Anthropology Materiality
by
Elana Resnick
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0277

Introduction

Materiality is the study of objects and their relationships to and in social life. This bibliography overlaps with others in this series, including that on “Material Culture.” Materiality is both its own form and method of study, but also an umbrella category for a variety of anthropological topics, including infrastructure, toxicity, bodily exposures, waste, religion, and publics. This piece focuses on two themes central to analyses of materiality: (1) invisibility and (2) awareness. The question of invisibility centers on the crucial importance of objects in social life because they are so naturalized that we cannot see them. Awareness, conversely, is founded upon a refutation of the premise that materiality is in many ways invisible. As such, work focusing on awareness contends that materiality is a knowable, visible, and life-altering component of the social landscape. The question of what is material and what is immaterial underlies the study of materiality, as it, like material culture studies, challenges divisions between “natural” and “social” worlds. This entry puts forth a more critical approach to materiality, which for decades has been the so-called canon of predominantly white and male authors who ostensibly became the figures associated with “materiality studies,” while scholars of color and women who focused on materiality-in-practice were considered to be scholars of the topics they studied (waste, race, bodies, exposures, etc.). This harkens back to similar historic divides in anthropology regarding who does “theory” and who does “ethnography.” Rather than reconstitute those power dynamics of legitimation, this entry brings more traditionally canonized work on materiality into discussion with work that has been categorized by topic instead of by theoretical framework or intervention.

General Overviews and Edited Collections

The following overviews are helpful, but some also serve to cement the exact problematic canonization addressed earlier. For that reason this section is purposefully brief. These overviews are by no means the only foundational works on the theme of materiality, but are rather the overview works that deal with materiality explicitly. Bennett 2010 adds the term “vital” to materiality and frames a new way of thinking about human/nonhuman assemblages. Key texts in this section have produced the theoretical frameworks from which a great deal of materiality accounts draw, including Tilley, et al. 2006; Miller 1987; and Miller 2005. Other work in this section—like de Wolff 2018; Drazin and Küchler 2015; and sections of Tilley, et al. 2006—provide a mix of empirical case studies that help elucidate how materiality as a theoretical framework gets used in scholarly ethnographic and cultural analyses.

  • Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822391623Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A theoretical account of “vital materiality” that encompasses human and nonhumans alike through the lens of distributed agency.

  • de Wolff, Kim. 2018. Materiality. Fieldsights (29 March).

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    This brief piece focuses on materiality by addressing “materials of human design” in order to ask: “How can we think materially with and for ethnographic design?” It addresses this question through the example of plastic and emphasizes “afterlives instead of uses” to encourage a scholarly focus on responsibility for how material things are designed. This serves as a good entry-point for work on materiality and waste.

  • Drazin, Adam, and Susanne Küchler. 2015. The social life of materials: Studies in materials and society. London: Bloomsbury.

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    Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things (1986), this edited volume brings into interdisciplinary conversation the role of material properties and substances beyond the category of the object. It is an inclusive set of thirteen interdisciplinary case studies that addresses the relationships between people and different materials across varied contexts and locations.

  • Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Miller addresses material culture and society by focusing on how people and things constitute each other in foundational texts, moving from Hegel to Marx, Munn, and Simmel.

  • Miller, Daniel. 2005. Materiality. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822386711Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A foundational and much-cited book on materiality as a conceptual framework that includes a variety of theoretical approaches through case studies from a number of authors writing about technology, theology, art, finance, and politics. The major aim of the book is to think through and move beyond the dualism of subjects and objects through a multi-authored approach to materiality as a concept, practice, theoretical intervention, and ethnographic framework.

  • Tilley, Christopher, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Michael Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer, eds. 2006. Handbook of Material Culture. London: SAGE.

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    Title focuses on “material culture” but book engages materiality broadly through a variety of case studies and approaches. Interdisciplinary approach that does not differentiate fully between material culture and materiality with key chapters that help differentiate between the two concepts.

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