26 Oct

Material Culture Not Consumer Culture

Posted By Politybooks

In our second ‘ask an expert’ session,  Daniel Miller (Professor of Anthropology at UCL) writes about the importance of studying ‘stuff’ to understanding human relationships, and what sociologists can learn from anthropology.

I want to suggest that one of the main problems with the study of things in sociology is that it is almost inevitably subsumed under the study of consumption. As a result it’s almost impossible to discuss the place of material culture outside of the critique of consumption: that, quite apart from its impact on climate change, modern mass consumption is just so wasteful, immoral, materialistic, hedonistic; mostly it’s a plot by capitalism to get people to do things they don’t want to do, have stuff they don’t want to have; it’s superficial and usually fattening. Climate change then becomes just one more stick to beat consumption. The very word ‘consumption’ means to be used up, burnt, have tuberculosis – consumption is not good.

By contrast, I study material culture within anthropology, and our first point of departure has historically been things like stone tools, canoe prows, textiles and pottery. This has tended to be seen as either morally neutral or – given its affinity to the arts – an expression of human creativity rather than of human destruction. It’s not that I want to detract from concern with climate change, but I don’t think we are going to be able to do much about consumption until we first try to empathetically engage with what goods actually do for people. To summarise my own approach, I think that what matters to most people is the quality of their relationships, and these may equally be relationships to people and to things. Objects help us create relationships to family and friends, and my most recent study was of how objects help us deal with the loss of people through death or divorce.

But there are also just the relationships to things we care about as things: homes, clothes, gardens, iPods and heirlooms. When psychoanalysts talk of object relations they invariably mean relationships to people. This is a pity. There is wealth of material culture studies out there which can help us understand the centrality in people’s lives of their relationships to and through things themselves.

Emma asks: It seems like material culture plays a much bigger part in society now than it ever did before. Do you think that there are any social benefits of an increasingly material culture? Do they outweigh any negative effects?

We sometimes forget that the increase in material culture is seen in most parts of the world as the acquisition of ‘wealth’ and escape from poverty, and that is simply because these material things facilitate a life most people feel they are otherwise deprived of. It is not easy to tell people they are deluded by a false promise, especially when in practice those from richer countries use this wealth of things at the same time that they condemn them. That is why we need to separate out harm to the planet from a more ambiguous asceticism, or ‘doing without’. But ultimately the end of poverty does not outweigh the destruction of the planet.

Andrea asks: Anthropology reveals fascinating insights into the world and people around us. Do you think you have to be naturally ‘nosy’ to be an anthropologist, or is it something that you develop as a skill within the job?

I think being interested in other people is a usual rather than an unusual trait, but then so is the desire not to be intrusive. What the anthropologist should develop is firstly a sensitivity that means you need to treat each person differently according to how they seem to find you, and secondly the ability to reassure people they will be protected by anonymity and other devices. But in the end most people are delighted to find someone with apparently endless patience when it comes to listening to their stories.

Daniel’s new book, Stuff , is a manifesto for the study of material culture and a new way of looking at the objects that surround us and make up so much of our social and personal life.