iPhones and security blankets
January 4, 2011 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Anthropology filter: looking for books, essays, and articles on the anthropology of things. Basically, why do we assign emotional value to physical objects, like security blankets and iPhones. I'm not really interested in religious relics and fetishes, but rather a more cultural anthropology explanation. I'd prefer scholarly articles/books, but will take a good popular book.
posted by bryghtrose to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You'd be interested in the Material World blog. A teacher recommended me Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, but it sounds like it might go off in the deeper end than you're looking at.

You seem to have already decided what "things" are, and some anthropologies will relativize the hell out of that. For an example of this, see this review of Thinking Through Things. The review is by Danny Miller, one of the organisers of the Material World Blog. Holbraad, one of the editors of the book, responds in the comments section, and his response will explain more clearly what I mean.
posted by squishles at 8:14 AM on January 4, 2011

Arjun Appadurai's The Social Life of Things would be a very good starting point. At least as of 10-15 years ago, a lot of anthropological work on the meaning of objects harks back to Karl Marx's discussion of commodity fetishism and Marcel Mauss's The Gift. You might also look at Mary Douglas's The World of Goods.

More recently, you might like the work of Dan Miller (most recently "Stuff," which is pulls together bits and pieces of his long history of research on material culture).
posted by SomeTrickPony at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bourdieu's Distinction is another touchstone in this discussion.

This secondary source is a good shorthand explanation of Bourdieu's ideas, if you don't want to read all 613 pages.
posted by umbú at 8:27 AM on January 4, 2011

I think that Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism is an interesting and relevant popular book on things. The section on the fine line between the cute and the grotesque might be worth reading, at least.
posted by umbú at 8:30 AM on January 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Dick Hebdige's take on the Motor Scooter as a Sexed Object might be of interest as well. It looks at the history of masculine and feminine associations surrounding motorcycles and motor scooters.
posted by umbú at 8:34 AM on January 4, 2011

This'll be my last comment for now (Sorry! This question is an interesting one to me). Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett's discussion of artifacts goes way beyond just religious relics and fetishes. I think that the book Destination Culture might shed some light on this topic.
posted by umbú at 8:40 AM on January 4, 2011

The search terms you want might be "material anthropology" and "emotion"
posted by bilabial at 10:18 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the suggestions. I'll do a lot of reading and then mark favorites.

squishles- I'm open to any interpretation of "things" but I do want to stay more secular than religious. iPhones and security blankets were just the first things I thought of--they both seem to be tied up with a person's identity, and they can cause panic when lost.

bilabial-Those search terms look useful. My librarian mojo was broken and I couldn't come up with any good results searching for anthropology + things.
posted by bryghtrose at 11:13 AM on January 4, 2011

"Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: an Anthropological Sourcebook" (john Sherry, ed.), or "A Theory of Shopping" (Daniel Miller) might hit the spot.
posted by lathrop at 11:49 AM on January 4, 2011

Fair enough: some anthropologists would challenge you also on deciding what was in the secular and what was in the religious sphere. For me, part of the point of anthropology is that we look at different cultures, where these distinctions are very different, and use them to learn better about our own. But I understand that this is not always helpful or desirable. (Feel free to carry this on via memail if you'd like to.)

For reference, the relevant part from Holbraad's comment:
Like the term 'worldview', [the term "Material Culture"] builds the analytical *distinction* between things and concepts and so on ([...]) into the demarcation of its field. The problem with this is that if you *set up* your field of study as one of 'material culture', then you prejudice the kinds of stuff you are able to find within it. Namely, you bind yourself to finding 'materials' (objects, artefacts, etc.) and 'culture' (ideas, worldviews, imaginings, or even social relations and so on). You may then, having found these things, ask yourself how they relate to each other, why they need each other, what the role of consumption of one by the other is, and so on. All these questions, inspirational though they clearly are, are neveretheless *also always* a function of your analytical prejudice, i.e. the fact that you've decided a priori that the world contains 'materials ' and 'cultures'.

Of course, this assumption might *turn out* to be a good one in all sorts of contexts. But, as the Thinking Through Things book tries to show, this is a question that should be *asked a posteriori*, i.e. it should be treated as an ethnographic 'mootness', rather than treated as an analytical credo, built in, no less, to the terms by which the discipline (or the subdiscipline... who cares other than us at UCL?) is set up. And I do think that many of the articles in the book, including my own, show that on certain ethnographic occasions the distinction between materiality and culture distorts and obscures.

posted by squishles at 11:55 AM on January 4, 2011

I liked The Nature of Things a lot.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:34 PM on January 4, 2011

If you're interested in security blankets, you need to have Winnicott's Playing and Reality on your reading list; yes, it's more psychology than social anthropology, but Winnicott's theory of the transitional object is too influential to leave out. ('The object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated' -- one of my favourite Winnicott sentences.) Baudrillard's essay The System of Collecting is also essential reading.
posted by verstegan at 3:48 PM on January 4, 2011

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