Material Culture

Material culture refers to the physical stuff that human beings surround themselves with and which has meaning for the members of a cultural group. Mostly this ‘‘stuff’’ is things that are made within a society, but sometimes it is gathered directly from the natural world or recovered from past or distant cultures. It can be contrasted with other cultural forms such as ideas, images, practices, beliefs, and language that can be treated as independent from any specific material substance. The clothes, tools, utensils, gadgets, ornaments, pictures, furniture, buildings, and equipment of a group of people are its material culture and for disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology provide the raw data for understanding other societies. In recent years sociologists have begun to recognize that the ways that material things are incorporated into the culture shape the way that society works and communicates many of its features to individual members.

Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Marx’s analysis of production and exchange led him to explore how the ‘‘system of objects’’ circulates sign value within a society, articulating cultural distinctions and meanings. The uses of different materials such as wood or glass to create the atmosphere of interior spaces, the embedding of technology within ‘‘gadgets’’ and tools, how things extend the form and actions of the human body, and the relations between objects that are unique and those that are parts of series are all systems which shape the culture. The recent literature on the sociology of consumption has frequently recognized that material things are not only useful in themselves but can also be signs of social status and cultural location. A motorcar is much more than a functional transportation device because it encapsulates a set of cultural messages about the aesthetics, wealth, and technological values of a culture as well as the status of the individual who drives it.

The consumption of material stuff may locate individual identities within a culture (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg Halton 1981), but it also threatens the environment and uses up scarce resources (Molotch 2003). The material stuff of a culture ‘‘co evolves’’ not only with other stuff but also with human practices and systems of action (Shove 2003). Material objects are involved in interactions between human beings, providing a topic as well as a resource for constructing meaning (Hindmarsh & Heath 2003). But the embodied ‘‘material interaction’’ directly between individual humans and the stuff around them also releases the cultural meanings and practices embedded in the materiality of that stuff (Dant 2005).


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1996) The System of Objects. Verso, London.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981) The Meaning of Things. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Dant, T. (2005) Materiality and Society. Open University Press, Maidenhead.
  4. Hindmarsh, J. & Heath, C. (2003) Transcending the Object in Embodied Interaction. In: Coupland, J. & Gwyn, R. (Eds.), Discourse, the Body, and Identity. Palgrave, Basingstoke.
  5. Molotch, H. (2003) Where Stuff Comes From. Routledge, New York.
  6. Shove, E. (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness, and Convenience. Berg, Oxford.

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