Academic journal article Material Culture

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary

Academic journal article Material Culture

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary

Article excerpt

Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary By Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012. vii + 169pp. Acknowledgements, bibliography and index. $63.00 (Hardcover), 978-0520272187; $27.95 (Softcover), 978-0520272194.

Emerging from British material culture and cultural studies, anthropologist Daniel Miller and sociologist Sophie Woodward have spent the past several years building numerous studies associated with the clothing item most commonly referred to as "blue jeans" or "denim," which the authors use interchangeably In this book, they present a hybrid discussion of data and theories emerging from an ethnographic study of three connected London streets in a majority middle-class, mixed-ethnicity neighborhood

The authors identify their initial goal for this study as simply to answer the question "Why do so many people wear jeans?" (p 3) Blue jeans are a common article of clothing that most people can identify and likely own In that regard, they are ordinary, everywhere But as Miller and Woodward demonstrate in Blue Jeans, once people start talking about their blue jeans, it's possible to uncover patterns associated with practical comfort, cost, appearance and identity, as well as a variety of other complex aspects of lived experience What this monograph offers as a result is an exploration into the complex role the clothing item plays not only in the London neighborhood the authors studied, but also on a broader geographic scale Similarly, Blue Jeans contributes practical and theoretical implications for cultural studies beyond Miller and Woodward's field site

As a result of the early stages of this ethnographic study, the authors developed the Global Denim Project, which is discussed in Miller and Woodward's 2011 edited volume Global Denim (New York: Berg Press) Readers interested in varied geographic and methodological discussions of denim will benefit from reading Global Denim in juxtaposition with Blue Jeans, which acts as a stand-alone case study connected to the Global Denim Project

Miller and Woodward's approach to denim in Blue Jeans, although initiated from a traditional open-ended ethnographic standpoint, developed into a multilayered quest to extrapolate understandings of social choices, conformity, identity, and normativity at a local and global scale The book is organized as follows: its early chapters explore the ethnographic approaches, questions, and participant stories that emerged from the authors' fieldwork, while the later chapters, though still discussing participant material, delve more deeply into theories of material culture (in this case, denim) and the concept of "ordinary "

Miller and Woodward conclude Blue Jeans with a brief review of various theories of the ordinary, material culture, and identity associated with the everyday In these sections, they engage anthropological, sociological, performance, and various interdisciplinary resources to discuss how studies of ordinary items can both reinforce ideas about difference and hierarchy while also illuminating the ways people address social difference in their daily lives Further, these sections explore how people consciously (or unconsciously, as Miller and Woodward argue is the case for their London participants) use jeans as a form of relaxing, standardizing their wardrobe, or regulating their day (e g , finishing the work day and putting on jeans, or vice versa)

In their concluding paragraphs, Miller and Woodward distinguish between ordinary and normative, suggesting that studies of the ordinary can provide an alternative approach for anthropologists who feel confined by the theoretical and ideological implications of normativity The concept "ordinary" works, they suggest, precisely because it is an embodied practice, a nonissue, and through studying people's use of this ordinary material item, there is significant opportunity to explore their personal and material engagement with the world without having to fret about intentionality, duty, aspiration or identity (p 136)

From a sociological perspective, Miller and Woodward argue that the term ordinary, though related to the term everyday, has important distinctions Ordinary and routine are intimately interconnected, they contend, and are often overlooked due to increased emphasis and sometimes romanticization of the everyday, as it was popularized by de Certau and LeFebvre, among others (p 141) Arguing against this romanticization, they instead suggest that maintaining a commitment to engaging material culture via ethnographic approaches touting open questions and data-guided conclusions can help scholars better understand the everyday routines Denim, they argue, is a great example of this because although it is globally recognizable and often studied from a marketing and branding standpoint, many people wearing jeans on the streets think of them as "go-to" pants when they don't want to have to think about their clothing This suggestion is supported by the fact that most of the authors' participants weren't able to recount what brand they were wearing during their interviews

Blue Jeans, as a detailed study situated within a larger project, provides multiple contributions to theories in material culture studies This ranges from the authors' concern for taking an ordinary item and unpacking its relationship to larger elements of culture and society, to unpacking problematic theoretical terms and their relationship with pressures in society to conform Within this, it also succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of theorizing about material cultural only in polarized terms of power and resistance In addition to this work's theory-oriented contributions, the methods and approaches for this body of work were straightforward, insightful, and can provide modeling and discussion for researchers interested in conducting similar studies

Miller and Woodward's accessible language and combination of specific participant stories and larger extrapolations engage readers interested in both theory/content One potential critique for Blue Jeans is that, depending on the reader's background and interests, Miller and Woodward may allocate too much time toward a theory of the role of blue jeans rather than the materiality of blue jeans On the other hand, a more politically-oriented reader might ask Miller and Woodward to expand their discussion of certain theoretical arguments In response to the former critique, I suspect Miller and Woodward would refer the reader to their introduction, where they underscore the specific role of their local study, and the discussions about blue jeans, in developing their theories (p 3-4) Regarding the latter critique, Miller and Woodward assert that their theory-driven chapters are not meant to be prescriptive for all societies, and that the essence of their project remains rooted in the material culture and the empirical data they gathered in their ethnographic site (p 15)

Blue Jeans provides a model wherein researchers can connect their localized methods and theories with a globalized and diverse network of methodologies In this, they highlight the vitality of material culture and its studies in the world They discuss, for example, the specific character of London and the specific neighborhood in which they situate their ethnographic perspective, and then suggest that the very arguments they make about blue jeans as a result of this local study can become moot if one considers the study of blue jeans in another part of the world By anchoring this work to one field site and project in tandem with a larger project engaging additional researchers, they are able to apply a comparative element and then develop further questions for future research Simultaneously, they succeed in arguing both for the ubiquity of blue jeans on the global front and for the value and possibilities associated with adhering to localized approaches to studying the same topic

[Author Affiliation]

Reviewed by Annemarie Galeucia, agaleu1@lsu. …

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