Where Stuff Comes From

Review: Harvey Molotch (2003), Where stuff comes from – how toasters, toilets, cars, computers and many other things come to be as they are. London: Taylor and Francis
Elizabeth Shove and Matt Waton teach at the Department of Sociology, University of Lancaster
‘Where Stuff Comes From’ does an excellent job of opening up debate about product design and of asking new questions about the hardware with which we live our lives. What is it that gives shape and form to the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us? In dipping into the world of design, Harvey Molotch deals with questions of fun, functionality and fashion, also taking note of the structuring of supply chains and the organisation of production. In focusing on design in this way, his book sits squarely between typically generic arguments about consumers’ pursuit of novelty and more technologically oriented theories of innovation.
This is interesting and surprisingly unpopulated territory. On the other hand, and despite the promise of the first chapter, Molotch does not go on to analyse objects in use or to develop the theoretical resources required to take such a project forward. Instead, he follows products to the market, commenting on the relation between material and cultural dynamics at a relatively abstract level, but stopping short of looking at how ‘stuff’ is appropriated in practice. As the title suggests, the focus is on where stuff comes from, not on where it goes to, or what happens next.
Questions about how stuff is appropriated, transformed and embedded are all central topics for those who write about ‘material culture’. But the funny thing is that such authors only rarely ask themselves where does this stuff come from? How is it that there is such a divide between social studies of stuff up to the point where it is sold, and social analyses of what goes on beyond that point? Artefacts cross this boundary with ease, but it remains an important stumbling block in academic scholarship.