Understanding Material Culture

By Ian Woodward. 2007. London: Sage Publications. 200 pages. ISBN: 9780761942252 (hard cover), 9780761942269 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Simon Bronner, Missouri University of Science and Technology

[Review length: 1113 words • Review posted on May 29, 2008]


A book with material culture in the title these days has to have a folkloristic connection, right? And especially one that purports to be a “review of the ways of studying the material as culture” (vi), right? After all, don’t folklorists boast an intellectual legacy dating back to the nineteenth century in drawing attention to material traditions in complex industrialized societies that historians and anthropologists were wont to pass over? And since the mid-twentieth century, don’t the names of Yoder, Fife, Roberts, Glassie, and Jones (Louis and Michael Owen) merit citation in any consideration of “an examination and synthesis of classical and contemporary scholarship on objects…” (vi)? Buyer beware, they are noticeably absent from this survey. But wait. The author also claims to be indebted to the “recent round of material culture studies that has emanated from London” (vi). Well all right, what about the folklife pioneers of the British Isles who joined European colleagues in fashioning a “regional ethnology”? That list would include Iorworth Peate, Estyn Evans, Trefor Owen, Geraint Jenkins, and Alexander Fenton, who developed a theoretical orientation toward the importance of land and community in the maintenance of tradition. Well, they are not in this primer either.

Who are the figures on whose shoulders we should understand material culture, according to Woodward? He invokes a “cultural sociological perspective” which sounds distinctive disciplinarily, except that the goals of this perspective sure sound familiar to folklorists, and well before some recent upsurge out of London. He describes it as a “desire to understand social life through the application of structural and hermeneutic approaches to capture discourses, narratives, codes and symbols which situate objects, along with their interpretation, symbolic manipulation and individual performance within a variety of social contexts” (vi-vii). But this symbol, structure, and performance in context is not the ilk of Toward New Perspectives in Folklore and Folklore: Performance and Communication, or even Glassie’s Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, none of which is cited.

If the contributions of these titles are written out of Woodward’s material culture studies, who is in? Woodward reaches beyond London to Frankfurt and the Marxist roots of a Gramscian school there that focuses on the uses of commodities to support cultural hegemony. From there, one reads of Adorno, Baudrillard, Bachelard, Bourdieu, Simmel, Barthes, and Miller. This is a varied lot, to be sure, but they can be said to share a concern with the aesthetics of taste and the way they are constructed to achieve social or political ends. Anthropologists Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss provide in this concern the semiotic underpinnings of the “codes and symbols” that constitute cultural communication. Folklorists certainly invoke their use of narratives and objects to show that people construct a universe of meanings and make them visible through cultural expressions, expressions that through performance and praxis mark identities for selves and others. Yet Woodward’s guide to “understanding material culture” should remind folkloristically trained material-culturists of the differences between the “cultural sociology” or Frankfurt-inspired cultural studies and what I might call processually oriented scholars of cultural relations mediated by objects.

First, one reads the emphasis on consumption rather than production of objects. To support the idea of hegemonic structures, emphasis is placed upon the promotion and reception of mass-produced commodities. Folklorists have contributed theoretically to the idea of tradition as an act of creation in which people control cultural process to effect social ends. A guideword for many folklorists is vernacular as local practice in both narrative and material forms that raises questions about subcultural relations to societal values and mores. In Woodward’s perspective, objects--and the elites who control them--“have a type of power over us” (vi). Thus one finds emphasis in genres within Woodward’s material culture on fashion and decorative display inside the home as forms dictated by a power elite. The analytical concern of a cultural sociology is for the way that folk use or are duped by these objects for status distinctions by their communication of taste. For folklorists, the process and vernacular context of architecture, food, and craft dominates, but those genres are noticeably absent in the way that Woodward understands material culture. Such genres tend to raise questions about relation to, or expression of, identities and traditions established by region, ethnicity, occupation, age, and gender.

That is not to say that this primer cannot be instructive to folklorists. The discussion of Bourdieu’s idea of habitus (the means by which people come to develop systems of likes and dislikes) provides a crossroads between Frankfurt’s concern for consumption and the distinctions of taste with folklorists’ work in process and tradition. But the examples used to show Bourdieu’s application to modern situations is in fashion objects rather than vernacular practice, and socially with buyers rather than makers. Echoing analyses of folklorization through objects, Woodward devotes space to “narrativisation,” meaning the way people talk about objects as a way of talking about their lives, values, and experiences. An assertion is even made that folklorists can embrace: “It is stories and narratives that hold an object together, giving it cultural meaning” (152); indeed, objects have a performative capacity, “being a result of social context and reflexive presentations of self in relation to objects” (152). The main reference here for Woodward is to Rom Harré, and not to Ferris, Vlach, Pocius, or Glassie, who have focused on the way that people effect belonging not just through making objects but by narrating them and fitting them into storylines of lives and communities, even when their practical use seems outmoded.

Having been made invisible in this text, folklorists are not about to present this work on understanding material culture as their understanding of the subject. Yet it can be appreciated for bringing into relief what folklorists do that is analytically significant. It provides comprehensible summaries of a body of work that deserves attention in the folkloristic enterprise, particularly for the development of a practice theory of “objects in action.” It makes us realize that folklorists indeed have distinctive answers for Woodward’s ultimate quest, stated in his last line of the book, “understanding the crux of the social: the balancing of individuals with society; of emotion, embodiment, meaning and action, with collective values, cultural discourses and solidarities” (175). Yet if we think all are in favor of thinking with as well as about objects, then we need to more closely examine the ramifications of defining a perspective around consumer culture rather than folklorists’ producer culture. Maybe a lesson is that folklorists cannot take for granted their place on the podium of material culture studies and need to showcase their work in more primer texts after the spate of instructive anthologies of the late twentieth century.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.