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Throughout history and across social and cultural contexts, most systems of belief—whether religious or secular—have ascribed wisdom to those who see reality as that which transcends the merely material. Yet, as the studies collected here show, the immaterial is not easily separated from the material. Humans are defined, to an extraordinary degree, by their expressions of immaterial ideals through material forms. The essays in Materiality explore varied manifestations of materiality from ancient times to the present. In assessing the fundamental role of materiality in shaping humanity, they signal the need to decenter the social within social anthropology in order to make room for the material.

Considering topics as diverse as theology, technology, finance, and art, the contributors—most of whom are anthropologists—examine the many different ways in which materiality has been understood and the consequences of these differences. Their case studies show that the latest forms of financial trading instruments can be compared with the oldest ideals of ancient Egypt, that the promise of software can be compared with an age-old desire for an unmediated relationship to divinity. Whether focusing on the theology of Islamic banking, Australian Aboriginal art, derivatives trading in Japan, or textiles that respond directly to their environment, each essay adds depth and nuance to the project that Materiality advances: a profound acknowledgment and rethinking of one of the basic properties of being human.

Contributors. Matthew Engelke, Webb Keane, Susanne Küchler, Bill Maurer, Lynn Meskell, Daniel Miller, Hirokazu Miyazaki, Fred Myers, Christopher Pinney, Michael Rowlands, Nigel Thrift

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A milestone collection. Of all of the recent works on material culture available, this is the one that exposes the complete range of perspectives and theoretical strategies that the most noted scholars are trying out and the interdisciplinary connections and alliances that are shaping the field.”—George Marcus, Rice University

“There have been many recent stabs at the idea of materiality. With both authority and intellectual generosity, these anthropologists and their colleagues take us beyond ‘things’ and ‘objects’ to ask about concrete presences, qualities, surfaces, and the formation of phenomena. A magisterial and highly original collection.”—Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge

“This is first-class scholarship: lively, consequential, engaging, informed, and lucid. Daniel Miller and his colleagues explore—with imagination, ethnographic insight, and remarkable clarity—a range of related issues central to current debates within and beyond cultural anthropology.”—Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822335429
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2005
  • Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. He is the author of many books, including The Sari (with Mukulika Banerjee); Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach; A Theory of Shopping; and The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (with Don Slater). He is the editor, most recently, of Home Possessions: Material Culture behind Closed Doors and Car Cultures.

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Read an Excerpt



All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3542-9

Chapter One


Materiality: An Introduction

There is an underlying principle to be found in most of the religions that dominate recorded history. Wisdom has been accredited to those who claim that materiality represents the merely apparent, behind which lies that which is real. Perhaps the most systematic development of this belief arose over two millennia within South Asia. For religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, theology has been centered upon the critique of materiality. At its simplest Hinduism, for example, rests upon the concept of maya, which proclaims the illusory nature of the material world. The aim of life is to transcend the apparently obvious: the stone we stub our toe against, or the body as the core of our sensuous existence. Truth comes from our apprehension that this is mere illusion. Nevertheless, paradoxically, material culture has been of considerable consequence as the means of expressing this conviction. The merely vestigial forms at the center of a temple may be contrasted with the massive gates at the periphery. The faded pastels of an elderly woman are in stark contrast with the bright and sensual colors of the bride precisely in order to express in material form the goal of transcending our attachment to material life.

But the history ofSouth Asia is not just the history of its religions. There is a parallel history, which tells of the endless struggle of cosmology with practice. This is the history of accumulation, taxation, wars and looting, empire and excess. It culminates in the integration of this region within a global political economy in which politics is increasingly subservient to an economics whose premise with respect to materiality could hardly be more different. In economic thought the accumulation of material commodities is itself the source of our extended capacity as humanity. Poverty is defined as the critical limit to our ability to realize ourselves as persons, consequent upon a lack of commodities. The focus upon materiality, though here in the form of accumulation, is therefore just as strong in economics as it is in Hinduism. For a discipline, such as anthropology, that is concerned with what it is to be human, we need to therefore start our discussion of this issue with an acknowledgment that the definition of humanity has often become almost synonymous with the position taken on the question of materiality. Furthermore, this has been a highly normative quest, closely linked to the question of what morality is, in the society or period in question.

Even within the most secular and self-consciously modern systems of belief the issue of materiality remains foundational to most people's stance to the world. The first major secular theory of humanity that seemed capable of dominating the world, Marxism, rested upon a philosophy of praxis, whose foundation also lies in its stance to materiality. Humanity is viewed as the product of its capacity to transform the material world in production, in the mirror of which we create ourselves. Capitalism is condemned above all for interrupting this virtuous cycle by which we create the objects that in turn create our understanding of who we can be. Instead commodities are fetishized and come to oppress those who made them. Contemporary critiques, such as Naomi Klein's (2001) No Logo, whether expressed as environmentalism or anti-globalism, may be cruder in their philosophical underpinnings, but seem to be just as focused upon the issue of materiality-for instance a loss of humanity in the face of commodities and brands-as is the neoclassical economics they confront. The centrality of materiality to the way we understand ourselves may equally well emerge from topics as diverse as love or science and associated beliefs such as the epistemology of positivism.

This constant return to the same issue demonstrates why we need to engage with the issue of materiality as far more than a mere footnote or esoteric extra to the study of anthropology. The stance to materiality also remains the driving force behind humanity's attempts to transform the world in order to make it accord with beliefs as to how the world should be. Hinduism and economics are not just beliefs about the world, but vast institutional forces that try to ensure that people live according to their tenets through priesthoods or through structural adjustment programs. In this respect capitalism and religion are equal and analogous. Chapters in this volume will attest to this foundational relationship between the stance toward materiality and the stance toward humanity through case studies ranging from ancient to contemporary practices and based around topics as diverse as theology, technology, finance, politics, and art.

This introduction will begin with two attempts to theorize materiality: the first, a vulgar theory of mere things as artifacts; the second, a theory that claims to entirely transcend the dualism of subjects and objects. It will then engage with theories associated with Bruno Latour and Alfred Gell that seek to follow a similar path, but with a greater emphasis upon the nature of agency. This is followed by a consideration of materiality and power, including claims to transcend materiality, and a consideration of the relativity of materiality where some things and some people are seen as more material than others, leading finally to an exploration of the plurality of forms of materiality. In turn, three case studies of finance and religion are used to explore the plurality of immateriality and the relationship between materiality and immateriality.

Throughout these discussions two issues emerge which are then considered in their own right. The first is the tendency to reduce all such concerns with materiality through a reification of ourselves, defined variously as the subject, as social relations or as society. In opposition to this social anthropology several chapters critique definitions of humanity as purely social, or indeed as Homo sapiens, and critique approaches which view material culture as merely the semiotic representation of some bedrock of social relations. This culminates in a section on the "tyranny of the subject" which seeks to bury society and the subject as the privileged premise for a discipline called Anthropology. Finally in the conclusion we return to a meta-commentary upon the whole. It will become evident that we can indeed resolve the dualism of subjects and objects through philosophy. But these "resolutions" are so dependent upon the abstract nature of philosophy that in and of themselves they may be of only limited benefit to anthropology. What anthropology offers, by contrast, is not just philosophical solutions or definitions, but a means to employ these understandings within forms of engagement that yield analytical insight, but which must be realized again and again with respect to each situation, because we live in a changing and varied world of practice.


A volume that spans topics as diverse as cosmology and finance cannot afford to rest upon any simplistic definition of what we mean by the word material. It needs to encompass both colloquial and philosophical uses of this term. We may want to refute the very possibility of calling anything immaterial. We may want to refuse a vulgar reduction of materialism to simply the quantity of objects. But we cannot deny that such colloquial uses of the term materiality are common. The standard critiques of materialism found in newspapers and everyday discussions take their stand against the apparently endless proliferation of artifacts, what Georg Simmel (1978: 448) termed the "increase in material culture." An anthropological volume devoted to materiality should not ignore this colloquial usage, and I will for this reason, start this investigation with a theory of the most obvious and most mundane expression of what the term material might convey-artifacts. But this definition soon breaks down as we move on to consider the large compass of materiality, the ephemeral, the imaginary, the biological, and the theoretical; all that which would have been external to the simple definition of an artifact. So the second theory of materiality to be introduced here will be the most encompassing and will situate material culture within a larger conceptualization of culture.


Can one have a theory of things where "things" stand for the most evident category of artifacts as both tangible and lasting? Certainly I confess that when I first took up a post as a professional academic in the field of material culture studies in 1981, this seemed to be the limit to the ambition of those studies. At that time I employed two sources in this quest. The first was the book Frame Analysis, in which the sociologist Erving Goffman (1975) argued that much of our behavior is cued by expectations which are determined by the frames that constitute the context of action. We don't charge up on stage to rescue an actress in apparent distress, since there are many elements of theater which proclaim this as "enacted" as against "real" violence. We look for signs by which people distance themselves from the social roles they are playing. Are they being ironic, or wanting to be taken "at face value"? We take note, usually unconsciously, of the place in which the action is set, or the clothes they wear, to give us clues. If a lecturer suddenly started a private conversation with a student in the middle of a lecture, everyone would become acutely aware of the underlying norms of lectures as a genre.

My second source was The Sense of Order by the art historian E. H. Gombrich (1979). Unlike all his other books, this focused not upon the artwork, but the frame in which the artwork was set. Gombrich argued that when a frame is appropriate we simply don't see it, because it seamlessly conveys to us the appropriate mode by which we should encounter that which it frames. It is mainly when it is inappropriate (a Titian framed in Perspex, a Picasso in baroque gilt) that we are suddenly aware that there is indeed a frame. A more radical version of Gombrich's thesis could argue that art exists only inasmuch as frames such as art galleries or the category of "art" itself ensure that we pay particular respect, or pay particular money, for that which is contained within such frames. It is the frame, rather than any quality independently manifested by the artwork, that elicits the special response we give it as art. Between them, these ideas of Goffman and Gombrich constituted an argument for what I called "the humility of things" (Miller 1987: 85-108). The surprising conclusion is that objects are important not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable, but often precisely because we do not "see" them. The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behavior, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.

Such a perspective seems properly described as "material culture," since it implies that much of what we are exists not through our consciousness or body, but as an exterior environment that habituates and prompts us. This somewhat unexpected capacity of objects to fade out of focus and remain peripheral to our vision and yet determinant of our behavior and identity had another important result. It helped explain why so many anthropologists looked down upon material culture studies as somehow either trivial or missing the point. The objects had managed to obscure their role and appear inconsequential. At a time when material culture studies had an extremely low status within the discipline, it seemed that objects had been very successful in achieving this humility, at least within anthropology.

The work that had established such ideas as foundational to anthropology, and to my mind still one of the premier publications within anthropology, was Outline of a Theory of Practice, by Pierre Bourdieu (1977). In this book Bourdieu showed how the same ability of objects to implicitly condition human actors becomes the primary means by which people are socialized as social beings. The foundation of these ideas came from Claude Lévi-Strauss, who played Hegel to Bourdieu's Marx, in the sense that Lévi-Strauss demonstrated at an intellectual level how anthropologists needed to abandon the study of entities and consider things only as defined by the relationships that constituted them. But while for Lévi-Strauss this became a rather grand ordering implying, if not a cognitive, at least a largely intellectual foundation, with myth as philosophy, Bourdieu turned this into a much more contextualized theory of practice. Structuralism was turned into both a material, and a much more fluid and less deterministic engagement with the world. We are brought up with the expectations characteristic of our particular social group largely through what we learn in our engagement with the relationships found between everyday things. Bourdieu emphasized the categories, orders, and placements of objects-for example, spatial oppositions in the home, or the relationship between agricultural implements and the seasons. Each order was argued to be homologous with other orders such as gender, or social hierarchy, and thus the less tangible was grounded in the more tangible. These became habitual ways of being in the world and in their underlying order emerged as second nature or habitus. This combined Marx's emphasis on material practice with the phenomenological insights of figures such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1989) into our fundamental "orientation" to the world.

For Bourdieu, who wore another cap as a theorist of education, it was these practical taxonomies, these orders of everyday life, that stored up the power of social reproduction, since they in effect educated people into the normative orders and expectations of their society. What we now attempt to inculcate in children through explicit pedagogic teaching, based largely in language, had previously been inculcated largely through material culture. As habitus this became the social equivalent to Kant's system of categories. On analogy with space, time, or mathematics, there exist for each social group certain underlying parameters by which children come to apprehend the world, an order they come to assume and expect in any new set of objects they encounter. So this was a theory of objects, but not as lame, sole, artifacts. Material Culture as a network of homologous orders emerged as the powerful foundation for more or less everything that constitutes a given society. This theory also helps account for the initial observation that even within a religion such as Hinduism, a belief in the ultimate truth as a form of immateriality is still commonly expressed through material forms and practices, such as temple architecture or yogic control over bodies.

What this example hopefully demonstrates is that, yes, it is entirely possible to have a theory of objects as artifacts. Indeed, there are likely to be many of these. A particularly influential example in anthropology was that created by Arjun Appadurai's (1986) book The Social Life of Things, in which the editor's introduction in combination with the chapter by Igor Kopytoff (1986) reconsidered objects in respect to a core anthropological dualism between the gift and the commodity. It plotted a trajectory for things in their ability to move in and out of different conditions of identification and alienation. Just as Bourdieu softened and made more applicable the harder structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, Appadurai's work had the virtue of softening the dualistic frame into which this debate about gifts and commodities had become lodged and helping to ease its application to the analysis of exchange and indeed the larger social life of things.


Excerpted from MATERIALITY Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Materiality : an introduction 1
Objects in the mirror appear closer than they are 51
A materialist approach to materiality 72
Some properties of art and culture : ontologies of the image and economies of exchange 88
Sticky subjects and sticky objects : the substance of African Christian healing 118
Does money matter? : abstraction and substitution in alternative financial forms 140
The materiality of finance theory 165
Signs are not the garb of meaning : on the social analysis of material things 182
Materiality and cognition : the changing face of things 206
Beyond mediation : three new material registers and their consequences 231
Things happen : or, from which moment does that object come? 256
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