Material Culture studies at the American Anthropological Association

Daniel Miller, Anthropology UCL
A Congress of different cultures: the General Assembly of the United Nations (in lieu of a conference photograph from the AAA)

Last week I attended the annual meetings of the AAA held at San Jose. I went along with a group of students, staff and ex-students from University College London to present a panel concerned with studies inside and outside the home. As usual we are fairly up-front in presenting ourselves under the auspices of ‘material culture studies’. But while this term seems to have established itself as fully as one could wish outside of the US, in the anthropology of places as diverse as Australia through to Brazil, US anthropology continues to exhibit some reticence with respect both to the terminology and its associated conceptualisations. An example was a panel for which I was discussant, held on the topic of Caribbean Movements: linking people, objects and places. Every paper within this panel was of interest. Topics ranged from Flemming Daugaard-Hansen on the difference in fate between the house and its internal possessions for migrants returned to Belize from the US, to the contrast between Dominican and Haitiain paintings sold in Santo Domingo by Erin Taylor, though to the importance of shopping and sending back goods for Jamaican’s on temporary labour schemes in the US by Deborah Thomas. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that the papers would be less constrained if they were given license to explore the ways relationships are constituted by these contrasts in materiality, rather than remains common in the US the need to ground such papers back into arguments over identity politics and representation.
I felt the same about the next panel I visited on the topic of Virtual Worlds. Again Tom Boellstorff started promisingly with the motif of the virtual as the not fully realised, rather than merely the simulation of the off-line. There were some excellent papers such as Mizuko Ito and Heather Horst on how a site such as Neopets can become almost a precursor to share trading in that which is created as value within the site. Still, in some of these papers, including Boellstorff, I felt there is a retreat back to the fascination with simulation of the off-line, in his case arguments over real-estate, rather than keeping hold of the way other possibilities are constituted precisely by the different materiality of virtual worlds. I felt this is in part a constraint that comes with a the reluctance to see off-line worlds as equally consisted by specific materialities, in which case virtual worlds would start to emerge as perhaps less special, but perhaps more different. I would never wish to advocate any special status for material culture, or that it either is or should be a discipline or sub-discipline. It is more that the AAA affirmed a sense of what motivated many of us, quite some time ago, to take a particular interest in this area. More a feeling of something lost by the suppression of potential insight.
But I am curious to know if these are views shared by anthropologists in the US. Is there still the same pressure to justify ethnographic papers in terms of identity politics and is there still a reticence to advance one’s work under the explicit title of material culture within mainstream cultural anthropology?


  1. Hi Danny,
    Thanks for this – it’s interesting to hear about the conference as I wasn’t able to be there. It’s also interesting that the term ‘material culture’ doesn’t have the same purchase in the USA as it does elsewhere. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, having moved from there to here.
    One reason why I think the category of material culture itself remains unused I think might be the way in which the four-field approach organises knowledge here in anthropology – maintaining archaeology as a discrete but interconnected subject within the discipline. I think that people with interests in material culture (defined using this term, rather than defined as objects, things or whatever)may find themselves in archaeology by definition here. And it’s interesting to see that my teachers at UCL, including you and Chris Tilley were originally archaeologists who dissolved the boundaries between archaeology and social anthropology rather than maintaining them
    (creating a new sub-discipline in the process!).
    Another, even more deep-rooted issue I think is the heritage of the schools of writing culture and symbolic anthropology, both of which were developed by key anthropologists here (Geertz, Victor Turner, James Clifford, Crapanzo and so on). The focus on ethnography, and indeed, anthropology as text, the idea of thick description, and the notion of the representational power of symbols,makes it very hard to develop non-representational theories to interpret things (and symbols and so on).
    This debate is also present in England – summarised by Layton’s reponse to Gell’s Art and Agency in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute a few years ago. However, the archaeological heritage of material culture studies and it’s relationship to the British tradition of Melanesian anthropology have provided British anthropologists with an alternative toolkit. (Again, Melanesian studies in the US are less focused around the ideas of relationality, the breakdown of seperation between object and context, developed by anthropologists such as Marilyn Strathern and more focused on the political economies of Christianity and mining and the symbolic structures of new modernities. In turn, Melanesian anthropology has much less influence on the rest of the discpline – there is no-one like Strathern, with her same reach into the anthropology of academia, kinship, technology, reproduction, audit culture and so on).
    I’ve definitely noticed an increased interest in materiality and a turn towards using the term ‘materiality’ in articles and other publications – there have certainly been many articles in American Ethnologist which take the idea of materiality as their starting point. But it is true that objects tend to still be understood in relation to broader political and cultural issues (in place elsewhere, of which objects are just symbolic). I think that there is something really interesting about the limits of representation here. This is mirrored in tensions within the category of ‘visual culture’ which has emerged as a panacea to several problems within art history, but which, I think replicates the idea that ‘visual culture’ (things you look at) must be interepreted within the tool kits of representation (what they represent) rather than what they do in their own right. There is a tradition within US art history, following David Freedberd and W.J.T. Mitchell,to look at the power of images in their own right, and that in turn has been influential on UK anthropologies of art, but not on US anthropologies of art. I’d be very interested to hear from people in the US looking at the re-emergence of material culture as a discrete category of anthropological enquiry and to hear how they feel it might help them to investigate the limits of representation.

  2. Daniel, it was a pleasure to meet you briefly in person at the AAA meetings during the outstanding panel put on by the UCL affiliated material culture scholars.
    Racing to put together another issue of Museum Anthropology and to finish my semester, I do not have the opportunity or energy to do justice to this really interesting and broad discussion that you and Haidy have opened up. As an American (and Americanist) student of material culture, I can make one provisional observation at this point and hopefully, when time and brain power permit, take up some of the bigger issues more seriously in another venue.
    One point that is often missed or skipped over by anthropological commentators on the (history of the) state of material culture studies, and this is doubly understandable for those positioned outside the U.S. context, is that during the long winter when cultural and social anthropology at large lost (or lessened) their interest in material culture, the topic was taken up actively in neighboring fields which, in an U.S. context, picked up the slack and developed a pretty lively set of scholarly communities overlapping partially with each other and partially with American cultural anthropology, but operating largely outside the institutions of mainline anthropology. In mentioning some of these, I am obviously not endorsing these traditions (of which I am a part) wholesale, only trying to fit them into the larger story of material culture studies so as to better understand the current landscape for this undertaking. One simple point is that in the post-World War II period, North American students of material culture found other spaces and places to go, leaving the AAA lessened for their absence.
    One line in this genealogy is on the frontier of cultural geography and anthropology and goes back to A. L. Kroeber’s Berkeley colleague, the geographer Carl Sauer and is represented by Sauer’s student Fred Kniffen and then (a) Kniffen’s own students in the combined geography and anthropology department at Louisiana State University and (b) those folklorists who took up Kniffen’s pioneering work on vernacular architecture. (Henry Glassie is a key mediating figure here.) The cultural geographers can be found, of course, in geography departments, at the main geography meetings, and in mainline geography journals. They also participate with the folklorists, architectural historians, public historians and others in various relevant interdisciplinary settings (such as the VAF and PAS, discussed next). These traditions have important European analogs and ties in the work of people like E. Estyn Evans.
    The anthropology-to-geography-to-folklore stream is represented in my own department (Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University) by Glassie and his countless students now scattered around the world. This line is represented in (at least) three institutional homes in North American scholarship. At the meetings of these groups one can today go and hear one material culture paper after another all day, day after day: (1) The American Folklore Society (older than the AAA, although founded by many of the same people), which publishes the Journal of American Folklore (in its 119th year); (2) the Vernacular Architecture Forum, which publishes an annual called Perspectives on Vernacular Architecture (in its 11th year, I think); and (3) the, somewhat anachronistically named, Pioneer America Society, which also meets annually and publishes the journal Material Culture, now in its 38th year.
    In addition to the cultural geography-inspired, vernacular architecture-centered tradition in (and beyond) folklore studies, there are other lines of material culture research in this field. There are those that are born out of an encounter by Americans with the open-air museum movement in Northern Europe (someone like Warren Roberts fits in here) and those influences that drift into folklore studies from art history. There are also biographical approaches to artistry that extend back to people like Ruth Bunzel (of The Pueblo Potter). In folklore, such approaches are represented in works like John Vlach’s Charleston Blacksmith or Michael Own Jones’ The Hand Made Object and its Maker. All of these streams (and others) were consolidated in the 1970s under the American rubric “folklife studies.” While this term (evident in institutions such as the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution) has less currency now than it did in that period (when it was synthesized in the stock-taking book Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction), a very large number of productive, ethnographically and field-work oriented scholars were trained under its banner and have (and continue to) produce a huge amount of work in material culture studies. Scholars who come to mind here include: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Gerald Poicus, Barbara Babcock, Charles Zug, Robert St. George, Michael Ann Williams, Dell Upton, in addition to Glassie, Vlach, and Jones (and of course their many students around the world).
    When I came into the anthropology doctoral program at Indiana University in 1991 I was looking for resources for the study of material culture. It was only dumb luck that led me to choose an anthropology program at a school with a leading folklore graduate program across campus. What I was not finding in the American cultural anthropology of the late 1980s was compensated for with what I discovered in the American folklore studies of the same period. I was, in this context, fortunate in that I was able, for myself, to hybridize these two traditions (and anthropological archaeology), while reaching outward toward other world traditions (such as that then emerging in Britain) and backward to ancestral forms of American cultural anthropology (my Boasian roots showing) that were more sensitive to issues of material culture. Finally, I was fortunate further to enter museum anthropology during the beginnings of its current revival, learning material culture studies on the job from the point of view of a working research curator. Today I have the good luck to teach material culture studies and museum work in the folklore program that (in part) trained me. While the material culture studies done by the students in this program today are linked historically to those undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s, they are also engaged with current questions in the wider field and the wider world. If students working here in the 1970s were typically collaborating with blacksmiths and basketmakers (on questions of structure, tradition, biography and production in handcraft), doctoral students here today are more likely to work with women scrapbook artists or DIY remodelers (on questions of refashioning commodities and consumption, on lifestyle, heritage, performance, or identity).
    In any event, as one of the few people who visits both of these social worlds daily (in terms of personal identity) and annually (in terms of the AAA meetings and its American alternatives), I think I am describing one piece of the larger institutional (historical) reality in the American material culture scene. There are hundreds of American (and Canadian) students and scholars who do ethnography, read anthropology (and geography and folklore and art history), and talk all day about material culture but who have never attended a AAA meeting. I am happy to know some of them and I am happy to see them at the folklore meetings. I also wish they were with me when I am in a great AAA panel like the one the UCL scholars organized on the meeting’s last day this year.
    For the record, and this is a sad but typical AAA meeting footnote, four great Indiana trained, material culture-focused folklorists crossed the frontier and came to this year’s AAA meetings. They gave great papers that I had heard a month ago at the AFS meetings. Their panel was entitled Spheres of Value: When Market and Moral Economies Intersect and it drew, adding further irony, on some of the ideas pioneered in the UCL approach to material culture studies. They were scheduled against the Inside Culture panel, thus they both missed the UCL papers and had an audience of exactly one person, my professorial college (and their teacher) Roger Janelli. I was disappointed for them to the point of speechlessness, but my point is illustrated when I note that they had at least 100 audience members for their panel at the AFS meetings in October in Milwaukee.
    Of course not every material culture scholar in the American folklore or geography tradition is the same and not every one of them is doing world-class work (although many are). The existence of these scholarly worlds is just one piece of the larger history and present-day reality that is opened up for discussion in Daniels provocative and interesting essay, and in Haidy’s comment on it.

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