Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

By Camp, Charles | Western Folklore, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Thinking through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective


Camp, Charles, Western Folklore


Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. By Carl Knappett. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. ix + 202, preface, maps, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth)

"Material culture"-the phrase, not the thing to which it refers-has recently generated a considerable buzz in art history, where it identifies the ground against which the varied figures of aesthetically charged objects may be arrayed and compared. Building upon well-established morphologies, anthropologists who produce ethnographies of contemporary cultures continue to find "material culture" a useful term. And folklorists who embrace the concept of "folklife" have for some time applied the phrase to segment the range of cultural expressions found in any community, designating some as spoken, some as sung, some as gestural, some as material.

A course that Don Yoder taught at the University of Pennsylvania for many years was titled "Material Aspects of American Folk Culture." There was (and is) both precision and balance in the phrase: a whole thing-even so very large and complex a thing as American folk culture-could be dissected and clarified by aligning one of its apparent characteristics with its ontological equivalent. Finding friends among cultural geographers, linguists, and genealogists, to name just a few, Yoder, Warren Roberts, and other American folklorists who first championed folklife studies used "material culture" to suggest the vast reaches of tradition to be found within and beyond it. A half-generation later, Henry Glassie's groundbreaking Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (1968) organized what had come before and charted a course for what would come next. Classic's early work was pointedly not about material culture; the first word in his book's title identified its true subject. Pattern's investigation of material folk culture was almost wholly concerned with pinning down the "folk" in material folk culture, not the "material." This was (and is) certainly consistent with the arguments that preoccupied folklorists in the twentieth century.

In the scramble to establish folklife studies, history seems a solid thing-too solid, perhaps, but understood if not assumed. Popular historians, Daniel Boorstin, for example, who write about folklore may seem a bit off m their identification of materials, in locating where the action is (1973). But archeologists have seemed to understand folklore, to choose examples that play to both historical and social scientific sensibilities. …

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