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41. Material culture


A material cultures approach can help us understand how often unremarked ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ shape our everyday lives

The historical division of academic disciplines into the natural and social sciences meant that the focus of a discipline such as sociology was society and social relations, whilst the natural sciences were concerned with ‘nature’ and materials. With the ‘material turn’ in the social sciences, this disciplinary division has been problematised as the separation between nature and culture, the social and the material have been questioned.

One tradition that has pursued this agenda has been Actor-Network Theory, which developed out of social studies of science and technology in the 1980s. ANT argues that the conceptual division between society and nature/materials actually obscures much of what is most interesting about our world – especially its dependence upon endless hybrid interconnections between humans and nonhumans. To dislodge this, ANT encourages us to recognise that it is not only humans that have ‘agency’, but also nonhumans – objects, materials, technologies and natural systems – have agency too, which often shape social organisation and  relations. Richie Nimmo has drawn upon these ideas in his work on the socio-material history of the UK dairy industry in order to trace the role of shifting human-nonhuman interrelations in the modernisation of milk production and consumption infrastructures.

Another influential area of thinking that has changed the way the relations between things and people are approached draws from anthropological approaches to material culture. These approaches highlight that things are not passive vessels to be filled with human meanings, but rather, through their material properties, things and materials bring about effects and allow particular cultural and social meanings to emerge. This has been applied to diverse sociological fields, most notably the field of consumption, including Sophie Woodward’s work on clothing and fashion, which explores how things and people are mutually constituted. Identities cannot simply be expressed through clothing as people develop their sense of self and relationship to others through their relations to things.

Further reading

Woodward, S. 2007. Why Women Wear What they Wear. Oxford: Berg.



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