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An Anthropology of Materials

An Anthropology of Materials

By Daphne Stylianou

We live in a world of materials. We make or re-make them, we find and use them as natural resources, and yet we struggle to understand them. What can materials do? What stories might they tell? What is their potential?

The material world is deeply ingrained in everyday life, participating in how people construct and define their culture–through engagement with objects, spaces, and technologies. From architecture, clothing, art, food, and digital devices to the Internet of Things, materials have a social existence. Never isolated, they relate to people and things, and as a part of our lives, they have the power to impact them. They can shape human experience; for products we use, in spaces we inhabit, and through objects we buy, make, collect, love or discard.

Sources from the land or the lab, materials and their unique properties can prompt new experiences and innovations. They can revolutionize how we design, interact and live. There is multidisciplinary interest in what actions and impact a material could afford, and therefore potentially transform our health, our environment and even our bodies.

Beyond the tactility of materials, what we often don’t see or understand is their implication on the economy, consumers, markets, ecosystems and politics, and in turn how such broader frameworks influence materials and our relationships with them. Materials are not just a tangible expressions of ideas; through an interrogation of their meaning and practice, they show us how they may fashion social values and structures.

Through a material lens, we could better understand relationships between people and things, where objects are not just passive physical artifacts, but operate in entangled connections and have the power to construct identity, ascribe meaning, collect memories, preserve heritage and knowledge, and generate action. The role of materials in constituting social worlds is often overlooked. A ‘material empathy,' arrived at by studying materials, is neither just method or theory but a new ground to reveal what is between and how it might evoke a way of seeing, discovering and understanding.

Tin Plinth, for the Plinth Project, by Jenny Nordberg. The Plinth project is an examination of the parameters of plinths as typology and our cultural conceptions of them. Image source: Jenny Nordberg Press Images

Tin Plinth, for the Plinth Project, by Jenny Nordberg. The Plinth project is an examination of the parameters of plinths as typology and our cultural conceptions of them. Image source: Jenny Nordberg Press Images

 Tin Plinth, by Jenny Nordberg, as part of the Plinth Project. Often working with the tension between the hand made and the machine made, Nordberg wanted to explore the production of a sheet material that could be used to create a plinth. Image Source: Etage Projects

 Tin Plinth, by Jenny Nordberg, as part of the Plinth Project. Often working with the tension between the hand made and the machine made, Nordberg wanted to explore the production of a sheet material that could be used to create a plinth. Image Source: Etage Projects

The study of material culture interrogates the complex and integral role of things in our lives, where materials are not just aesthetic or symbolic representations, but have lives and agency of their own. Anthropologists have long scrutinized how the making and consumption of things help us unpack beliefs, values and social behavior–concluding that material culture cannot be excluded in the understanding of societies.

Definitions of Material culture have been loosely adapted to include objects, technology, processes and tangible evidence of cultural heritage. Not only what is seen in museum displays, but beyond that, the ongoing interactions between objects and external elements. Materiality within anthropological inquiry engages in material and social aspects, not as opposing forces, but in the ways that people and things relate to each other. The contexts around the composition of material worlds, alongside the shaping of human experience and culture, can be understood as mutually constitutive.

“Through dwelling upon the more mundane sensual and material qualities of
the object, we are able to unpack the more subtle connotations with cultural lives and values that are objectified through these forms, in part because of the qualities they possess.” (Daniel Miller)

Materials are storytellers; revealing values, desires, perceptions, behaviors and they also have authority. It can be unwittingly disregarded as we forget to take notice of the material world around us or simply the ‘stuff’ that we use. But a lot can be drawn from these mundane everyday accounts that underline the entanglements of material expressions and human motivations. 

Take, for example, materials in the built environment; We can see how architects and urban designers choose and validate the use of certain materials across an often contested city landscape. Marble and concrete are widely used in architectural contexts, are associated with different aesthetics and even experienced in different ways. One is an ancient raw material and the other a competing synonym for modernity. Their respective histories and processes narrate techniques, landscapes, economic interests and environmental impact. They also document time and place.

Material politics accompany economic structures and agendas and navigate decision-making. Resistance from industry and reluctant policy to adopt new materials might point towards interests removed from sustainable initiatives, but also towards the realm of financial concerns. We are, however, entering a phase where a material language is taken seriously and is indicating to a future where eco-friendly applications could be embraced on an industrial scale.

Self Healing Concrete. Image Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Self Healing Concrete. Image Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Against a backdrop of environmental urgency, materials can be on the frontline for a sustainable design approach. Imagine a building that can repair itself. Self-healing concrete uses bacteria to self-heal its cracks and could be one of the materials of the future. How do we begin to make sense of such new materials–introduced in existing contexts, with the potential to disrupt, replace, improve or challenge current economies and systems? We resent the ubiquity of plastic, yet its easiness surrounds us. Cost-effective, flexible, and easy to manufacture are only some of the reasons why plastics are widely used. But if not plastic, then what?

Plastic recycling is becoming more complex; the amount of plastic waste generated annually is growing and managing it means reducing the amount ending up in landfills, reprocessing waste material into new products, understanding consumption, and consumer behavior, and using less plastic in design. Materials are scrutinized more and more today– we are tracing their lifecycle and where they end up, asking if they can be reused, repaired or hacked. Designing our waste might be the defining aspiration and antagonism of 21st-century design.

'Bottle' By Smile Plastics comprises multicolored bottle sheets made from recycled plastic bottles. Image source: Smile-Plastics.com

'Bottle' By Smile Plastics comprises multicolored bottle sheets made from recycled plastic bottles. Image source: Smile-Plastics.com

'Bottle' By Smile Plastics comprises multicolored bottle sheets made from recycled plastic bottles. Image source: Smile-Plastics.com

'Bottle' By Smile Plastics comprises multicolored bottle sheets made from recycled plastic bottles. Image source: Smile-Plastics.com

Making matters

Why do we make? To make is human and to understand how, why and with what is to try to understand what makes us human.

Today there is an increased consciousness of how we produce and consume, and why. This creates an opportunity to discuss ‘peak stuff,' throwaway culture, the Circular Economy, a post-digital age, and what is coming next. It might be a lesson in unlearning how to design, prototype and engage objects. Shifts in manufacturing are opening up alternatives, with examples such as 3D printing or a growing interest in bio-design which uses living materials like fungi and bacteria. By challenging notions of design and making for consumers, the designer takes on the role of problem-solver and change-agent to create meaningful impact.

New materials, new technologies and new ways of experiencing the world could reframe practice in the design disciplines. But what are the political (and cultural) implications of their emergence and implementation? Urban spaces could be reimagined to be more environmentally conscious, sustainable and socially inclusive. Material innovation could be the motivating trend for social responsibility.

There are many ways to consider materials in the context of design and making today. Material culture studies may look to, and address the agency of things, their social biographies, their transformation of value, and proceed to ask some bigger questions. Thinking with and through materials–how they are valued, given cultural significance, how they reinforce a group’s goals and beliefs, what responses they elicit–may facilitate design for alternative futures. 

Such reflections and critical inquiry could build a material consciousness that is invaluable to design; helping create better products, stronger buildings, beautiful things and efficient services. Can materials then become discursive devices with which to understand how social and material transformations relate?


Cover Image Credit: Photograph by Frederik Vercruysse  http://www.frederikvercruysse.com/


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