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Material Culture

A guide for historical study of the relationship between people and their things




Material culture is just what it says it is—namely, the manifestations of culture through material productions. And the study of material culture is the study of material to understand culture, to discover the beliefs—the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions—of a particular community or society at a given time. The underlying premise is that human-made objects reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of the individuals who commissioned, fabricated, purchased, or used them and, by extension, the beliefs of the large society to which these individuals belonged. Material culture is thus an object-based branch of cultural anthropology or cultural history.

What material do we study in material culture? Obviously we study things made by human beings—a hammer, a card table, a plow, a teapot, a microscope, a house, a painting, a city. But we also study natural objects that have been modified by human beings—stones arranged into a wall, a garden, a prepared meal, a tattooed body. We may even study unmodified natural objects . . . to understand better the relationship between the structure of human-made things and the structure of natural things in the physical universe in which we live.

— Jules David Prown, from "The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?" (1993)



Material culture refers to the physical aspects of a society, the objects made or modified by a human. These objects surround a people and its activities and are defined by their properties, be they chemical, physical, or biological. (Max M. Houck, Frank Crispino, and Terry McAdam, The Science of Crime Scenes)


Material culture is a term used in archaeology and other anthropology-related fields to refer to all the corporeal, tangible objects that are created, used, kept and left behind by past and present cultures. Material culture refers to objects that are used, lived in, displayed and experienced; and the terms includes all the things people make, including tools, pottery, houses, furniture, buttons, roads, even the cities themselves. (K. Kris Hirst, ThoughtCo)


Material culture includes the sum or inventory of the technology and material artefacts of a human group, including those elements related to subsistence activities as well as those which are produced for ornamental, artistic or ritual purposes. The study of material culture is linked on the one hand to archaeology, where the material evidence of the existence of a population is often the only data available on their culture, and on the other to the anthropology of art, music, dance, symbolism and ritual, and the anthropology of technological systems. (Charlotte Seymour-Smith, Dictionary of Anthropology


The study of material culture centers upon objects, their properties, and the materials that they are made of, and the ways in which these material facets are central to an understanding of culture and social relations. It challenges the historical division between the natural sciences as being the place for the study of the material world and the social sciences as being where society and social relations can be understood. Instead, culture and society are seen as being created and reproduced by the ways in which people make, design, and interact with objects. It also challenges the assumption, perpetuated by disciplinary divisions and also philosophical trajectories, that the object and subject are separate, wherein the latter is assumed to be immaterial, and the former is assumed to be inert and passive. (Sophie Woodward, Oxford Bibliographies)


Material culture is the generic term that summarizes and identifies all kinds of tangible things manufactured and modified by human beings, differentiated on their functions, uses, modes of production, materials, and consumption patterns. At times the terms art, artifact, commodity, craft, decorative art, domestic art, material history, museum specimen, object, plastic arts, physical history, specimen, and technology have been substituted for material culture; at other times they have been differentiated. Over the years the definition of material culture has expanded and contracted depending on research goals. The result has been that each generation of anthropologists has used the term slightly differently and the concept itself has gone in and out of style. These same interpretive processes and trends have held for historians, technologists, popular culture specialists, folklorists, cultural geographers, sociologists, and art historians as well. (Nancy J. Parezo, Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthology)


The concept of material culture is something of a contradiction in terms, since material culture is not culture, but its byproduct. Material culture properly connotes physical, tangible manifestations of culture and therefore embraces those segments of human learning and behavior which provide a person with plans, methods, and reasons for producing and using things that can be seen and touched. In this sense, material culture constitutes an abbreviation for all artifacts in a cultural context. (Thomas J. Schlereth, "American Studies and Things")