Material Culture in Sociology: Definition, Studies & Examples

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  • 0:08 Material Culture
  • 3:04 Material Culture Studies
  • 6:00 Examples
  • 9:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we look at the study of material objects, and how they take on meaning in a culture. You'll learn about insights that can be gained by studying material culture and consider examples, such as cell phones, bicycles, and the Stanley Cup trophy.

Material Culture

Material culture includes the objects or belongings of human beings, including a wide range of physical items. Just about anything you can see, feel or touch that is not human has the potential to be an item of material culture. Architecture, photographs, documents, artwork, gardens, a can of soda or the electronic device you are using to read this lesson are all examples. Some theorists argue that entire cities and the surrounding geography are elements of material culture. Even human motion, such as dance, may be described as material in that it has shape and a physical form.

Studying the physical objects of a culture gives us a better understanding and appreciation for the complex lives of the people who interacted with those objects. Material culture provides us insight into nonmaterial culture, which includes the ideas, beliefs, habits and values of a people. While an object starts off as simply a physical item, over time it comes to represent nonmaterial and symbolic aspects of a culture. For some, a can of soda may represent an epidemic of obesity, while for others, it may be viewed as a fun and pleasurable drink.

In the past, some early historians, archeologists, anthropologists and museum directors had a way of presenting material culture that showed their ethnocentrism, the tendency for one culture to view itself as superior to another and to judge the other culture by one's own values. For instance, a British explorer visiting a society in Africa might have returned from his travels with an African mask that held spiritual significance to those who created it. Instead of viewing it as having cultural significance of its own, the explorer may have labeled it as an example of the culture being 'backward.' He viewed it as an inferior form of expression, despite the complex and nuanced meanings given to the mask by the culture that created it.

In academic disciplines, the practice of simply taking objects of material culture from other places and judging them in an ethnocentric way is no longer accepted. We are more interested in preserving cultural heritage than at other times in history, which requires us to observe aspects of material culture without judging them based on our own society's standards. This practice of viewing a culture based on its own standards is known as cultural relativism. As best as they can, scholars today aim to study the material items as a way to learn more about another culture rather than to use them to promote ethnocentric ideas about their own culture.

Material Culture Studies

While the study of the culture of human beings started in the fields of anthropology and archaeology, material culture studies has also emerged as a discipline in its own right. The scholars that work in all of these fields ask questions about the changing meaning of objects over time, the details of an artifact such as when and where it was created and the influence a material item had on the people in that society.

If a material culture scholar hundreds of years from now were studying the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the United States, he would notice something interesting about our material culture during this time. He could see through physical artifacts and documentation how we went from larger electronic machines (computers that could fill a room) to smaller and smaller devices (personal computers and cell phones). These devices then took on new shapes and designs (such as laptops and tablets) and even became a pair of eyewear (Google glass). The scholar would explore what impact these developments had on our society, what challenges we faced as a result of the new technologies and what meaning we derived from the items.

Studies in material culture have revealed several key concepts that the field still uses today to help understand what is happening when it considers the impact of a physical object on its culture. In 1957, William F. Ogburn discussed his theory of cultural lag. He pointed out how it takes time after a material item is invented until the people of that society see it as a normal component of their world and that conflicts and challenges may arise during this period. Another way to describe cultural lag is a type of maladjustment that a culture has when a material item is still new, and the people of that culture have not yet fully utilized and integrated the new material item into everyday life in a functional way.

Ogburn pointed out the process in which a material item takes on nonmaterial meaning as part of a culture, with an associated set of ideas, beliefs and practices. He noted that over time a technology is diffused, or spread throughout a culture as well as from one culture to another, often on a global scale. This study of technology now helps us look at specific areas, such as the evolution of early cell phones into smart phones, and what meaning and ideas we attach to these items as a culture.

Other theorists have applied the concepts of material culture to a broad range of topics, from comparing different types of buildings to one another, to viewing a city as its own 'object,' to exploring how gender relates to material culture.

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