Material Culture

RELATED TERMS: Anthropology;

Material culture is a notion crucial to the design of narrative environments. As Daniel Miller (2005) highlights, the less aware we are of the objects that surround us, the more powerfully they can determine our anticipated actions by setting the scene and encouraging normative behaviour, without being open to challenge. They assert without seeming to assert. Thus, objects determine what takes place to the extent that we remain unconscious of their capacity to do so.

Part of the task of the design of narrative environments is to make explicit the capacity of objects and environments to act, that is, their actantiality, their status as actants, and to use that awareness of ‘objective’ actantiality to bring to attention, and possibly to alter, the ways we act and interact.

Such a perspective, Miller (2005, 5) argues, can properly be described as that of ‘material culture’, “since it implies that much of what we are, exists not through our consciousness or body, but as an exterior environment that habituates and prompts us.”

This capacity of objects to fade out of focus and to remain peripheral to our vision yet determinant of our behaviour and identity also becomes, according to Bourdieu, the primary means by which people are socialised as social beings, an insight that Bourdieu forged by developing the thought of Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss demonstrated how anthropologists needed to abandon the study of entities and consider things only as defined by the relationships that constituted them. For Levi-Strauss, this became a grand ordering implying a largely intellectual foundation, with myth as philosophy. Bourdieu, however, turned this into a much more contextualised theory of practice.

He did so by stressing that the expectations characteristic of our particular social group are to a large extent inculcated through what we learn in our engagement with the relationships found between everyday things. The categories, orders and the placements of objects, such as the spatial oppositions in the home or the relationship between agricultural implements and the seasons. Each order is taken to be homologous with other orders, such as gender or social hierarchy. In this way, the less tangible aspects of a society are groundeded in the more tangible. Once these associations are fixed, they become habitual ways of being in the world which, as an underlying order, emerged as second nature or habitus. Bourdieu thus combined a Marxian emphasis on material practice with the phenomenological insights of figures such as Merleau-Ponty (1989) into a fundamental deictic system, enabling us to point to the world and to orient ourselves within it.

Historical notes

Daniel Miller (1998) comments that material culture studies developed through a two-stage process. In the first phase, it was demonstrated that things matter and that to focus upon material worlds does not fetishize them since they are not a separate superstructure to social worlds. The key theories of material culture developed in the 1980s, for example, those of Bourdieu, Appardurai and Miller himself, showed that social worlds were as much constituted by materiality as the other way around. This gave rise to a variety of approaches to the issue of materiality, for example, on an analogy with text or through the application of models from social psychology.

The second phase focuses on the diversity of material worlds which become each other’s contexts, rather than reducing them to models of the social world, on the one hand, or to specific subdisciplinary concerns, such as the study of textiles or architecture, on the other hand. In this situation, studies of the house do not have to be reduced to housing studies, nor studies of design to design studies.

Material culture studies does not exist as a given discipline. There are many advantages to remaining ‘undisciplined’ and many disadvantages and constraints imposed by trying to claim disciplinary status. Much the same could be said of the design of narrative environments, which can explore the advantages of being multi-, inter- or trans-disciplinary and, as a result, ‘undisciplined’.


Miller, D. (ed.) (1998) Material cultures: why some things matter. London, UK: UCL Press.

Miller, D. (2005). Materiality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.