Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

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  1. Understanding Everyday Life
  2. Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life
  3. (PDF) Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life | Phillip Vannini -
  4. Material Aspects of American Life

Thus, throughout this book, I and every other author will refer to material culture and technological culture or technoculture interchangeably. These expressions point to an emergent process consisting of the interaction between human actors and nonhuman actors—all acting with their strategies and techniques, endowed with material properties. Gibson ; see also Van Leeuwen that actors use for instrumental and symbolic purposes.

In fact, we will view the difference between instrumental and symbolic purposes and the related dissimilarity between function and style to be hindering more than helping our agenda, and for this reason we will explicitly blur the boundaries between action and communication. When different concerns and arguments force some contributors to favor the use of certain expressions over others, we ought to keep in mind that their lexical choices are motivated by their need to treat different empirical subject matter with attention to detail, rather than to reify categories by erecting unnecessary boundaries among them.

With that in mind, each chapter of this book will feature various approaches and highlight different angles of our common subject matter. Indeed variety and diversity are the strength of any edited book. Yet the chapters that follow have their origin in the shared understanding that technology is never in the things themselves, in materiality alone, in the techniques and strategies of makers or users alone, in the selves and collective identities of makers or users alone, in the discourses encompassing the interaction between human and nonhuman actors alone, but rather in the process whereby all those entities interact and give form and content to our world.

To speak of technology, therefore, will entail speaking of technoculture or material culture. And to speak of materiality, therefore, will entail speaking of material culture or technoculture.

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The third and last stack sitting on my desk consists of books on ethnography. Traditionally rooted within both cultural anthropology and classical urban sociology, ethnography is now one of the most common research strategies across the social sciences, and one that is currently enjoying an impressive outburst in creativity, scope of applications, and diversity. In its focus on mundane practices of social actors, attention to context, and emphasis on agency and interaction Adler, Adler, and Fontana , ethnography is the everyday life research strategy par excellence. While there are other research strategies that could direct us on the everyday life aspects of material culture and technoculture, in this book we focus specifically on ethnography alone because we find that its application to the subject matter of our field—while already prolific and successful—requires reflection and further development.

In particular, we aim for methodological reflection that can allow us to surpass—or at least be more cognizant of—the limitations of traditional ethnographic research strategies in relation to material culture and technoculture.

Understanding Everyday Life

An example ought to shed light on the nature of these limitations. Suppose—to return to the opening of this introduction—that we wished to study the meaningfulness of an unusual mid-spring snowfall in relation to the value of mobility and the technological infrastructure of roads in a particular geographical area. What information could an ethnographic research design provide us with?

Observation from the roadside or the cocoon of your car—if you are lucky enough to be caught in traffic as it is happening— might yield impressions, reflections, and experiences of driving in such conditions. A later search through publicly available data on traffic and road infrastructure, as well as on historical weather records, might give us further knowledge to put our observations in proper context.

But those data—even when rich in volume and detail—could be insufficient for our scope. As most ethnographers do, we might then decide at the end of the day to interview drivers who were caught in the snowstorm. And here is where both our methodological potential and problems might begin to be obvious.

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Even assuming that a sample of drivers is promptly available and enthusiastic enough to dedicate sufficient interview time to us and this may be difficult, given how reticent some people may be to invest time on reflecting on such mundane matters , we will inevitably run into the difficulties of gathering interview data that are sufficiently insightful, or in other words not thick enough, for our purpose.

Undoubtedly, limitations of this kind are not insurmountable.

Material culture

Such is a quest for a methodology that does not privilege communication at the expense of action, being at the expense of doing, consciousness at the expense of materiality, and speaking at the expense of making. Such new ethnography places techne as much as ethnos at the core of its concern. Through multiple approaches, through different foci, and with various scopes, the contributors to this book reflect on the present and future potential of ethnographic methodology—itself a technology affording opportunities and constraints—to further develop our knowledge on material culture and technology.

An Everyday Life Approach to Everyday Life All studies of everyday life take the mundane as its subject matter, but often neglect to take a methodological approach that is also grounded in the practices of everyday life. To explain this let us take the example of speed bumps.

Speed bumps—or sleeping policemen according to Latour — objectify normative values and systems of authority by causing drivers to slow down as they approach them. Because police cannot be everywhere at the same time, they and architects delegate the task of slowing down to speed bumps. In carrying out their scripts speed bumps faithfully manifest their agency, Latour explains. Simple enough, right? The fact that, perhaps, we encounter speed bumps more or less every time we head to the mall whereas we have hardly even hear of geothermal energy or nutrification?

This explanation cannot be sufficient. When is the last time you used a waffle-maker? Or played a video game? If you live in the countryside, for example, you may never encounter speed bumps until you go to town. Does that make your everyday life less normal—and you, as well, arguably—than your urban counterpart? Obviously a definition of everyday life studies based on the temporal frequency of mundane behaviors, or the convenient exclusion of some people from some behaviors, cannot be but unsatisfactory.

Second, should we not be concerned with our own—as researchers— mundane practices beside those of our informants? Roustan chapter six , for example, had hardly ever played video games until she embarked on her fieldwork. Can she thus logically call her investigation one of everyday life? If so, what is the true difference, if any, between the practice of playing video games and offering sacrificial gifts to the mountain gods? What really matters, we start to realize, is not really the topic, but perhaps something else. What that attitude might entail is entirely dependent on whom you ask.

For Woodward chapter four everyday life has the characteristics of story.

Material Culture in America: Understanding Everyday Life

For me chapter five the attitude of everyday life is performative and dramatic, that is, based on action and interaction. And so on. While there is no ultimate answer on what the characteristic attitude of everyday life is—and that is why there are several theoretical and methodological perspectives available—all the contributors to this book agree that an approach to everyday life has come to terms with the stuff that makes up daily living, and it has to do so in the typical ways in which we encounter this stuff.

Thus, if we do so, we soon come to realize that without taking into account context, the agents human and nonhuman involved, their purposes, and all the various contingencies surrounding their interaction we understand very little about everyday life and risk coming to very partial and at times downright erroneous solutions. Such, in the end, should be the spirit of the study of everyday life.

And this is also the spirit, we find, of ethnography. As Noy narrates, it is contingency and relationships that shed light on why he decided to speed over a sleeping policeman. And as Peterson finds, a microwave oven is not a product that necessarily revolutionizes cooking, concept of gender, and family relationships, but instead, a technic that at least at times and for some people, provides users with occasion to fight wars with makeshift marshmallow action figures.

What truly distinguishes the study of everyday life, in the end, is not that it is mundane stuff, but rather that it is as naive, as curious, as inquisitive, as involved, as unpredictable, as odd, and as crafty as everyday life itself. And guess what? Part two is less theoretical, and more explicitly methodological and empirical. Each chapter in this part outlines a different ethnographic tradition in both abstract terms and concrete application through a case study. The first chapter in part two introduces the very characteristics of an everyday life approach and its potential for demystifying very un-everyday-life- like attitudes.

Building on the tradition of embodied ethnography Roustan examines how video game players engage their leisure tools through bodily skills, habits, and techniques that demand high degrees of familiarity and daily practice. Subsequently, in a chapter that is just as grounded in the daily realities of dialogue and routine, Noy, borrowing from the young but booming autoethnographic tradition in material culture studies, reflects on interaction inside, and with, the family car. Much can be missed in recollection and description, as we learn in chapter eight.

Drawing upon the tradition of ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, and visual ethnography, Tutt and Hindmarsh reflect on how users make sense of, and engage, types of monitor screens in a variety of work activities. The subsequent chapter, chapter nine, concentrates on social semiotics. Through her analysis of ethnographic data collected at, and about, American-style Turkish shopping malls, Tunc demonstrates how mass-marketed consumer items work as semiotic resources in both an expressive symbolic and instrumental technical way.

Finally, the last chapter in part two discusses the use of one of the most common qualitative strategies across the social sciences: grounded theory. Part three of this book features longer empirical studies working as illustrations of the various ways—theoretical and methodological—in which ethnographers can study material culture and technology. Each chapter in this part liberally borrows from a variety of traditions, blending different—but compatible—elements.

In chapter thirteen Merrill combines interactionism with SCOT in his analysis of the practice of home-based musical recording. In chapter fourteen Laviolette examines the colonization of the mundane and the body by the hand of the introduction of health care technologies in domestic settings.

Finally, in chapter fifteen Peterson applies symbolic interactionism to her interpretation of microwave usage. As these studies show, ethnographic research that carefully engages the materiality of social interaction—without abandoning itself to radical forms of constructionism or essentialism cf. Ingold —can demonstrate how material culture, or technoculture, is ultimately none other than a practical, everyday way of doing things with things. Notes 1.

(PDF) Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life | Phillip Vannini -

And even though it is an international field one might even note—at least by judging from the Journal of Material Culture, the flagship journal of contemporary material culture scholars—that the core of this field can be found in the UK, and even more precisely in such schools of thought as the University College of London see Buchli a and Cambridge University see Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell It is the British and French tradition, however, that primarily influence my treatment of material culture in this introduction.

Even though this is a diverse bunch of scholarship, one cannot help but noticing in it a more distinctly American flavor—and in part also Northern European—which is especially obvious within STS, SCOT, and the field of the history of technology that has coalesced around the journal Technology and Culture. Appadurai, Arjun Ed. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bijker, Wjiebe E. Buchli, Viktor. New York: Berg. The Material Culture Reader. Carey, James W. Communication as Culture.

Material Aspects of American Life

New York: Routledge. Clarke, Adele and Virginia Olesen Eds. Vannini 11 Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. New York: Basic Books. Douglas, Mary and Baron Isherwood. The World of Goods. London: Allen Lane. Janes, H. Mackay, and K. London: Sage. Eglash, Ron. Fischer, Claude. Berkeley: University of California Press. Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency. New York: Oxford University Press, Brief overview of early modern Atlantic history that emphasizes the changes in material culture in every part of the Atlantic basin consequent upon intercontinental trade, the introduction of technologies and crops from around the world, and the settlement and development of European colonies.

Ogundiran, Akinwumi, and Toyin Falola, eds. Archaeology of Atlantic Africa and the African Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, A score of essays on the material cultures of Africans in West Africa and the Americas during the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Features broad coverage of artifacts e. Rogers, J. Daniel, and Samuel M. Wilson, eds. New York: Plenum, DOI: Essays on the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and North America examine how Amerindian societies coped with new people, goods, and diseases.

Much attention is paid to adaptations in material cultures and their effects on behavior. Sarti, Raffaella. Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, — Expansive survey focused on the ways that material objects, notably houses and their furnishings, food, and clothing, and family structures mutually shaped one another. Examines experiences across the social spectrum but emphasizes peasantry. Singleton, Theresa. The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, Survey of research strategies, important issues, and findings about the material lives of both the enslaved and their masters in southeastern North America and the Caribbean.

Case studies present substantive findings while also considering issues of methodology, theories, techniques of analysis, and research strategies in ethnographically inflected historical archaeology. Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login. Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions.

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Publications Pages Publications Pages. Subscriber sign in. Forgot password? Don't have an account? Sign in via your Institution. Sign in with your library card. Related Articles about About Related Articles close popup. Introduction Scholarly interest in artifacts is on the rise for reasons both narrowly academic and broadly social.

General Overviews As is true of most topics in the young field of Atlantic history, material culture has not yet benefited from a survey that encompasses all areas in that large basin nor from one grounded in a specifically Atlantic approach.