Material culture



At this week’s group meeting, staff and graduate students gave lightning talks on their favorite papers. I chose Jules David Prown’s “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method”, published in the Winterthur Portfolio in 1982.

Prown defines material culture as “the study through (man-made) artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time”. It is a discipline used by other fields rather than a field itself.

He goes on to present a three-stage methodology for examining material objects, starting from more objective analysis and proceeding to more subjective. Each stage has multiple steps. The table below shows the stages as columns and the steps in each stage as rows in that column. It is meant to be traversed from the left and then down.

Description: internal evidence of the object itself Deduction: interpreting the interaction between the object and the perceiver Speculation: questions that lead out from the object to external evidence
Substantial analysis: physical dimensions, material, and articulation of the object Sensory engagement: touching, smelling, hearing, lifting the object Hypotheses: review information from previous stages, formulate hypotheses
Content analysis: subject matter, overt representations Intellectual engagement: what an object does, how it does it Program of research: for validating the hypotheses
Formal analysis: form or configuration, visual character Emotional response: shared between perceivers  

Prown’s article touches on several other topics, but this methodology is the main contribution.

I first learned about this paper from Arden Kirkland et al.’s Dress article in 2015. Later I read Valerie Steele’s seminal paper “A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag”, which discusses object-based research in fashion history using Prown’s methodology.