Today, people are interested in discovering new methods to study their past and present. Sociologists and archaeologist recommend using material culture as one of the sources to study human lives. Material culture is a concept that has multiple definitions because it focuses on the relationship that exists between culture and artifacts.1 In the majority of cases, it includes all physical objects and resources with the help of which people may define their culture. According to Henry Pratt Fairchild, material culture is a “collective name for all the behavior patterns socially acquired and transmitted by means of symbols.”2 Examples include technological devices, buildings, tools, and objects of art. The analysis of material culture is a unique opportunity to identify and comprehend the insights that motivate or challenge society during a certain period. In this paper, attention will be paid to the lessons people can learn about past or present from their material culture, including its connection with non-material culture, impact on diversity, the development of theories and opinions.
In social sciences, the differences between material and non-material cultures matter. On the one hand, people live in a material world that consists of a number of objects and constructions that make this life complete and meaningful. On the other hand, there is a burning need for people to create elements of non-material culture. Non-material culture may be interpreted in a variety of ways, but its best explanation is the presence of moral values, social norms, languages, and institutions. Non-material culture is used to interpret the worth of material culture in society. This connection cannot be neglected because it helps people learn about their past interests, beliefs, and abilities to fulfill their goals. For example, an ancient totem is a subject of material culture that shows what materials and instruments were available to people. However, only non-material culture (language and traditions) explains what this totem meant to ancient people and why it was created.
Material culture may also be used as a means to explain diversity in society. Examples may be school buildings that were created for black and white students or psychiatric hospitals where rich and poor people were treated. These examples of material culture prove that inequality and diversity have deep roots, and even the choice of buildings underlined the inability to neglect social differences. Today, people have access to ancient masks, dresses, and jewelry that were created in various manners, which divided people into rich and poor, leaders and followers.
Finally, material culture includes books and literary works that were created centuries ago, saved, and presented to modern people. In these sources, it is possible to find the discussions of famous philosophers and scientists about their discoveries and theories. In addition to such illustrative materials, excavations help find evidence, and house museums show how writers lived. All these are examples of material culture that demonstrate what life styles were preferred and why people did or thought particular things.
In general, the importance of material culture cannot be ignored in today’s society. Instead of throwing away some old things or focusing on current technological progress only, people should compare the achievements, use non-material culture, and clarify what has already been achieved, and how ordinary things determine daily activities. Diversity roots and theories are the two examples of what can be studied with material culture, underling the importance of memory, respect, and knowledge that people like to develop and improve.
Berger, A. A., What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture, 2nd edn., New York, Routledge, 2016.
- A. A. Berger, What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture, 2nd edn., New York, Routledge, 2016, p. 17.
- Berger, p. 17.