Materialism & Material Culture: Definitions & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Materialism
  • 1:35 Extrinsic and…
  • 2:44 Materialism and…
  • 3:35 The Study of Material Culture
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Our lives and environments are filled with objects and material goods, but how often do we really consider what they mean? Learn about the role of objects in cultures and societies, and explore examples of their significance.

Definition of Materialism

When you look around the room, what do you see? If you're at home, you might see photos, books, and personal mementos. If you happen to be studying at the library, you probably see books, tables, chairs, and computers. Most of these objects were probably mass produced and if lost or destroyed, they can be replaced. While we tend to think of these objects as just things, they're actually more important than many people realize.

In the social sciences, materialism is a philosophy that places a high value on objects, usually considering them more valuable than experiences or personal relationships. The term often carries negative connotations and is frequently applied to people who believe buying things or acquiring wealth will make them happy. For instance, a person who feels depressed or unimportant might decide that if they had a big house or expensive car, people would pay more attention to them or believe that they were important.

In reality, the link between happiness and materialism is complicated and somewhat murky. On one hand, simply buying things in an effort to become happier is not only ineffective, but it might also have a negative effect on a person's well-being. For example, someone who believes having more things will make them happier or raise their social status can put themselves into serious debt in pursuit of their objective, which will ultimately make them less happy. On the other hand, people who spend money on things that are meaningful or facilitate experiences or personal relationships do tend to be happier.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

The big difference between these two approaches isn't necessarily the buying or acquiring, it's what is being bought and why. Spending to have, such as buying things like fancy cars or expensive clothes, is often driven by extrinsic motivation. This means that the person is attempting to meet an expectation or definition of value set by others, like what they may see on television or in movies. This approach tends to be unsuccessful because the meaning and importance of the act or object doesn't come from within the individual and is therefore unlikely to fulfill the person's desires.

On the other end of the spectrum is spending to do, which is generally driven by intrinsic motivation. This can be described as spending money on things that will get you closer to your personal goals, regardless of what other people think of them. For example, if you've always wanted to become a professional guitarist, buying a guitar will probably make you happy because it's bringing you one step closer to fulfilling your dream. If, on the other hand, you had bought that guitar because you thought that it would make people think highly of you, it probably wouldn't make you happier because it's just another thing in your house that you may or may not end up using.

Materialism and Material Culture

All of the objects and goods produced by a culture or society fall into a broad category known as material culture. This includes all the creative products like paintings, literature, or records, but it also includes the mass-produced objects like televisions, furniture, and computers. It is literally every object that a culture produces. Yet the idea of material culture is less about the objects themselves than it is about how those objects are used and what they mean to the people who created or used them. For example, in the field of archaeology, scholars and researchers spend much of their time studying the objects and architecture of ancient cultures and societies. One of the ways in which they do that is to study the material artifacts that they find, paying particularly close attention to how they were used within that culture.

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