Object Lessons: When Scholars Study Physical Stuff

As a historian, I’m interested in lifestyles of the past. I enjoy studying people’s possessions and everyday life. You would think that a concern with material culture—a fancy term for the physical objects used and produced by humans—has always been central to the discipline of history, but that’s not the case. It turns out that when historians and other scholars get interested in people’s physical stuff, things get very philosophical very quickly. 


In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a set of academic trends popularly known as the “cultural turn” stimulated the interest of scholars across the humanities disciplines in the role of culture in historical processes. An egalitarian impulse inspired by Marxism led historians to consider the quotidian lives of women, slaves, peasants, and other marginalized actors to be just as significant as the political lives of dead white men. As historians began to care more about cultural production, everyday life, sex, and other topics, they turned to non-traditional sources when written documents were silent on the themes they wished to investigate. Historical study became more synthetic as scholars sought a more complete, integrated picture of the life of past societies.

But the academic preoccupation with material culture stretches far beyond the discipline of history. Material culture studies is a child of the Enlightenment-era fascination with the trappings of material life. The great museums in Europe and America also arose from this preoccupation, and their halls were home to the first practitioners of a new discipline called anthropology. In the eighteenth century, the first museum collections furnished proof of knowledge about, and contact with, exotic foreign peoples. The term “material culture” made its first appearance later, in the nineteenth century, when in Britain, the phrase became virtually synonymous with the discipline of anthropology itself. In the late nineteenth century, the study of material culture also became associated with another discipline that had arisen from the eighteenth-century fascination with ancient cultures: archaeology.

Ironically, while Marxism had helped give new impetus to material culture studies early in the twentieth century, a few decades later, the rise of British social anthropology (also inspired by Marxism) almost caused the study of material culture to be abandoned altogether. Social anthropologists considered kinship and social structure to be of more fundamental importance than physical objects. Meanwhile, archaeologists, being stuck with nothing but material culture, developed their own “social archaeology,” which allowed them to read class struggle into little broken pieces of clay. (As an undergraduate, I was subjected to an entire very fat textbook on the social relations of ancient people whose existence is attested solely by bits of baked earth. It was horrible.) As a result, both archaeologists and social anthropologists came to understand material things as subordinate to social structures, which were considered the most basic element of human life.

The story gets more interesting in the late 1960s, when the “linguistic turn” inspired both archaeologists and anthropologists to start treating material objects as texts. Material culture took center stage once again, and it became fashionable to “read” material culture as a system of signs that could help scholars unlock the mysteries of culture. Ferdinand de Saussure’s model of semiotics taught that all signs are arbitrary, and some scholars used this to argue that language constructs reality. Accordingly, items of material culture became stand-ins for abstract concepts, and were valued for the symbolic role they played in social relations. When thinkers like Derrida were added to the mix, the arbitrary nature of signifiers meant that there was nothing outside the text. Accordingly, prominent material culture theorists like the Cambridge archaeologist Christopher Tilley began publishing books with titles like Reading Material Culture.


All this changed drastically in the late 1990s, when some archaeologists began to point out that the “material culture as text” paradigm tended to leave out something rather important: materiality. This is perhaps best illustrated in the evolution of Tilley’s own thought. He had argued in Reading Material Culture (1990) that material objects are given meaning by virtue of their interaction with other types of symbols (i.e., linguistic signs). By 1999, Tilley was arguing in Metaphor and Material Culture that meaning relates to the form and use of objects employed in ritual practice. His break with the linguistic model was evinced by the statement that “...material forms, unlike words, are not communicating meaning but actively doing something in the world.” Similarly, in a 2003 article, the Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen asked why the physical or “thingly” nature of things had been forgotten in so much recent scholarship. By this time, Tilley too was stating that words and things are fundamentally different, and that linguistic models obscure as much as they reveal about material forms. All the same, he acknowledged that since archaeologists are forced to think and write about things, the problem of language will not go away in material culture studies.

Tilley reasoned that to be human is to speak and also to make and use things, and that neither language nor material things has ontological primacy. Rather, material artifacts and linguistic forms are both modes of communication, and play complementary roles in social life. What links them together is that they are both products of an embodied mind—a mind that makes sense of the world through association with the body. This conception of humanity acting within the material world has been termed “mutualism,” and derives from the work of archaeologists George Herbert Mead (active in the 1930s) and James J. Gibson (1970s).

In her 2008 monograph Material Cultures, Material Minds, the archaeologist Nicole Boivin took these ideas to their logical conclusion. While she did not ignore or discredit the fact that the material world can and does symbolize abstract concepts, Boivin endowed material objects with agency pure and simple. Many archaeologists, including Tilley, and social anthropologists such as Alfred Gell, had contented themselves with giving objects a type of secondary or derivative agency dependent on the agency of humans. Boivin, by contrast, insisted on the non-arbitrariness of the sign, and this has huge implications for the study of culture in general. In her view, since human beings are themselves material objects, it doesn’t make sense to draw a line between the material and non-material in the study of culture. Even the most abstract ideas and concepts exist inside our physical brains. She ended her book by calling for a radical breakdown between the “hard” and “soft” or social sciences: since the mental and physical are totally integrated in the human person, then cognitive psychologists, historians, neuroscientists, and anthropologists all need to work together to understand the human person and human society.

How does the material object signify?

When archaeologists and anthropologists moved beyond linguistic models of material culture, they very quickly found themselves deep in philosophical territory. In a sense, things had been simpler when material culture was just a text. All scholars who work on material culture now agree that the endeavor is by definition interdisciplinary and integrative. The archaeologist Carl Knappet wrote that in order for material culture studies to move forward, scholars must address the question of the relationship between mind and matter, agent and artifact. Knappet argued that while different theorists have drawn the boundary between the symbolic/communicative and the practical/functional in different ways, the real task is to develop a theory that incorporates both. 

The most fundamental question here is, How does the material object signify? In order to answer this question, we must first first address questions such as the nature of matter, the nature of language, and the relationship between the two (not to mention the nature of the human person). Scholars who work on material culture now acknowledge the centrality of phenomenology and ontology to their theory and practice, but since few if any are trained philosophers, they are still trying to figure out where to go from here.

What does all this mean for my little blog? Many things, but perhaps most importantly, it means that the study of art and of design history should not be separated from the most fundamental questions of human existence. I hope this goes to show that, for historians just as much as archaeologists, material culture should not be a peripheral concern.