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3.1F: Material Culture

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    7934
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    In the social sciences, material culture is a term that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Give examples of material culture and how it can help sociologist understand a particular society

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • Studying a culture ‘s relationship to materiality is a lens through which social and cultural attitudes can be discussed. People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent.
    • A view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to conceive of different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning.
    • Anthropologists distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data and require different methodologies to study.
    • This view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms.
    • The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ cultures, just different cultures.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • material culture: In the social sciences, material culture is a term, developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.
    • Symbolic culture: Symbolic culture is a concept used by archaeologists, social anthropologists and sociologists to designate the cultural realm constructed and inhabited uniquely by Homo sapiens.

    In the social sciences, material culture refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. Material culture consists in physical objects that humans make. These objects inevitably reflect the historical, geographic, and social conditions of their origin. For instance, the clothes that you are wearing might tell researchers of the future about the fashions of today.

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    Clothes as Material Culture: Fashion is part of material culture.

    People’s relationship to and perception of objects are socially and culturally dependent. Accordingly, social and cultural attitudes can be discussed through the lens of a culture’s relationship to materiality.

    Material culture is also a term used by historians, sometimes termed “material history,” which refers to the study of ancient objects and artifacts in order to understand how a particular culture was organized and functioned over time.

    This view of culture as a symbolic system with adaptive functions, varying from place to place, led anthropologists to view different cultures as having distinct patterns of enduring conventional sets of meaning. Anthropologists thus distinguish between material culture and symbolic culture, not only because each reflects different kinds of human activity, but also because they constitute different kinds of data and require different methodologies to study.

    This view of culture, which came to dominate anthropology between World War I and World War II, implied that each culture was bounded and had to be understood as a whole, on its own terms. The result is a belief in cultural relativism, which suggests that there are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ cultures, just different cultures.

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    Periodicals as Material Culture: Media, such as magazines, are part of material culture.

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    Computers as Material Culture: Computers are an increasingly common part of everyday life for most people. They constitute an increasingly significant part of our material culture.