Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective


Material culture surrounds us and yet is habitually overlooked. So integral is it to our everyday lives that we take it for granted. This attitude has also afflicted the academic analysis of material culture, although this is now beginning to change, with material culture recently emerging as a topic in its own right within the social sciences. Carl Knappett seeks to contribute to this emergent field by adopting a wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach that is rooted in archaeology and integrates anthropology, sociology, art history, semiotics, psychology, and cognitive science. His thesis is that humans both act and think through material culture; ways of knowing and ways of doing are ingrained within even the most mundane of objects. This requires that we adopt a relational perspective on material artifacts and human agents, as a means of characterizing their complex interdependencies. In order to illustrate the networks of meaning that result, Knappett discusses examples ranging from prehistoric Aegean ceramics to Zande hunting nets and contemporary art.

Thinking Through Material Culture argues that, although material culture forms the bedrock of archaeology, the discipline has barely begun to address how fundamental artifacts are to human cognition and perception. This idea of codependency among mind, action, and matter opens the way for a novel and dynamic approach to all of material culture, both past and present.


This book has arisen out of my continuing engagement with archaeological artifacts from the Aegean Bronze Age. Faced with such artifacts there is a constant urge to understand what they may have meant in their original social contexts. Yet archaeologists are surprisingly ill-equipped when it comes to tackling the meaningfulness of the objects they unearth. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, not least a rather rigid understanding of what objects are and how it is that humans interact with them. What I have sought to do here is explore these basic theoretical issues—the status of objects and of the humans producing and using them—by looking at developments in a range of fields that confront such questions in relation to objects in the contemporary world. The disciplines in question include cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and art history. I have also attempted to create a network of connections between some of these fields, and as such this volume endeavors to open up new paths for investigation. It seems important, however, that theoretical discussion should eventually be steered back toward archaeology; hence a deliberate effort is made to put the theory into practice. My concern is with material culture in both the present and the past.

An interdisciplinary venture of this kind entails a certain number of risks. Inevitably, much of the reading matter lies beyond orthodox academic boundaries. Although the rigidity of such boundaries is often decried, one quickly begins to see the logic of their existence—the implicit research agendas and hidden academic battles make for tricky terrain. Progress can be slow as one seeks to digest texts written with different vocabulary and accumulated assumptions. Mistakes and misunderstandings will surely be more common than one would have hoped. The hope is that these shortcomings may be forgiven, for the sake of seeing the value of new connections, if only roughly drawn.

One resource that is indispensable in such a project is time—time to head off along blind alleys and find a way back again. I have been fortunate enough to have been granted this luxury in the form of a Junior Research . . .

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