Material Culture Research Paper

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Material culture consists of any physical manifestation or product of culture. Culture as a conceptual category exists in opposition to material culture, with culture sometimes distinguished as mental culture or nonmaterial culture, although some scholars take issue with such a Cartesian distinction. Alternatively material culture can be taken as a subset of a primary category, culture. Following the gist of E. B. Tylor’s ([1871] 1974) classic 1871 definition, culture, in social science usage, comprises a complex whole of patterned knowledge and behavior: that which is traditional but also emergent, cumulated, learned, and acquired by members of society. By the mid-twentieth century culture could be defined and understood in literally hundreds of ways (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952); by the late twentieth century the term had been deconstructed by some postmodernist thinkers as totalizing, hegemonic, essentialist, and an imagined figment. Tylor employed the term material culture as early as 1871, although he apparently neglected to define it (Reynolds 1987, p. 155; for a commentary on the concept, see Buchli 2002, pp. 2–8).

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Culture resides in the mind and is shared across minds. Material culture renders culture manifest in physical, palpable, measurable form. For archaeologists, folklorists, historians, museum curators, and others, material culture evidences the cultural. Material culture includes what archaeologists typically refer to as artifacts, collectors as relics, and art historians as objets d’art. Artifacts include such objects as stone tools, potsherds, bottles, beads, buttons, fibulae, coins, clay pipes, paintings, and textiles. To this list of conventionally recognized artifacts one should add such large-scale examples of material culture as buildings, monuments, gardens, gravestones, watercraft, roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, irrigation ditches, fences, wharves, landfills, and landscapes—all part of the intentionally built environment. For some scholars, any modification of the environment resulting from cultural activity, deliberate or not, counts as material culture: trash middens, oil spills, crop marks, cultigens, particulate emissions, food bones, human skeletal remains, manuports (materials moved out of their original location by human agency, like moon rocks brought to earth), and ecofacts of all sorts and conditions (such as flower pollen in Neanderthal burials or oyster shells filling in a road pothole). All writing and symbolic expression, from pictographs, graffiti, iconography (Munn 1973), and tattoos to cuneiform tablets and comic books can be considered material culture. The anthropologist and archaeologist James Deetz has suggested that spoken language be thought of as material culture in its “gaseous state” (Deetz 1996, p. 36), because sounds physically set air in motion during speech, if only briefly. Whether or not one wants to go so far as to accept spoken language as material culture, one can certainly admit records, tapes, and DVDs.

Material culture—past and present, partial and entire, in situ at an archaeological dig, on or of the landscape, or cached in a museum—illuminates cultural phenomena in many ways. Material culture communicates, expresses meaning, conveys experience, disciplines, and exhibits agency. Just as material culture is various, so too the study of material culture reflects a broad array of perspectives, analytical stances, and underlying philosophical traditions.


Description remains foundational to material culture studies. The anthropologist Franz Boas ([1888] 1964), in one of the first formal ethnographies, recorded material as well as nonmaterial culture by describing such items as igloos, harpoons, and dolls, which were illustrated with sketches. For archaeologists, time, space, and form constitute three important descriptive dimensions of material culture. It is essential to know how old an object is and when it was used, recycled, or discarded. Chronology supplies part of the crucial cultural context of material culture. Dozens of dating methods yield relative and absolute chronologies. Relative dating, which establishes that something is older than, newer than, or contemporaneous with something else, is exemplified by cross dating derived from stratigraphy and an examination of stylistic change. Absolute dating methods, which assign age in calendar years, include obsidian hydration, dendrochronology (using tree rings), and radiometric techniques such as radiocarbon dating.

It is also invaluable to know an object’s spatial location—its point of origin or place of discovery. Provenance, like chronology, constitutes prime contextual data. Location might be variously logged as a cultural area, city, or country name, an archaeological excavation’s grid/stratum designation, or a set of latitude and longitude points in a geographical positioning system. Lack of provenance is problematical because it means spatial context has been lost.

Form involves the attributes or characteristics of an object. Description of form entails acquiring and recording data concerning factors such as dimension, color, texture, chemical composition, and stylistic elements. Taxonomy, typology, or classification may draw on numerous methods, such as the type-variety concept, modal analysis, numerical taxonomy, and linguistic models. The widely applied type-variety approach identifies configurations of associated attributes to generate categories of types and varieties. In modal analysis, single attributes such as stylistic motifs can be traced through time and space. Numerical taxonomy codes for multiple attributes and tests for clustering or correlations by means of statistical routines. Typology based on linguistic models posits parallels to language, using either constituent units analogous to phonemes or morphemes or a set of grammatical rules for object construction. The results of typological analysis end up in such formats as exhibit catalogs, databases, museum labels, and archaeological site reports.

Technology And Function

Considerations of technology and function are vital to material culture studies. Some typologies, such as the first ones developed in the second half of the nineteenth century to describe European Paleolithic assemblages, posit functions for stone tools, such as scraper, graver, and burin. The approach known as experimental archaeology (see Coles 1973; Reynolds 1979; Gould 1980; Ingersoll, Yellen, and Macdonald 1977) features rigorous testing of technology and function, applied to areas as diverse as flint-tool knapping and the experience of building and living in an Iron Age village. To discover aspects of technology or function, sophisticated laboratory analysis may be performed, as was the case with Arlene Fraikor et al. (1971), who showed that the copper in Hopewell earspools (Ohio, c. 100 BCE–550 CE) was shaped both by annealing and cold hammering. Thomas Loy and James Dixon (1998) contributed to the understanding of the function of 11,000-year-old Alaskan fluted projectile points when they identified species like mammoth, Dall sheep, and bison from blood cell residues preserved in the tools’ crevices.

Diffusion and Distribution

Some of the earliest material culture studies, conducted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focused on the distribution of elements of material and nonmaterial culture. The British heliocentric diffusionist school of Grafton Elliot Smith and William J. Perry and the German/Austrian diffusionist school of Friedrich Ratzel, Fritz Graebner, Leo Frobenius, and Wilhelm Schmidt identified complexes or culture circles of material and nonmaterial culture traits and used migration and borrowing to account for cultural differences. Similarly the twentieth-century American anthropologists A. L. Kroeber ([1939] 1952), Clark Wissler (1914), and Harold Driver (1961) linked cultural traits—with material items figuring prominently—to geographical areas, yielding culture areas. Nonmaterial elements like kinship terminology and language were combined with material culture categories, such as housing types, crafts, and art, and were mapped across culture areas. Material items from the Arctic culture area, for example, might include igloos, kayaks, and ivory tools. The culture area approach still finds expression (Kehoe 2006) as an organizational principle for ethnological surveys. One notable continuation of diffusionist analysis is the early work of the folklorist Henry Glassie (1968), which, in the tradition of the geographer Fred Kniffen, traces the diffusion of vernacular buildings, musical instruments, and tools across the eastern United States. The focus on culture element distributions still finds representation in twenty-first-century cultural and material culture studies in the extensive ethnological and archaeological databases at Yale. Known as the Human Relation Area Files (HRAF), these were initially published in book form but are available on the Web by subscription (


Part of a much larger system, material culture can be viewed as performing certain systemic functions, such as fulfilling human needs or adapting to environmental change. Early twentieth-century functionalism, largely descriptive and static, was somewhat displaced during the 1960s by positivist and processual approaches, often fortified by conflict theory and cultural ecology. Processual archaeology seeks, by means of the hypothetico-deductive approach, to explain relationships within specific cultures as well as the evolutionary record across cultures. In a pioneering study Sally Binford and Lewis Binford (1969) employed factor analysis to relate clusters of tools to climate and environmental change. Susan Kent (1984) compared spatial patterning of domestic activity areas in Navajo, Euro-American, and Spanish American sites in the Southwest. William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (1992) contrasted what people presume to be in urban landfills with what really is there by means of laboratorybased quantification.

History, Art History, Architecture, and American Studies

Many material culture studies simultaneously examine art, folk art, history, and technology. For example, the Winterthur Museum and Country Estate has published numerous books and conference papers on material culture and the decorative arts, examining categories such as clocks, ceramics, glass, furniture, architecture, gardens, and silver. A collection of material culture studies edited by Ian Quimby (1978) illustrates this approach. J. Ritchie Garrison (1991) followed the approach of Fernand Braudel to the local, individual level when he tracked the development of wealth and social status in Franklin County, Massachusetts, through an analysis of crops, architecture, and farmsteads. Robert Thompson and Joseph Cornet (1981) combined field and informantbased data, study of museum collections, and documentary research to decipher the meanings and social context of maboondo, bottomless cylindrical vessels placed on some Ki-Kongo graves (in Zaire) to symbolize the wisdom of deceased leaders. The art historian Thompson finds echoes of this Ki-Kongo tradition in the seashells and mugs with broken-out bottoms found on some African American graves in the southeastern United States.

Material Culture as Communication System

Material culture, even when it appears to us as mere technology, communicates. Whatever culture needs or aspires to communicate or signal can be represented or reflected in material culture. Consider material culture as an alternative to spoken language and gesture—a medium less flexible but more enduring (McCracken 1987). Expressions and symbols of social and cultural identity, affiliation, role, rank, wealth, status, age, gender, values, and beliefs constitute a major area of interest for scholars of material culture. Material culture, from this perspective, can be thought of as providing a parallel record of a culture’s worldview, values, and beliefs. A study by the geographer Peter Hugill (1984) showed how material culture can communicate about and correlate with social indicators. Looking at the evolution of the landscape in the Cazenovia area of New York, Hugill revealed ways the old elite maintain status over the newly wealthy by means of a “full range of gestures in the ‘aesthetic-historicalgenealogical’ complex” (Hugill 1984, p. 29). Among that range of “gestures” are old homesteads infused with family history, something not readily attained by the newly wealthy. The creaky homes of the old elite proclaim a status beyond the purchasable.

Material culture systems may also be at variance with the nonmaterial, however. For example, language and material culture distributions do not necessarily predict each other (Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski 1992); likewise, in traditional societies ownership of modern material culture may fail to correlate with values of modernity (Robbins and Pollnac 1974). Furthermore, although material culture exists in a sense as doubly cultural—first as a pattern in minds, second as material representation— not all material culture communications are intentional or even consciously understood. The plain, unadorned cross of the Southern Baptist church and the Christ on the cross of Latin American Catholicism symbolize, respectively, the ethereal (risen) Pentecostal Christ and the earthbound, suffering Christ (Richardson 2003, p. 122)—but few churchgoers consciously register these theological messages.

Material Culture as Meaning and Cognition System

One prominent approach to meaning in social science, structuralism, emphasizes patterned cultural meanings and central symbols and focuses on cultural abstraction or culture as knowledge system. By contrast, symbolic interactionism investigates the active behavioral processes of socialization and the realm of social actors. Each yields different pictures when applied to material culture. Inspired by the work of the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the linguist Noam Chomsky, Henry Glassie (1975) analyzed vernacular Virginia houses and deduced a grammar of spatial proportion and function through which symbolic oppositions inherent in Western culture—such as natural/artificial and public/private—were expressed. The anthropologist Claire Farrer (1991) encountered expressions of the Mescalero Apache “base metaphor” throughout Apache culture, including in material forms, such as baskets, the tribal museum’s layout, and the Holy Lodge. Sunwise directionality, circularity, sound and silence, harmony and disharmony, colors, gender, and the number 4 are among the integrated symbolic qualities of the Apache base metaphor. (See Hodder 1982 for a host of structuralist-oriented material culture studies by archaeologists.)

As for the social interactionist perspective, one can point to Rhys Isaac, who, influenced by the sociologist Erving Goffman, conducted a dramaturgical analysis of an eighteenth-century Virginia house “Sabine Hall” and of a diary from the 1760s written by Colonel Landon Carter. From these two sources, Isaac reconstructed webs of social relationships and daily rituals. Sabine Hall and its spaces appear as a stage with props, part of the material “definition of the situation” conditioning social action in eighteenth-century daily dramas. In a similar vein Miles Richardson (1987; see also Low 2000), influenced by the work of Goffman and the philosopher George Herbert Mead, contrasted the preliminary definitions of the situation and socially generated meanings of contemporary markets and plazas in Spanish America and then, guided by the concept of artifact as “collapsed act,” outlined how archaeologists might rediscover the lost social world of a burial mound.

Akin to structuralism and symbolic interactionism is what is sometimes called cognitivism. For cognitivist archaeologists the question is: How did people of the past think? Through inferences drawn largely from the analysis of material culture, archaeologists reconstruct cultural thought processes. At Pincevent and other French sites of the Magdalenian age, C. Karlin and M. Julien (1994) found evidence of stages of “apprenticeship” in regard to lithic stone tool–making ability, which may reveal age and skill-level communication within a system of groups.

Material Culture as Commodity System

A universal category of human experience, exchange, incorporates material culture in both economic and symbolic ways. The work of two scholars, Igor Kopytoff and Daniel Miller, exemplifies the focus on exchange in material culture studies. If one follows their trajectories, things accumulate their own biographies just as people do, Kopytoff (1986) has suggested. One process Kopytoff has identified, commoditization, brings a wide range of objects into the orbit of one common exchange medium, such as money. But commoditization, as convenient and expansive as it tends to be, may threaten other social interests; hence some objects may undergo the nearly opposite process of singularization in order to be protected from commoditization. An artist’s commoditized painting is bought and sold half a dozen times; after the artist becomes famous, the painting is purchased by a museum and becomes, at least temporarily, singularized.

For his part, Miller challenged the common assumption that globalization is an entirely homogenizing process. In his 1998 study of Coca-Cola in Trinidad, he observed that Coca-Cola furnished only one of several ways of preparing locally defined and preferred “black sweet drinks” (such as rum and Coke). The powerful locally owned distributor of Coca-Cola followed its own strategy—not Coca Cola’s—when it came to marketing.

Agency and Power

Some analysts treat material culture as taken for granted or received (as with nonmaterial culture). Others, however, see material culture as imbued with the power to direct human thought and behavior or to reinforce class, gender, or other inequalities (McGuire and Paynter 1991). Inverting the Hegelian dialectic, Karl Marx set the stage for the materialist analysis of technology and material culture by proclaiming, “It is not the articles made, but how they are made, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs” (Marx [1887] 1967, p. 180). Marx incorporated the evolutionary scheme of Lewis Henry Morgan ([1887] 1985) to extend into prehistory the relations of modes of production, and in the process he provided an enduring model for Soviet archaeology, material culture studies, American cultural materialism (see Harris 1979), and of course numerous versions of conflict theory and critical theory. Continuing in this materialist vein and informed also by the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel ([1967] 1973, 1977) has traced the history of evolving relationships, on a worldwide scale, between economics and material culture categories, such as towns, housing, motive power sources (steam engines, water wheels, etc.), food, and money.

In his study of the material culture of seventeenththrough nineteenth-century Annapolis, the archaeologist Paul Shackel (1993) argued that clocks, scientific instruments, and items such as individual dinner plates, knives, forks, and spoons all enforce “discipline” and etiquette systems. At first only owned by the elite, clocks and scientific instruments such as telescopes served to “measure” time. Because it is measured, time can be made to appear as if it exists externally in nature rather than being a human construct; clocks then are used to set discipline parameters for everyday life, such as the beginning of a factory shift or a unit of pay (the hourly wage). Eventually all people come to possess clocks and to conceptualize time as located in nature.

Not all such analysis derives from conflict theory. In his evaluation of New York City public parks and plazas, the sociologist William Whyte (1980) documented the power of spatial layout and architecture to either invite or repel users. Places to sit, sun, shade, and water (in fountains and pools) invite human presence; fences, walls too high to sit on, immovable and uncomfortable benches, or threatening signs repel.

Contested Material Culture

As mentioned in the above discussion of agency, analysts of material culture frequently draw on conflict theory and deconstruction theory (in anthropology the latter is sometimes referred to as post-structuralism). A collection of essays edited by Christopher Tilley (1990) explores ways the work of deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault might be applied to archaeology. Deconstruction places social power and systems of control front and center, and not surprisingly, material culture is very much taken into consideration. John Dorst (1989) detailed the properties of postmodern life represented by material culture found in the booths and exhibits of the annual Chadds Ford Days living history fair. As the visitors moved through the exhibits at the fair, observing and purchasing souvenirs, they marked or enacted difference and engaged the fair’s “controlling image” of the late-eighteenth-century domestic sphere. At Chadds Ford the struggle to legitimize and represent the social order manifested itself at several levels: as a competition between the Brandywine River Museum, the Historical Society, and the Chris Sanderson Museum and on the landscape itself, where the projected nostalgic images of the Wyeth school wrestled with the suburban dream.

Courtney Workman (2001) documented the tortured politics surrounding a statue, The Woman Movement, designed by Adelaide Johnson in 1921 and portraying Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownwall Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. On display briefly in the rotunda of the Capitol building, it was then removed to a basement closet, where it resided until 1997 in spite of numerous lobbying efforts over the years. The National Political Congress of Black Women sought to block relocation, demanding that Sojourner Truth first be added to an unfinished part of the monument. Even the way material culture is represented by archaeologists to archaeologists may be contested; for example, Janet Spector (1993) attempted to correct the underrepresentation of women’s presence and activities in the archaeological record of a Wahpeton Dakota village.

“Experience-Near” Material Culture

Material culture can also be presented in a way that is “experience-near,” to use Clifford Geertz’s term—that is, from the perspective of those who create it or experience it firsthand. Folklorist Simon Bronner helps one to encounter the “evidence of tangible things” (1986, p. 1) whether it’s entering a house, making turtle soup, or carving gravemarkers. Henry Glassie’s (1999) sensitive reporting allows one to enter into the mind of Hagop Barin, a Turkish Oriental carpet restorer working in Istanbul and Philadelphia. For Hagop, the good rugs evoke memories, create a mood and a feel. They are not just rugs but works of art with the hearts and thoughts of their creators woven into them.


Material culture can be analyzed from many perspectives. Its study is pursued by many disciplines both within and outside of the social sciences: anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, folklore/folklife, history, American studies, geography, cultural history, historic preservation, museology, and sociology. What is common to these perspectives and disciplines? For all, material culture serves as the principal source of data (Deetz 1977, p. 10). Material culture is habitually contrasted and related to nonmaterial culture. Space/time/culture boundaries are relaxed and transcended, such that material culture from any time, place, or culture becomes an object of interest. The focus is on comprehending material culture for its cultural and social significance, not on objects as things to be assessed, possessed, or appreciated. Material culture constitutes a “supercategory of objects,” to apply differently a term employed by Victor Buchli (Buchli 2002, p. 6). Surprisingly, even as disciplines, schools, and perspectives proliferate, those studying that supercategory of objects, material culture, appear to readily cross disciplinary lines and read and cite each other’s work (see Lubar and Kingery 1993; Miller 1998; Reynolds and Stott 1987; Richardson 1974; Schlereth 1982).


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