understanding of the past (Deetz 1977). Stahl explores how anthropologists are building on studies by Sidney Mintz (1985), Igor Kopytoff (1986), and Anne Stoler (2001), especially through ideas of biography, deposition, and genealogy. Using examples from the history of West Africa, she demonstrates how material histories can provide distinctive accounts of ‘global entanglements’ that move beyond conventional concerns with the meaning of things. By following objects, over time and across, often wide, geographical spaces, Stahl argues that historical archaeology and historical anthropology reveal ‘material moments’: both in the past and, in her example of a fragmented Vaseline jar, the disciplinary present.

The field of STS, as it has emerged from the social constructivist approaches of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) since the early 1990s, has sought to accommodate non-human things within sociological studies. Bruno Latour has famously compared the relationship between sociology and STS to that between socio-cultural anthropology and physical anthropology, or between human geography and physical geography: as a kind of ‘physical sociology’, ‘which forces colleagues immersed in the “social” and the “symbolic” to take seriously the enormous difficulty of accounting for objects, which oblige them to take up the radical hybridity of their topics’ (Latour 2000a: 121). In Chapter 6, John Law reviews how STS treats materials. Focusing on how matter comes to ‘matter’, he contrasts SSK approaches with what he calls an awareness of ‘material semiotics’ and ‘the patterning of practices’. This shift involves moving from understanding objects as stable, and understanding objects (as in social constructivism) as created purely by human subjects, to a sense of the unstable and shifting nature of materials. Using Annemarie Mol’s arguments about multiplicities (Mol 2002), Law works through issues of ‘ontological difference’ and complexity (see Law 2004), and introduces the idea of an ‘ontological politics’. Law concludes that the understanding of material culture that emerges from STS turns on the idea of objects as ‘relational effects’, and an engagement with the multiplicities and complexities of both practices and materials.

The chapters in Part I demonstrate how material things emerge in different ways from different disciplinary concerns and traditions of thought. This encourages us to move away from understanding research practices as ontologically distinct from the vernacular practices studied. Part II explores in more detail the different approaches to ‘material practices’: both those of the researcher, and those ongoing in the world.

Material Practices
Part II reviews six kinds of ‘material practice’: agency, consumption, fieldwork/collecting, gift exchange, art (as a form of action), and deposition. In Chapter 7, Andy Pickering reviews the implications of the focus on practice and performance in STS literature. Building on his earlier conception of ‘the mangle of practice’ (Pickering 1995; Pickering and Guzik 2008), Pickering uses the idea of ‘the dance of human and nonhuman agency’ as a way of revealing that this focus on doing leads to an undoing of the ‘linguistic turn’ in sociology, since agency is no longer the sole preserve of humans. More radically than Law (Chapter 6), Pickering understands the performative focus of STS as leading away from humanistic concerns with meaning or semiotics. In a shift from epistemology to ontology, Pickering uses a series of examples—the environment, animals, buildings, and technologies of the self—as places to identify such dances of agency. He is concerned, like Law, with the new political formations that emerge from moving away from a purely humanistic focus to ‘ground level’ studies that can reveal alternative ways for organizing the world that offer alternatives to the subject/object distinction of modernist epistemologies.

In Chapter 8, the volume turns to a classic theme in material culture studies: that of consumption and consumerism (see Miller 1987). The turn to consumption, Michael Dietler shows, was part of a critique of production-focused studies that failed to take account of the ways in which people enrol things in everyday social practices. Reviewing the changing approaches to consumption in archaeology and socio-cultural anthropology, Dietler notes that while early studies stressed the symbolic qualities of goods, more recent work acknowledges that material culture does more than simply symbolize. Using examples drawn from the study of colonialism and of food, alcohol, and drugs, Dietler makes a strong case for the importance of methods in consumption studies. An awareness of method means that a number of distinct lessons for consumption studies from archaeology and anthropology can be identified, first among which is a critique of assumptions of the uniqueness of modern or Western consumption practices. Dietler concludes that archaeology and anthropology have made a distinct contribution to a more general shift away from an interest in consumption as purely a domain of symbolic expression or meaning into its role as a practice with particular consequences.

Issues of method and practice also form the focus of Chapter 9, in which Gavin Lucas presents an overview of the history of changing practices of collecting and doing fieldwork among anthropologists and archaeologists. Reviewing the development of studies of the history of collecting in museum studies (Pearce 1995) and ethnography (O’Hanlon andWelsch 2000), and of fieldwork in archaeology (Lucas 2001a), Lucas notes a growing awareness of the importance of field methods in defining the place of material culture studies in archaeology and anthropology—and especially an awareness of the shift of focus away from collecting with the invention of modern ethnographic fieldwork that accompanied the rise of functionalist anthropology in the early twentieth century. Lucas shows how most recently, a self-awareness of the contingency of archaeological and anthropological knowledge upon field practices has developed, often through the idea of ‘reflexivity’ (Hodder 1997, 1999). Such awareness has led in anthropology to the problematization of the definition of the ethnographic field as non-Western in location, while in archaeology it has led to new kinds of field methods, including phenomenology. Lucas concludes by considering the development of ‘ethnographies of archaeological practice’ (Edgeworth 2006a), but strongly resists suggestions, such as that by Chris Gosden, of an elision of archaeological and anthropological field practices, for example in a focus on material culture. Instead, Lucas defines archaeological fieldwork as distinct in its interventionist and transformative nature, and in the centrality of scientific techniques in the analysis of material culture, which are united in the reconstitution of past material worlds in the present. Thus, Lucas argues, the different treatment of objects in fieldwork draws a line between archaeological and anthropological material culture studies.

The classic anthropological theme of practices of gift exchange is explored by Hiro Miyazaki in Chapter 10. Tracing the long history of debate in anthropology over Marcel Mauss’ classic essay The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies (1923–4), Miyazaki explores the implications of Mauss’ proposition, that things exchanged as gifts come to contain within themselves some part of the giver, especially through the obligation to reciprocate. The problem of reciprocity—what power it is within the gift that requires repayment—is traced through debates, from Lévi-Strauss’ critique that Mauss mistook an indigenous concept (the ‘spirit’ (hau) of the gift) for a general theory of exchange, through the perspectives of Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, Annette Weiner, Jonathan Parry, Nancy Munn, and Webb Keane. Seeking to move beyond the framing of these debates in terms of ‘problem and solution’, Miyazaki then examines the feminist critique of Mauss’ model of gift exchange, set out in Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (1988), which, he argues, understands the relationships between people and things as ‘neither a problem nor a solution’. Instead, Miyazaki argues, Strathern’s account of relational personhood offers new ways of framing discussions of gift exchange, which move beyond bilateral distinctions between subjects and objects.

The inclusion of a chapter on the anthropology of art in a section on ‘material practices’ may at first appear a strange editorial decision. However, the study of artworks in anthropology has shifted in recent years from semiotic studies (e.g. Layton 1981) to interests in the practical involvement of artworks in social relationships, especially through Alfred Gell’s (1998) model of Art and Agency, which argued that artworks were enrolled as secondary agents in social life. Taking a very different approach to that of Gell, in Chapter 11 Howard Morphy argues that the cross-cultural anthropological study of artworks should involve understanding them not as objects in a conventional sense, but as ‘a form of intentional human action’. Critiquing Gell’s dismissal of the utility of the idea of aesthetics, and seeking to move beyond the idea of objects having ‘social lives’ (Appadurai 1986a),Morphy stresses the need to attend to ‘the cognitive and expressive dimensions of objects’ in order to comprehend ‘how they are seen and how they mean’. Morphy affirms that social actors sometimes believe that objects possess agency and that they have effects in the world, but is emphatic on the point that the goal of the anthropologist is not to conclude that objects do have agency but to achieve an understanding of how belief in the agency of objects comes about. To accomplish this, the anthropologist must first determine how an object functions in context, then attempt to explain why objects take the particular forms that they do. Offering a case study of Yolngu circumcision painting in Australia, Morphy calls for ethnographically situated and nuanced studies that retain the distinctive category of art (as action), rather than understanding artworks as simply another form of material culture and unpicking their uses in human social life.

The final contribution to Part II examines archaeological studies of practices of deposition (Chapter 12). Rosemary Joyce and Josh Pollard trace the development of the archaeological concept of the assemblage, and the different ways in which archaeologists have interpreted deposits that are the result of purposeful deposition. Joyce and Pollard work through Mike Schiffer’s processual model of deposition, the post-processual idea of reading assemblages as ‘structured deposition’, and more recent studies of depositional practice as the evidence of human actions (both ceremonial and everyday). Through a case study drawn from fieldwork at Mantecales, Honduras, they show how in the study of assemblage and deposition archaeologists have increasingly moved from the interpretation of meaning or social structure to interests in the role of materials in everyday practice, performance, and memory.

Objects and Humans
As will be clear already, the contributions in this volume question the a priori distinctions between material objects and human subjects in a variety of different ways. In Part III, such distinctions are explored through five themed chapters: exploring technology, material agency, personhood, embodiment, and the use of materials by non-human primates.
Kacy Hollenback and Mike Schiffer open the section with an essay on the current state of behavioural archaeology, a programme of archaeological research developed by Schiffer since the 1970s (Schiffer 1976, 1995a, 2008a). For Hollenback and Schiffer, a reliance upon material culture and technology is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Reviewing the study of technology in archaeology and anthropology before and after the invention of the idea of ‘material culture’, the authors introduce a series of concepts—‘performance characteristics’, the study of the ‘life histories’ of artefacts, and ‘behavioural chains’—that are central to their behavioural approach to material culture. The interest in long-term change and the ‘senescence’ (death) of technologies distinguishes this archaeological approach from sociological STS studies. Through two case studies—concerned with the failure of the early electric car in the 1920s, and with the relationship between the spread of smallpox and the decline of traditional pottery technology among the Mandan and Hidatsa of the Northern Plains of North America—the authors argue that behavioural archaeology offers distinctive perspectives on how human life is always indistinguishable from ‘material life’.

In Chapter 14, Andy Jones and Nicky Boivin take stock of current debates over the idea of ‘material agency’. One recent approach to the study of objects and humans through material culture has been to extend social agency to material things: whether understanding objects as fully agentive (Latour 1993a) or as the ‘indexes’ of human agency (Gell 1998). For Jones and Boivin, such arguments represent a central element of archaeology’s moving beyond the concerns with material culture as holding meaning, and the idea that material culture is analogous with a ‘text’ (Hodder 1986). However, quite distinct from the extension of purely social agency to objects, Jones and Boivin focus on how things’ actions can fall outside the constraint of human agency, or the extension of human intentionality. Through a discussion of ethnographic ideas of animism and fetishism, and drawing from work in STS and ANT, the authors show how many archaeologists are moving beyond a distinction between relativism and realism that characterizes conventional ‘material culture studies’. Using examples from Late Neolithic Orkney and from Rajasthan, India, they conclude that ideas of material agency move beyond a concern with the social, and that ideas from ANT can be used in archaeology to trace ‘courses of action [that] are mediated and articulated over time’ by both humans and materials.

Another way in which distinctions between humans and objects have been critiqued in archaeology and anthropology is through a shift from concerns with ‘identity’ to the idea that material things are implicated in the emergence of ‘personhood’. In Chapter 15, Chris Fowler provides an overview of the history of the study of material culture as either reflective or actively involved in the expression of identity in archaeology as background to his discussion of more recent critiques of the assumption that ‘persons’ exist as universal, bounded entities. Drawing especially upon Melanesian ethnography (e.g. Strathern 1988), Fowler uses ideas of distributed and relational personhood, and the idea of the ‘dividual’, to show how a focus on material culture can be used to critiqueWestern notions of the strictly bounded and indivisible self. Fowler argues that ethnographic observations about the diversity of understandings of the person are of particular importance for archaeologists studying past societies, especially since they do so through material remains that may have been involved in the creation of personhood. Using examples from both prehistoric and historical archaeology, Fowler shows how recent work in archaeology focuses not simply on the relationships between objects and humans, but upon the permeabilities between them, and the historical and ethnographic contingencies of ideas of persons and objects.

Another key area of research in which the permeabilities between humans and materials have been explored is in the archaeology of embodiment. In Chapter 16, Zoë Crossland traces the rising interest in archaeologies of gender and sexuality alongside concerns with the archaeology of the body and performance of identity, for example through studies of dress and personal adornment, since the late 1980s. Through two case studies, Crossland shows how archaeologists have increasingly shown the intimate connections between the body and material culture through the idea of embodiment, and how artefacts can represent extensions of the body. Considering how seventeenth-century ‘witches bottles’ as apotropaic devices acted as anthropomorphic bodily metaphors, she shows how these objects are suggestive of the body as a bounded and fragile vessel, but also represent through ‘an extraordinary redundancy of symbolism’ both witch and victim as ‘entwined and dependent biographies’. Then, through a discussion of forensic archaeology as a contemporary expression of changing ideas about the body and about perceptions of separation between the dead and the living, Crossland argues that forensic archaeology is a practice that attributes agency to the dead in ways that render an ostensibly empirical endeavour as a discourse that is as much about emotion and subjectivity as it is about science. In conclusion, Crossland argues that archaeological material culture studies can provide ‘alternate narratives of the coming into being of the bounded body’, in which materials and humans are studied together through objects.

The questioning of the limits of the person in relation to materials is taken one step further by a consideration of the distinctiveness of human manipulation of materials and uses of tools, as compared with non-human primates (cf. Strum and Latour 1987). Tanya Humle (Chapter 17) argues that certain non-human primates—capuchin monkeys, orangutans, and chimpanzees, and perhaps also gorillas and bonobos—can usefully be seen as having ‘material cultures’, and perhaps also more generally ‘culture’ if we apply an anthropological definition of culture as ‘a system of socially transmitted behaviour(s)’. In an overview of current thinking about primate use of material culture, Humle distinguishes between innate tool use and the reordering of the material environment beyond primates (in which we could include the use of cactus spines to remove arthropods from bark by woodpecker finches, or birds nests and beehives), from physical objects used as a means to achieve an end, which includes the use of stones as hammers and anvils, the construction of shelters, and the use of sticks to extract insects or honey from trees by primates. A central issue here is the social dimension of primate material culture, which includes learnt behaviour, through observation, imitation and teaching; the importance of studying primate use of material culture in the wild rather than in laboratories is therefore underlined by Humle. Through these discussions, she demonstrates the limitations of conventional divisions between biological anthropology from cultural anthropology. The chapter calls for the development of ‘cultural primatology’ as fusing elements drawn from a range of disciplines—anthropology, biology, archaeology, behavioural ecology, and psychology—and underlines the urgency of studying fragile and threatened primate cultures. Humle also eloquently argues for the importance of moving beyond studying the idea of ‘material culture’ in non-human primates in isolation from the idea of the existence of ‘culture’ among them.

Landscapes and the Built Environment
Part IV of the volume explores how the idea of material culture studies can be used to examine large entities, rather than discrete or portable objects. The chapters in this section draw together geographical approaches to ‘cultural landscapes’ and ‘ecological landscapes’ with the study of long-term change in the urban built environment, and two contrasting traditions of studying architecture and ‘home cultures’.

The idea of ‘cultural landscapes’, Lesley Head notes in Chapter 18, derives from the work of geographer Carl Sauer in the 1920s, which has led over several generations of scholarship to a conventional division of labour in geography between the ‘human’ or ‘cultural’ and the ‘physical’. Head traces how the ‘cultural turn’ in geography encouraged a strongly active understanding of the human cultural and meaningful shaping of landscapes, but then how more recently geographers have moved to an acknowledgement of the complexities and hybrid nature of cultural and natural landscapes, especially in the extension of the idea of ‘agency’ to plants, animals, and other elements of the ‘natural’ world. In this context, Head critically examines how the idea of ‘cultural landscapes’ has been put into practice in recent years, with particular reference to the ‘cultural landscape’ category of the World Heritage Convention, using examples of land and heritage management in Australia. Drawing on the arguments of feminist philosopher Val Plumwood, Head assesses whether the idea of cultural landscapes is ‘irretrievably anthropocentric’. Rather than an a priori discrediting of the idea of cultural landscapes, in favour of a blurring of distinctions between the natural and the cultural, Head argues that in certain situations the idea of cultural landscapes can have positive outcomes, especially in relation to the politics of indigenous heritage. This argument reminds us of the importance of our conception of human and material landscapes as historically contingent, and that the uses of such conceptions, but also any attempt to overcome them, are always situated and political.

In contrast with Chapter 18, Sarah Whatmore and Steve Hinchliffe (Chapter 19) use the idea of ‘ecological landscapes’ to seek to dispose of any distinction between cultural and material geographies. By understanding the materials of which landscapes are made as ‘energetic constituents in their fabrication’, they work through arguments in phenomenology, affect, and biophilosophy to craft a reconfiguration of ideas about landscape and ecology that allows for a sense of landscape as process, as affective materiality, and as an ‘enlivened’, more-than-spatial entity. Whatmore and Hinchliffe see landscapes as ‘complex assemblages’ in which people are situated on the basis of their relationships with human and non-human others. Examining two public spaces in the contemporary urban ecology of Bristol—Thingwall Park Allotments and the Royate Hill viaduct-reserve—Whatmore and Hinchliffe call for the study of ‘living cities’ (rather than ‘built environments’). Using concepts of vernacular ecologies and conviviality, they call for a rethinking of landscapes as ‘more-than-human achievements’ that are lived in before they are made, that arise not from pre-existing human vision and design but from relational engagements between human, non-human, and more-than-human agents. Such approaches, they argue, raise the potential for a ‘more-than-human politics of landscap-ing’, which could inform different approaches to urban policy and planning.

Urban spaces and urban materialities are also the focus of Roland Fletcher’s contribution (Chapter 20), but Fletcher’s concerns are centred around the effects of the accretion of the materialities of urban environments across time and space. Building on his previous studies of urban materiality (especially his The Limits of Settlement Growth), he begins by discussing the ways in which scholars across a range of disciplines have approached materiality, in order to situate his own treatment of urban materialities in terms of cross-cultural generalizations about the role of urban places in human experience throughout history. His aim is to address matters of words and representation, magnitude, and materials through time. Fletcher argues that textbased approaches to materiality have failed to engage with the sheer weight and power of urban materials. The very size of cities, Fletcher suggests, leads to what he refers to as ‘self-inflicted damage’ as a result of overcrowding and lack of investment in infrastructure, while warfare, especially in industrialized cities, has led to the large-scale, asymmetrical destruction of urban places. Through wideranging examples drawn from ancient, early modern, and modern urban contexts, he argues that archaeologists must engage more adequately with the material duration and persistence of urban places as a central element of any understanding of the contingencies and effects of urban history. Fletcher’s perspective is distinctly humanistic in that he raises the ethical dimensions of urban growth, florescence, decay, and destruction to human agents in all instances: even urban destruction by natural forces Fletcher sees as the ‘fault’ of improvident humans. In this way, his approach differs from the presentism of some geographical calls for non-human geographies of urban landscapes, and from the local contexts of such work that contrast with his sense of ‘the mega-scale’ to which he argues archaeology can provide particular access. Thus, Fletcher re-thinks urban landscapes as sources of an understanding of ‘the macro-scale of familiar public milieu’ as well as ‘the micro-scale of personal life’.

The final contributions to this section introduce two contrasting traditions of thought about the built environment. In Chapter 21, Carl Lounsbury moves us from the grand scale of cities across time and space to the smaller scale of buildings. Lounsbury’s perspective as an architectural historian is steeped in ideas drawn from social history and the decorative arts and strongly influenced by material in Americanist traditions of culture studies. He focuses on the study of buildings as sources of design and as cultural artefacts, using examples drawn chiefly from North America, tracing architectural history from design-oriented and antiquarian approaches through its transformation into a social science, with greater attention to issues of environment, resources, and indigenous and non-Western architecture. In contrast with studies of the aesthetics and style of architecture, or of the work of particular architects, Lounsbury draws on traditions in American anthropology and folklife studies that examine vernacular and polite buildings as evidence for the study of power, class, gender, and race in the past. Giving examples of studies of plantation landscapes and housing for enslaved Africans, of post-colonial architectural forms, and of ‘cultural landscapes’ centred around commemoration and public memory, Lounsbury provides an integrated overview of the study of architecture as material culture in traditions that have developed in the eastern United States.

In Chapter 22, Victor Buchli explores how material culture studies have contributed to anthropological studies of houses and households. Building on his previous work on the idea of ‘home cultures’, and his observation that houses represent ‘the context in which most other material culture is used, placed and understood’ (Buchli 2002b: 207), Buchli reviews a wide range of anthropological and archaeological studies of the domestic sphere. Drawing upon a range of social anthropological studies of households, and upon the tradition of material culture studies developed at University College London, Buchli provides an overview of the anthropology of the domestic sphere, tracing the emergence of interests in houses as processes, rather than as types or physical forms. Buchli explains how these developments have influenced archaeologists’ considerations of home life and how archaeology and anthropology can use houses and homes as places to study gender, sexuality, and consumption; techniques of governance; the impact of new technologies; and new conceptions of the body and the experience of personhood. Rather than fetishizing the dwelling as an object of enquiry, Buchli demonstrates that houses and homes represent dynamic, fluid, and lively environments in which to undertake material culture studies.

Studying Particular Things
One thing shared by many of the contributions to this volume is a commitment to the value of situated, extended studies of particular items or bodies of material culture: something that is all too often lost in theoretical debates about material culture or materiality. Just as Part IV introduced a range of situations in which material culture studies can be undertaken (from urban ecology to the domestic sphere), so our final section aims to show some of the analytical power that such studies of things have: allowing theoretical positions to emerge in particular material engagements—with stone tools, landscape gardens, ceramics, buildings, and ‘magical things’.

In Chapter 23, Rodney Harrison addresses one of the most venerable of archaeological objects: stone tools. However, the particular object studied by Harrison is a copy of a stone point rendered in glass by indigenous people in the Kimberley region of western Australia during the nineteenth century, and collected and accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Reviewing alternative approaches to artefact manufacture, and reviewing the history of stone tool studies in archaeology, Harrison discusses the need to account for the social agency of indigenous people by understanding the Kimberley point as an artefact of colonial encounter. He also uses Alfred Gell’s discussions of the enchanting qualities of material culture in social life (Gell 1998) to introduce the idea of material agency. The brilliance of the glass Kimberley point, and the skill involved in its manufacture, contribute for Harrison to its status as a ‘captivating object’, the agentive qualities of which influenced the history of its being collected. But Harrison acknowledges that any account of the persistence of the object into the contemporary world involves more than an acknowledgement of its enrolment in human social agency. This is particularly clear, he argues, in accounting for the politics of indigenous heritage in Australia in debates over the repatriation of cultural remains, such as the kind of stone tools of which the Kimberley points were copies. Through ethnographic interviews with Aboriginal people working in the field of archaeological heritage management, Harrison discusses the use of material culture by people to express ‘a rather conservative or old-fashioned association between race, culture and material artefacts’. This ‘strategic essentialism’ involves the use of material culture for purely cultural ends by minority groups. In this nuanced argument, which deals with many of the same issues as those addressed by Lesley Head in Chapter 18, Harrison shows how in accounting for the material agency of objects we must also accommodate their contemporary political power. Such uses of material culture for culturalist ends are powerful, and challenge the archaeologist to account for those forms of contemporary politics that involve things as well as people.

In Chapter 24, Chandra Mukerji provides a detailed account of the study of French landscape gardens as material culture. She argues that the value in studying early modern designed landscapes lies in their role as sites of ‘ongoing experiments’ in relation to the human governance of things and the demonstration of the control of nature, and as part of political life. Mukerji discusses Louis XIV’s seventeenth-century gardens at Versailles, which were designed as a microcosm of the kingdom of France. She explains how the circulades of south-western France operated as utopian expressions of hope against the threat of potential loss of farm surplus. Recognizing the links between landscape management, politics, and religion provides a means of understanding how in France the symbolic aspects of landscape gardens were transformed over time into a far broader tradition of land use and land management: accomplished through particular material techniques and according to specific moral rationales, these landscapes served to demonstrate, validate, and underscore the ‘material order’ of French political and social regimes. Unlike many objects examined by material culture studies, like a silver spoon for example, gardens never hold the illusion that they are ‘wholly a product of human design’. Thus, Mukerji shows, studying designed landscapes reveal the implication of both the natural and the cultural in early modern hope and ambition, models of moral reform, and ideas of territorial governance. In this way, their study demonstrates how social regimes are always both ‘material and political orders’—enacted through the non-human, as well as purely the human, world.

Chapter 25 presents a dialogue between two archaeologists studying architectural construction during the European Neolithic. From four case studies, Doug Bailey and Lesley McFadyen develop four propositions about the archaeological study of the construction of ‘built objects’. First, they use the study of the practical and material dimensions of the construction of long barrows in southern England to argue that archaeologists should consider building as practice and avoid thinking about buildings as crystallizations of ideas, as fixed entities. The construction of such monuments was a process that McFadyen describes as ‘quick architecture’, referring both to the differential speed at which phases of building take place and to the ways in which building techniques and materials affect the builder. This approach emphasizes the dynamic nature of building over the notion of interpreting architectural evidence in terms of a completed form. Secondly, in a discussion of Neolithic pit-houses from south-eastern Europe they argue that conventional distinctions between above-ground, durable dwellings, and smaller dwellings constructed by digging a pit in the ground are unhelpful. Using ideas from the American Land Art movement, they consider the transformative aspects of creating and enclosing negative spaces. Thirdly, informed by architectural theorist Bernard Tschumi’s idea of Architecture and Disjunction (1996), Bailey and McFadyen question whether conventional distinctions of discrete construction phases for English Neolithic monuments is either helpful or possible. The idea of a construction sequence implies a continuity and regularity in construction activity, and treats the structure as fixed and constant. Neolithic constructions were nothing of the sort, the authors argue, but instead resulted from discontinuous and episodic activities and were often ‘mobile’ in ways that suited how Neolithic people lived their lives. Finally, returning to south-eastern Europe and to houses, a fourth proposition calls for the forms of houses to be studied at different scales from the conventional fine-grained detail of archaeological excavation. Here, the focus is on houses as objects that position people in space and create specific intellectual and physical engagements because, in ways suggested through the philosophy of Minimalist art, they become ‘environmental’ in the broadest sense. Developing these four propositions from four distinct archaeological contexts, Bailey and McFadyen disrupt conventional archaeological thinking about prehistoric structures. Through ideas of the pace and discontinuities of construction, and through a focus on digging as well as building and on houses as part of broader lived environments, they call for an ‘unlearning of how we look at the archaeological evidence of houses, building and architecture’. This approach moves far beyond conventional interpretive archaeology into new kinds of accounts of materials and practice.

The study of ceramics is the archetypal archaeological theme when the question of ‘studying particular things’ is raised. However, the study by Carl Knappett, Lambros Malafouris, and Peter Tomkins (Chapter 26) of a pithos (storage vessel) and rhyton (ceremonial vessel) from the early Bronze Age in the Aegean raises issues that go far beyond conventional ceramic studies, which focus on artefacts as evidence of economy or changing ceramic technology. Their focus is instead firmly upon what these objects do, rather than what they mean: they argue that their functions as containers means that they should be considered as part of broader technologies of containing, including baskets, gourds, or metal vessels, rather than simply within a sequence of ceramic typology. In this new approach to typology, based on items of material culture as ‘action possibilities’, the authors combine Jean-Pierre Warnier’s study of ‘containers and surfaces’ (Warnier 2006) with ideas of the ‘embodied mind’ and ‘conceptual metaphor theory’ drawn from cognitive psychology (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). Their attention to categories of practice, while attending to the materiality of ceramics, builds in innovative ways upon Colin Renfrew’s (2001) idea of ‘material engagement’. They situate their discussion in relation to the long-term development of ceramic containers in Europe from their initial appearance in the Mesolithic, through the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The implication of this study of two Bronze Age artefacts is that archaeology can make distinctive interdisciplinary contributions by moving beyond ‘Artefacts as Categories’ (Miller 1985) towards a new appreciation of the form and type of artefacts that is grounded in the implication of particular material technologies of practice in both the cognitive and material dimensions of human life.

The final chapter in this section takes on these two overlapping dimensions of human life in a very different manner. Through his anthropological study of fetishes, commodities, and modern technologies, in Chapter 27 Peter Pels engages with categories of objects that are bound up with notions of magic. Magical objects lie at the heart of ethnographic concerns with the idea of material agency. Pels shows how the anthropological encounter with beliefs that things can ‘do something’ to humans led to an emphasis in scholarship on magic on the irrational and impossible, upon seemingly mistaken beliefs, psychological shortcomings, and misplaced subjectivities. He explores how over the course of the nineteenth century, ideas about magic and materiality were pulled apart from one another. But by juxtaposing William Pietz’s studies of the emergence of the fetish in early modern West Africa with the anthropological study of commodities, Pels elegantly situates the Marxian idea of commodity fetishism in broader historical context. He argues that anthropological material culture studies have increasingly downplayed the importance of fetishism. Anthropocentric models of the material culture of consumerism have not allowed for the more radical attribution of agency to commodities.

Through a series of case studies about twentieth-century and contemporary advertising, Pels builds an argument that bears some similarities to the ‘enchanted materialism’ of modern life evoked by Jane Bennett (2001), but is more explicit in how Western capitalism employs ‘magic’ and enchantment to construct and capture its markets. Pels sees these elements as bound up with technologies, with the prime example of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries being that of computer technophilia and the emergence within the hacker subculture of an overdetermined trope of programming as a magical activity performed by practitioners referred to as ‘wizards’ and ‘master magicians’. Computer technology, then, is an area in which fetishism is not rejected but embraced; the technology magically transforms the modern commodity into a highly materialized, magical thing. Pels argues in conclusion that the Western denial of distributed or material agency is precisely the source of the magical nature of certain technological objects in the modern world: an argument that compels us to rethink the historical and ethnographic contingencies and complexities in which ideas of material agency are debated or dismissed.

Material Culture Studies: a reactionary view
Together, the chapters of this volume demonstrate what the four disciplines assembled here—archaeology, anthropology, geography, and STS—have in common. Each chapter works in different ways within particular intellectual traditions, to answer particular disciplinary questions, through approaches that engage with, and sometimes immerse themselves in, complex environments of humans and non-humans, from gardens to ceramics to chimpanzees. Issues of method are more or less formalized depending on the discipline. As methods are put into practice, these studies regularly encounter, and must account for, the lives of non-humans as well as purely humans. In all four fields, these experiences are increasingly pressing researchers to move beyond the priorities of the linguistic or cultural turn, which were focused on an anthropocentric concern with the meanings or significance of material culture to people, and simultaneously beyond concerns with simply the use by people of objects in social relations. All four disciplines are seeking to retool themselves to accommodate the role of non-humans. This need is perhaps especially clear when analyses move beyond the ethnographic present and deal with transformation and change over time.

Why, then, after the editorial work that has gone into assembling these studies would we hold back from calling for a material turn that would replace the anthropocentric linguistic or cultural turn of the 1980s? The studies collected here hold many insights for the study of material culture—from ontological politics, to debates over material agency, to the implications of moving beyond literary and textual analogies for material culture, to the risks of reducing materials to anthropocentric accounts of the social. Without doubt, through editing this collection our firm belief in the importance of the study of material things in the humanities and social sciences, and our commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, has become even stronger. But on what terms? The studies collected in this volume lead towards an appreciation not only of the effects of things, but also of things as the effects of material practices (both vernacular and academic). Material culture does not represent a straightforward object of enquiry, simply requiring new vocabularies for interpretation or abstract theorization. Instead, if we take seriously the critique of any a priori distinction between subject and object, then this must also encompass the academic researcher and her object of enquiry. Like any thing, for the disciplines gathered here knowledge is emergent and contingent upon material practice. This, we suggest, must be the point of departure for any interdisciplinary discussion of material culture.

Here, the distinction between material culture studies and ANT becomes clear. As a ‘symmetrical anthropology’ (Latour 1993a) that can present ‘the sociology of a few mundane artefacts’ (Latour 1992), ANT has provided a powerful model for how anthropological thinking about the place of material things in social life might achieve cross-disciplinary impact. It is above all in the transdisciplinary reception of ANT, we might suggest, that the strongest possible model for what a ‘material turn’ would look like is developing. But such a material turn would simply extend, through a rhetorical inversion, the cultural turn of the 1980s. While we share a sense of what we are leaving behind, the contributions assembled here (including our own) represent a series of crossroads rather than a new series of ‘turns’: turn upon turn, which would add up only to academic spin.

Anthropology has been here before: with the Durkheimian model of the social, and with structuralism. The transdisciplinary reception of the representational impulse in ANT—its status as a third twentieth-century theory ripe for application in diverse situations—makes it the rightful successor to the Durkheimian and structuralist models of anthropological thinking. But while we learn much from ANT, the contributions assembled here do not add up to a new interdisciplinary space in which to reconcile or inter-relate the cultural and the material, the human and non-human. Instead, they inspire us to foreground the partiality of the knowledge of the world that emerges from ‘field sciences’ such as archaeology, anthropology, geography, and STS as they are enacted. Unlike the idea of reflexivity, in which the situatedness of the human researcher in interpreting and representing the world is foregrounded to relate method and theory, we want to suggest that approaches to the study of things in these field sciences can provide distinctive resources for an ontological, rather than epistemological, retooling in practice.

And so we return to disciplinarity. A reactionary argument indeed: the continued relevance of modernist models of disciplinary purity. But that is not what we are after. Instead, our resistance to the idea of a postdisciplinary material turn emerges from our own deep sense, from the perspective of anthropological archaeology, of the complexity, mess, and diversity of the practices from which our knowledge emerges. Interdisciplinary collaborations are central to the future of material culture studies. But we must not forget that the things that we study are the effects of our practice, which is always historically contingent. And always political. When Bruno Latour talks of flat ontologies, these must extend between researcher and object of enquiry, as well as simply between humans and non-humans. Otherwise, we will simply continue to play back and forth across the categories of the cultural and the material: critiquing, collapsing, relating. Imagining that we represent a world, which we can hold at arm’s length, rather than enacting our knowledge of things. It is in this sense—a sense of the radical partiality of our knowledge of the world, which we might celebrate rather than shy away from—that material culture studies will, as Nigel Thrift suggests in his afterword that it has, come of age.

The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (OUP 2010, xviii+774pp, 98 figures, 2 tables) was published in Autumn 2010. Full details of the contents are here, and the book can be ordered here.


  1. Excellent research!

    The main feature of this work – its lucidity of mind. And the essence can be understood even by non-English-speaking persons. How can we buy it if we are situated across the oceans?

    Roman Porozov, Russia
    Ural State Pedagogical University
    Department of Cultural Studies

  2. Dan,

    I found your blog at OAC. This book looks like a great resource. I'm working (pioneering, really) in the field of Biblical Anthropology and some of the material here relating to Bronze Age material culture looks interesting. I'll have to acquire the Book.

    Good luck with it!

  3. Dan, as a graduate student studying modern history and culture, and as one who is leaping into the rich world of non-textual primary sources,I really want to say thank you for this excellent entry! You lay out the various methodological schools of thought in such a clear way. This is really helpful.

    - Jason Lahman