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The phrase material culture” refers to the physical stuff that human beings surround themselves with and which has meaning for the members of a cultural group. Mostly this stuff” is things that are made within a society but sometimes it is gathered directly from the natural world or recovered from past or distant cultures. It can be contrasted with other cultural forms such as ideas, images, practices, beliefs, and language that can be treated as independent from any specific material substance. The clothes, tools, utensils, gadgets, ornaments, pictures, furniture, buildings, and equipment of a group of people are its material culture and for disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology provide the raw data for understanding other societies. In recent years sociologists have begun to recognize that the ways that material things are incorporated into the culture shape the way that society works and communicate many of its features to individual members.
Jean Baudrillard’s (1996) critique of Marx’s analysis of production and exchange led him to explore how the system of objects” circulates sign value within a society articulating cultural distinctions and meanings. The uses of different materials such as wood or glass to create the atmosphere of interior spaces, the embedding of technology within gadgets” and tools, how things extend the form and actions of the human body, and the relations between objects that are unique and those that are parts of series, are all systems which shape the culture. The recent literature on the sociology of consumption has frequently recognized that material things are not only useful in themselves but can be signs of social status and cultural location. A motor car is much more than a functional transportation device because it encapsulates a set of cultural messages about the aesthetics, wealth and technological values of a culture as well as the status of the individual who drives it.
The consumption of material stuff may locate individual identities within a culture, but it also threatens the environment and uses up scarce resources. However as research by Christian Heath (2003) and his colleagues has shown, those material objects involved in the interactions between human beings provide a topic as well as a resource for constructing meaning. Developing research in a different direction, Elizabeth Shove (2003) argues that the material stuff of a culture ”co-evolves” not only with other stuff but also with human practices and systems of action. And the emergence of new types of objects late in the twentieth century – such as computers, mobile phones, digital cameras and MP3 players – have expanded the possibilities for mediation while at the same time shifting the focus of material culture to blur even further what Robert Dourish (2004) identifies as the boundaries between the social and the technical and between meaning and function. But the embodied material interaction” directly between individual humans and the stuff around them continues to depend on a socially acquired repertoire of gestures and practices to release the cultural meanings embedded in the materiality of stuff.
- Baudrillard, J. (1996) The System of Objects. Verso, London.
- Dourish, P. (2004) Where the Action Is: The Foundation of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Heath, H. J. & Heath, C. (2003) Transcending the object in embodied interaction. In: J. Coupland, J. & Gwyn, R. (eds.), Discourse, the Body and Identity.Palgrave, Basingstoke.
- Shove, E. (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience. Berg, Oxford.
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