Just Sociology

Exploring Material Culture Theory: Objects Power and Society

Material culture theory is a comprehensive field of study that involves analyzing the interconnection between social life and objects. This theory is concerned with the role things play in society and how they interact with people’s habits, dispositions, and everyday practices.

Material culture theorists assume that objects are not neutral and that their meanings and values are culturally produced. This article will discuss the major themes in material culture theory, including the importance of social interaction and communication with things, the contradiction and agency in the process of making and using things, the relationship between empowerment and constraint in material culture, and the role of money in shaping people’s experiences of objects.

The Role of Things in Society

Material culture theory is concerned with understanding the social functions of things. In particular, theorists examine how people interact with, use, and attach meanings to objects.

For example, cars are often seen as status symbols in Western societies and are used to convey wealth and power. However, in some Aboriginal cultures, cars are used primarily for transportation and are not considered to have any symbolic value.

Material culture theorists argue that objects have the power to shape our environment and the way we view the world around us.

The Importance of Social Interaction and Communication with Things

One of the major themes in material culture theory is the importance of social interaction and communication with things. Material culture helps to construct people’s identities, and objects play a critical role in this process.

Every object communicates something about its owner, and these objects are used to define social boundaries and differentiate between groups of people. For example, the clothes that someone wears can indicate their social status, interests, and occupation.

The Power of Things and the Humility of Things

Material culture theorists argue that objects have power and that they can shape the way we live our lives. Marxism posits that the power of things is related to capitalism and the market economy.

In a capitalist society, things like fashion, housing, and cars are used to create distinctions between social classes. However, material culture theorists also caution against overestimating the power of things.

They suggest that objects are not always able to determine people’s lives and can be used in unexpected and even subversive ways. For example, the Kula Ring, a trade system in the Trobriand Islands, is an example of how objects can be used to empower disenfranchised groups of people.

Contradiction and Agency in the Process of Making and Using Things

Material culture theorists recognize that the process of making and using things is not straightforward. In particular, they argue that there is always a dialectical process between objects and the people who use them.

People are both empowered and disempowered by objects, and these objects can be both constraining and liberating. For example, fashion trends can be empowering, as they allow people to express their individuality and creativity.

However, when fashion becomes tied to consumerism and the market economy, it can become constraining.

Empowerment via Material Culture

While objects can be constraining, they can also be empowering. In particular, objects can be used in social interaction to empower oneself.

Wealthy individuals may use objects like fashion to create distinctions between themselves and others, and this can lead to a sense of power and agency. Objects can also be empowering by providing people with a sense of identity and community.

For example, individuals who are part of a particular subculture may use objects like clothing, music, and art to communicate their membership in that group.

Constraints Created by Material Culture

While objects can be empowering, they can also create unanticipated constraints. Objects are often used to control people, and this can result in people feeling powerless and unable to act.

For example, period property regulations in the UK have made it difficult for people to renovate and modernize their homes. The constraints created by these regulations limit people’s agency and freedom.

The Relationship between Money and Material Culture

An important aspect of material culture theory is the relationship between money and material culture. Money is often seen as a liberating force that allows people to buy the things they want and express their individuality.

However, there is also a relationship between money and class. High-income earners may use material culture to express their wealth and status, while less affluent individuals may lack the resources to purchase the objects they desire.

Additionally, uneducated individuals may be more susceptible to the power of objects and the market economy.

Conclusion

Material culture theory is a complex field of study that explores the relationship between people and objects. Objects play a critical role in social interaction and communication, and they have the power to shape the way we live our lives.

While objects can be empowering, they can also create constraints and limit people’s agency. Material culture theory offers valuable insights into the way we interact with objects and how they shape our experiences.

In conclusion, material culture theory provides a nuanced understanding of the relationship between objects and society. Objects are not neutral and play a significant role in identity construction, boundary maintenance, and power relations.

While objects can be empowering, they can also create constraints and limit people’s agency. Ultimately, material culture theory offers valuable insights into the way we interact with objects and the impact they have on our lives.

F.A.Q:

Q: What is material culture theory? A: Material culture theory is a field of study that explores the relationship between people and objects.

Q: What is the role of objects in society? A: Objects play a critical role in social interaction and communication, and they have the power to shape the way we view the world around us.

Q: How do objects help construct identities? A: Objects communicate something about their owner, and they are used to define social boundaries and differentiate between groups of people.

Q: Are objects always empowering? A: No, while objects can be empowering, they can also create constraints and limit people’s agency.

Q: What is the relationship between money and material culture? A: Money is often used to buy objects and express individuality, but high-income earners may use material culture to assert their wealth and status.

Q: Can objects be subversive? A: Yes, material culture theorists suggest that objects can be used in unexpected and even subversive ways by disenfranchised groups of people.

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