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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Subjects and Objects
  • Materials and Materiality
  • Methods
  • Making
  • Consumption
  • Exchange
  • Approaching Specific Genres
  • Display
  • Place

Anthropology Material Culture
Sophie Woodward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0085


The study of material culture centers upon objects, their properties, and the materials that they are made of, and the ways in which these material facets are central to an understanding of culture and social relations. It challenges the historical division between the natural sciences as being the place for the study of the material world and the social sciences as being where society and social relations can be understood. Instead, culture and society are seen as being created and reproduced by the ways in which people make, design, and interact with objects. It also challenges the assumption, perpetuated by disciplinary divisions and also philosophical trajectories, that the object and subject are separate, wherein the latter is assumed to be immaterial, and the former is assumed to be inert and passive. In seeing the material properties of things as central to the meanings an object might have, much work within material culture studies is critical of the idea that objects merely symbolize or represent aspects of a pre-existing culture or identity. A key area of contestation in the literature on material culture is the question of agency and the ways in which objects can produce particular effects or allow and permit certain behaviors or cultural practices. This is developed through the concept of objectification, which is central to many studies of material culture—albeit differently conceived dependent upon the disciplinary and theoretical stance taken—which explores the intertwined, and often dialectic, relationships between people and things. Those who study material culture are situated in a wide range of disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, design, and sociology. Although material culture studies cross many disciplines, there are still theories, methods, and perspectives that are firmly located within particular disciplines. Understandings of material culture have been central to anthropology since its inception; during the late 19th and early 20th century anthropologists primarily collected material culture (Kroeber, Boas) that was displayed in museums in Europe and North America. It was only with the start of ethnographic fieldwork that the study of the material culture became less important. This bibliography of material culture will not focus primarily upon the study of ethnographic museums (with the exception of the section on Display) but more on the so-called new material culture studies that have developed since the 1980s and that are characterized by combining ethnographic fieldwork and anthropological debate. Within this field, empirical research explores specific genres of material culture, such as food or clothing, and empirical and theoretical work extends this to consider categories of objects, such as gifts and commodities, as situated within wider systems of exchange. There is also a concern with how objects “move” between domains and different value systems as the practices and meanings surrounding physically changing objects themselves change.

General Overviews

Although understandings of material culture have a long history, they have often been implicit within ethnographic work, and as the dates of the texts selected here make apparent it is only more recently that these questions have been explicitly addressed. Handbooks and edited collections attempting to draw together key works or to introduce and overview the field have started to appear since the late 1990s. The Journal of Material Culture was created in 1996 and evidences the desire to provide a location for original material culture research. Buchli 2002, an edited collection, builds upon this, while attempting to more clearly explore the range of current anthropological approaches to material culture. A similar approach is taken in two handbooks that emerged in 2006 and 2010, Tilley, et al. 2006 and Hicks and Beaudry 2010; the Tilley, et al. 2006 edited handbook is very comprehensive in the amount of areas covered. Both handbooks are up to date on current stances in material culture understandings, and while they draw on different disciplines, both are particularly located and relevant to anthropology (and archaeology). Usefully, both point toward future directions in research rather than just consolidating the field. Henare, et al. 2007 attempts to forge a new direction in thinking through artifacts in ethnographic research. Alongside these edited collections, two single-authored books have been selected as useful summaries of the core ways in which material culture has been approached and also the implications of these approaches. Both Woodward 2007 and Dant 2007 provide useful overviews for students of the implications of looking at material culture for social theory and understandings of contemporary society.

  • Buchli, V., ed. 2002. The material culture reader. Oxford: Berg.

    Edited collection with topics ranging from visual culture to heritage to consumption; it draws together the work associated with the Material Culture Group at University College London. Suitable as an introduction to the field for undergraduate and postgraduate students and also those researching in the field.

  • Dant, T. 2007. Material culture in the social world. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    Introduction to the themes and theories of material culture and their relevance for sociology; especially suitable for sociology undergraduates.

  • Henare, A., Holbraad, M., and Wastell, S., eds. 2007. Thinking through things: Theorising artefacts ethnographically. London: Routledge.

    Edited collection of global ethnographic encounters that, taken together, adopt the approach of thinking through things—developing theory through objects encountered in the field.

  • Hicks, D., and M. Beaudry, eds. 2010. The Oxford handbook of material culture studies. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    It includes twenty-eight chapters written by experts from a range of disciplines; however, rather than celebrate the interdisciplinarity of material culture studies, this handbook highlights discipline-specific positions. It is of particular interest to anthropology and archaeology researchers and students.

  • Journal of Material Culture.

    Founded in 1996. Published by SAGE and based in material culture at University College London (managing editors); includes wide ranging interdisciplinary research into material culture broadly conceived.

  • Tilley, C., W. Keane, S. Küchler, M. Rowlands, and P. Spyer, eds. 2006. Handbook of material culture. London: SAGE.

    It includes thirty-three chapters by experts from a wide range of disciplines and it considers core theoretical perspectives through empirical examples. It highlights future research directions as well as “looking back”; suited to material culture researchers and students.

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

    An introduction to material culture, drawing together interdisciplinary research; it includes suggested further readings and is particularly useful for undergraduate students of material culture.

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