The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication

The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication

The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication

The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication


In this ground-breaking work, the distinguished anthropological theorist, Michael Brian Schiffer, presents a profound challenge to the social sciences. Through a broad range of examples, he demonstrates how theories of behaviour and communication have too often ignored the fundamental importance of objects in human life.Building upon the premise that the most important feature of human life is not language but the relationships which take place between people and objects, the author shows that artifacts are involved in all modes of human communication - be they visual, auditory or tactile. By creatively folding elements of postmodernist thought into a scientific framework, he creates new concepts and models for understanding and analysing communication and behavior, offering a reassessment of the centrality of materiality to everyday life.


In the mid-1980s, an undergraduate student, Kenneth Fordyce, spent some time hanging out in my archaeological laboratory. He was very bright and, being an older student who had taken countless classes across the university, uncommonly learned. One day we got into an animated discussion about why there were boundaries between the various social sciences. I argued that there were good reasons for a division of labor in investigating human affairs, and recited a litany of bromides that I had probably acquired as an undergraduate. Unimpressed, he stridently asserted that all social sciences study the same phenomena, but use different, sometimes mutually unintelligible, jargons. To this apparently outrageous claim, I responded with more platitudes, but Ken remained unconvinced.

In the years that have passed since this encounter, I have often wondered whether there is any ontological, epistemological, or theoretical justification for the tribalization of the human sciences. This question was never far from my mind as I pursued, in the late 1980s and 1990s, projects on the history of electrical products.

While researching the social, cultural, behavioral, and technological contexts of portable radios and electric cars through the decades, I came to appreciate that the explanation of these product trajectories required the integration of concepts and principles originating in diverse disciplines, including engineering, history, and several social sciences. Gradually I realized that Kenneth Fordyce had been on to something. At the very least, it appeared to me that the fragmentation of knowledge represented by traditional disciplines worked against the development of an integrated, scientific approach to explaining human behavior. I wondered if perhaps there were more systematic ways to build conceptual bridges across the social sciences.

Although I have lost respect for the sanctity and scientific utility of traditional disciplinary boundaries, the present work does have a center of gravity, a core orientation derived from one discipline: archaeology - behavioral archaeology in particular. in many ways, this is the ideal place to begin integrating the study of human behavior, for archaeology is the quintessential interdisciplinary discipline, having boundaries permeable to ideas and modes

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