Material and Visual Culture

Core Courses: Topics in the Anthropology of Art and Museums (Smart), Consumption (Ferradas), Collecting (Smart), Transnationalism and Diaspora (staff), Topics in Migration and Transnationalism (staff), Ethnographic Film (Smart), On Value (Smart), The Body (Elliston)

Increasingly, anthropologists have identified consumption – broadly defined as individuals' and communities' engagements with material and visual culture – as a rich and multifaceted arena of inquiry. Once regarded primarily as an alienating social practice arising out of Western processes of commodification, the diverse social dimensions of practices of consumption are now at the fore. Examinations of how objects are circulated, exchanged and imbued with value illuminate broader dimensions of social power and prestige. Similarly, the ways in which people develop social and linguistic relationships with and through visual media can highlight local instantiations of gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity and nationalism.

Our examination of material and visual culture benefits from theoretical and analytical approaches offered by three subfields of anthropology: archaeology, linguistics and sociocultural anthropology. Indeed, this discussion of social engagements with material, visual and aural dimensions of social life incorporates insights from archaeological discussions of material culture, visual anthropology's insights on media and linguistic anthropology's semiotic approaches.

The following areas outline points of focus:

Consumption, Media and Language

Consumption enables people to enact and signal various types of semiotic and verbal communication. Goods themselves, as well as their use, are part of semiotic systems that can signify social networks and group membership. Goods can also signal identity as people produce themselves as particular kinds of subjects through consumption practices, including adornment and performative style. Consumption has been described as a language of communication, and can crosscut public and private spheres to offer a more complex understanding of how people negotiate "global flows" of objects and media. The linguistic dimensions of material and visual culture add significantly to these debates. The ability of language to point to objects in the world other than referentially allows language use to be multifaceted in its engagement with media worlds. Exploring this dialogic relationship between language practices and consumption practices can offer insight into identity, subjectivity and social class.

Commodification and Consumer Culture

The emergence of consumer culture is often presented as one of the most salient features of Western modernity. Individualism, choice and market relations are some of the key elements of Western culture that play an integral role in consumption practices.

Anthropology is in a privileged position for examining the historical processes behind the development of a culture of consumption in which commodities play a central role. A cross-cultural examination allows us to identify alternative ways of consumption and cultural reproduction and how they have increasingly become transformed and/or suppressed by modernization and, more recently, globalization processes that have imposed Western modes of consumption more broadly.

  • Political economic approaches emphasize the examination of processes of commodification, the relationship between capitalist crisis and consumption, uneven distribution of consumption and production, the spread of capitalism and market relations and the impact on post-socialist and developing nations, the linkage between development projects and energy consumption, the politics and development of needs, the development of technologies that transformed consumption (transportation, mass production, home appliances), consumption patterns and class formation, inequality and impoverishment, the effects of neoliberalism and the development of resistance movements, and the emergence of alternative modes of production and consumption.
  • An emphasis on the cultural dimensions of consumption addresses the aestheticization of commodities, the production of desires, the emergence of diverse lifestyles, the overproduction of signs and images, and the circulation and changing meaning of symbolic goods. It is also concerned with the role of cultural intermediaries specialized in the production, marketing and dissemination of cultural goods.
  • Consumer culture is often associated with the urban experience and the development of modern citizens. Social and cultural analysts are concerned with the study of sites of consumption (shopping malls, themed parks and cities, tourist attractions), the gendered nature of consumption, processes of domestication of consumers through advertising and the media, and the emergence of domesticity and disciplinary practices and associated concepts such as comfort, hygiene and convenience.
  • The rise of environmentalism is intimately linked to the rediscovery of consumption in recent decades. Although most of the environmental critique of consumption mobilizes earlier negative moral connotations of the term – consumption as waste, destruction – it often fails to address contemporary everyday practices as the sources of the current crisis. Archaeological and social and cultural anthropological research allows us to identify the historical specific politics of needs and the changing relations of men and women with their environment and nature.

Museum Studies

Museums are preeminent sites of consumption in which the world is arrayed around one as a spectacle. Museums have been the subject of considerable popular and academic critique. Questions have been raised concerning the ways they serve the interests of power through the specific narratives they produce, in their exclusionary character as high cultural institutions and in how their audiences are called upon to defer to the authority of expert knowledge. Critiques have also called into question the ethics of museum collecting practices and the politics of who gets to represent whom. At the same time, they are also struggling to maintain 'market share' in the context of competing claims on their public's leisure time and increasingly pressing financial imperatives.

Strangely, in the face of these mounting pressures, museums are proliferating at an unprecedented rate. How are we to understand this phenomenon? Why do museums continue to be central cultural institutions? How are museums being reimagined in response to their critics? How are they to be understood in relation to other exhibitionary domains through which our understanding of the world and of ourselves in relation to it are established – through, for example, tourism, film, photography, theme parks and shopping malls?

Anthropology of Art and Art Worlds

Anthropological interest in art has historically focused on 'primitive' art, analysis of which has been understood to offer a window onto the cultural worlds of its producers. Increasingly, however, attention has been paid to the assimilation of non-western objects into western art markets and to the character of the art world as a fundamentally transnational, cosmopolitan social formation that at the same time takes on a distinctively local character in its engagements with particular patrons, audiences and politics.

Ethnographic studies of art worlds might address the complexities of dealing with local contingency in the face of art's claim to constitute 'the new,' 'the contemporary,' globally. They examine processes by which objects are imbued with value – aesthetic, monetary, sentimental – with attention to the institutional and discursive practices that constitute the contemporary art world; and the ways in which art is mobilized variously in the service of projects of cultural critique, nation-building, personal prestige, and in attempts to produce particular kinds of sensibilities and social relations. The manner in which art objects are called upon by collectors, art-world professionals and their audiences as agents in processes of identification and self-constitution is of central interest.

Last Updated: 8/2/16