SAS Bulletin

Volume 20   Number 1/2   January /June 1997

Learning from Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies.

W. David Kingery (ed.). Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1996. x + 262 pp.,15 b&w photographs, 36 line drawings. $39.00 (cloth). ISBN 1-56098-607-7.

Reviewed by Felicia Rounds Beardsley, Department of Anthropology, University of California-Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521 USA

    The papers in this volume represent the results of a conference on material culture held at the Smithsonian Institution. As the title suggests, and Kingery states in the preface and introduction, the goal of the conference and this volume, as well as its predecessor History from Things: Essays on Material Culture (Steven Lubar & W. David Kingery eds., Smithsonian Press, 1993), is to establish a common ground for discussion and introduce a relatively new and distinct multi-field discipline­material culture studies. This particular volume was intended to bring forward the methods and theories common to material culture studies in a variety of specialist fields, and legitimize the appellation material culturalist. The book is divided into four parts: part one, Paradigms for Material Culture Studies (chapter 2); part two, Material Culture in the History of Technology (chapters 3 to 5); part three, Formation Processes (chapters 6 to 11); and part four, Materials Science in Material Culture Studies (chapters 12 to 15).
    In the first part, Jules Prown focuses on material culture studies in art history. He examines the division of materialists (systematic scholars interested in object attributes introduced by the maker) and culturalists (humanists concerned with aesthetics and cultural belief systems unconsciously introduced by the maker), and their common focus, the object as evidence for interpretation. By recognizing the two opposing camps of ëhardí and ësoftí material culture studies, Prown suggests that the gap between the two can be bridged, and that in combination and through collaborative undertakings these two perspectives would interact synergistically, producing results that would far outweigh those from individual and separate studies.
    Part two presents three essays concerned with the application of material culture studies to the history of technology. In chapter 3, Steven Lubar suggests that historians of technology must go beyond the classificatory aspect of material culture and its embodiment of technological knowledge, change and achievement. They must also see and examine the larger issues embedded in technology, what he calls the ëbig questions of American history,í which encompass the conscious and unconscious contributions of the makers and users of material culture and technological things. These include culture change, social change, class, ethnicity, gender, and race. Joseph Corn, in chapter 4, presents an empirical study of journal articles by and for historians of technology. He notes that only 30 percent or so of the scholarly papers offer any evidence of the actual study of artifacts, that the majority of historians rely on secondary evidence of those whom they consider more technically competent than themselves (engineers and others who have primary hands-on experience with objects). Corn hypothesizes that this lack of personal experience or for that matter, the limited or practically non-existent testimony of personal interest and interaction with artifacts by these authors, has contributed to the current poor regard of material culture studies by many scholars. Ruth Oldenziel brings a feminist perspective to technology studies in chapter 5. She suggests the concentration on material artifacts and devices in technological histories is the result of social and cultural trends established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that these studies, by extension are gender-oriented and male-dominated. But, with the rise of information systems and the shift to technology as the ëconfiguration of knowledge, things, organizations and people,í gender-biased interpretations diminish and the role of women as active participants in the ëcreation of technical artifactsí becomes evident.
    In the third section of the book, Michael Schiffer leads the discussion of formation processes that culminate in object collections and render such collections available for study. He begins by establishing a theoretical context for the discussion of formation processes in chapter 6, and brings to bear much of his own work in this area. One of the first steps in the interpretation of past behaviors through artifacts, according to Schiffer, is to understand ëthe pathways that link past activities to their surviving traces in material entities extant today.í Schiffer then illustrates his point in the succeeding chapter with an example of shirt-pocket radios with subminiature tubes. He demonstrates the importance of the radios themselves as well as the biases inherent in their survival. Kristian Kristiansen in chapter 8 looks at the historical processes by which archaeological collections come to be included in the Danish museum collections. He discusses both the destruction of archaeological sites and the formation of museum collections, and their direct connection to social and economic development over the last two centuries. In chapter 9, Marjorie Akin illustrates her discussion of small private collections with coins. She examines how and why private collections are assembled and kept, and then how these same collections are subsequently dispersed and reformed. Catherine and Don Fowler discuss the formation of ethnographic museum collections in chapter 10. They illustrate their case study with artifacts collected from Native Americans in the Great Basin. Nancy Parezo, in chapter 11, concentrates on the formation processes in the archival records surrounding ethnographic collections. She points out that documentation (field notes, photographs and such) and the objects themselves are treated differently; the former are often considered personal possessions, the latter are treated as institutional property. As a consequence, the two rarely end up at the same place. She argues that this separation of documentation from the collections themselves often means that undocumented collections are of limited value in answering many research questions.
    The final part of the book contains four essays which examine the ways in which materials science contributes to material culture studies. David Kingery, in chapters 12 and 13, establishes a context for materials science in the study and interpretation of material culture. By examining material structure and properties, one can more easily discuss performance effectiveness and production activities, and draw inferences on the human activities of design, creation and manufacture as well as use and function. David Killickís essay in chapter 14 focuses on a realm of human experience which is poorly recorded in written texts - the development and growth of technology, the processing of raw materials, and the production of material artifacts. His method of analysis is microscopy, in particular high magnification studies, which takes the investigator into a whole new realm of analysis. Such techniques, he goes on to say, have revolutionized studies on ceramics, glass, glazes, and metals. Michael Tite, in chapter 15, shows how dating methods have revolutionized archaeology, the difficulties of provenance studies, and the analytical approaches to examine organic residues and use-wear patterns on tools and cooking vessels.
    The book promises much to those interested in the study of material culture, in particular it attempts to set forth a solid theoretical and methodological foundation from which future material culture studies can proceed. Yet, there is nothing new in this volume except the particularistic case studies that were presented. The continuing dialogue and florescence of material culture studies that should be generated by a book such as this are left with little direction and a less than solid foundation from which to move forward. If, on the other hand, one is looking for guidance and recipes with which to examine specific material culture elements, this book is a near panoply of examples.

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