In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Material Culture

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Textbooks
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Material Culture
  • Material Qualities and Affordances
  • Production and Reception of Cultural Objects
  • Objects as Agentic
  • Objects, Technology, and Knowledge
  • Objects, Bodies, and Embodied Knowledge
  • Categorization and Morality
  • Icons and Aesthetics
  • (De)Stabilizing Social Relations
  • Objects, Institutions, and the State
  • Space, Place, and Infrastructure

Sociology Material Culture
Terence E. McDonnell, Kelcie Vercel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0203


Beginning with many of its earliest writings, sociology has a long tradition of theorizing the role of objects and material culture in social life. In the middle of the 20th century, these themes were taken up again by major sociological and anthropological thinkers who inspired a resurgence of interest in the study of objects. The sociology of culture and art began to address the production and reception of objects, while scholars from anthropology, cultural studies, and media studies began to develop a robust body of work around material culture. These two fields have somewhat different takes on the study of objects. Sociological accounts tend to be people focused, examining how institutional characteristics of art worlds shape the objects produced, and focusing explanations of meaning-making on the social position of the audience more so than the symbolic qualities of the object. Alternatively, material culture approaches tend to be object focused, engaging objects as symbols that help explain how people organize subcultures, create solidarity through exchange, or express social status. A turn toward materiality, originating from anthropology but taken up more recently in sociology, privileges the material qualities of objects and how they shape the use and symbolic meaning of objects. This work on objects raises the question of how sociologists should incorporate objects into accounts of action. This question has sparked an ongoing cross-disciplinary debate about whether objects have agency. Research in science and technology studies, alongside studies of craft and sport, have brought attention to how objects act back, shaping how knowledge is produced. Objects have also been understood as mechanisms of power, by shaping categories and morality, ritualizing icons, stabilizing social relations as instruments of the states and institutions, and structuring action through the built environment. These robust and vibrant areas of research make a strong case for the incorporation of objects into theories of power and knowledge.

Journals and Textbooks

A number of journals from diverse fields have set the standard for work on material culture, namely the Journal of Material Culture; Science, Technology, and Human Values; the Journal of Consumer Culture; Social Studies of Science; and Environment and Planning. Cultural Sociology and Theory, Culture, and Society are two cultural sociology-oriented journals that also publish on material culture. For a textbook, see Woodward 2007, Understanding Material Culture.

  • Cultural Sociology.

    First published in 2007, Cultural Sociology is an official journal of the British Sociological Association. Published quarterly, it features research concerning the sociological analyses of culture.

  • Environment and Planning.

    Environment and Planning comprises four interdisciplinary journals that focus on urban planning, the built environment, infrastructure, and human geography. Of particular interest is Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, though all four have published research of interest to scholars of material culture.

  • Journal of Consumer Culture.

    This interdisciplinary journal is published three times per year. The Journal of Consumer Culture was first published in 2001, and features work on consumption and consumer culture.

  • Journal of Material Culture.

    The Journal of Material Culture was first published in 1996. Based in the United Kingdom, this interdisciplinary journal features research on the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Published quarterly.

  • Science, Technology, and Human Values.

    First published in 1976, Science, Technology, and Human Values is the journal of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Published bimonthly, it features articles in the field of science and technology studies.

  • Social Studies of Science.

    This highly ranked, bimonthly journal was first published in 1971. Social Studies of Science is a multidisciplinary journal that features social analyses of science, technology, and medicine.

  • Theory, Culture, and Society.

    Publishes original work on the relations between culture and society. First published in 1982, it appears bimonthly.

  • Woodward, Ian. 2007. Understanding material culture. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446278987

    A textbook that provides a helpful and coherent organization of the field. It brings perspectives from a diversity of disciplines and scholars into dialogue, and offers summary key points and recommendations for further reading.

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