Week 3: On Method

This week for class, we read six articles dealing with different approaches to the study of material culture. The readings gave great insight into the ways in which material culture is viewed and how scholars see different uses for the field.

The first article was E. McClung Fleming’s “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” which laid out a step by step approach to the study beginning with identification, then evaluation, cultural analysis, and then interpretation. Fleming organized these stages because he believed that “to know man we must study his things;” therefore, identification deals with what the object is and evaluation serves as a judgement on its aesthetic quality (153 &156). The understanding of the object is expanded on in the cultural analysis to see its function in its culture and interpretation served to see the relation to our current culture (158 & 160). Fleming’s system of study is very useful because it concisely organizes how the object should be approach; however the only apparent drawback is that in practice the neat categories will blend into one another so that the analysis of one could be influence by another.

The next article was Jules David Prown’s “Mind in Matter,” which while similar to Fleming’s method organized the study of objects slightly differently. Prown used three stages of study, the first being descriptive, which looked content, as well as analysis of the object’s substance and form (8). The second stage, deduction, focused on the relationship between the object and the perceiver relying on sensory, intellectual, and emotional engagement (9). The final stage was speculation, which takes place in the mind of the perceiver and makes use of scholarly investigation of the object to see what is plausible about the object and its role (10). One problem of Prown’s method that seems more apparent than with Fleming’s is the blurring of the lines between the stages, in which one could negatively influence how the previous or next stage is approached.

The next method put forth was by Tim Ingold in “Materials against Materiality,” in which he argued that scholars need to move away from materiality, which he clams does not exist, in favor or studying simply the material itself (7). Ingold stressed that material culture need to study the properties of the material and not be drawn into a study of its thingness or a dualist view of things and nature or things and humans. Thus, one should study all the components of the thing, such as ink being made with material from various plants and animals. Ingold’s method is a major break from Fleming and Prown’s since it rejects the later stages of their studies; however, by focusing on the material Ingold overlooks the culture aspect of material culture. This is because what gives a thing its thingness is the most interesting question that can be asked of an object since it gets to what makes humans human. Indeed, asking what the ink is made of is only really important if it is then used to ask why the society decided to make ink in the first place.

Laurel Ulrich’s “Furniture as Social History,” was the next reading for the class, which declared that focusing on “objects are not enough for historical discovery” (39). By this Ulrich meant that the study of material things must be combined with in-depth documents research and study as well. While both Fleming and Prown mentioned the important of document research, for Ulrich it was an invaluable part that allows the object to then highlight new society history directions (66). The most important take away from her article was the idea that when studying an object it one must connect it to broader social patterns and then connect those patterns to the social content in order to understand the value that was placed on the object (39). Ulrich’s methodology is very important because it grounds the work in additional methods of historical study, which when combined allow one to see more then what the two could do separately.

The next article was “Making Things Matter: The Material Value of Old Media” by Carolyn Kitch, which examined how objects speak of the lives of people who both made the thing and who decided to keep it (355). Kitch breaks down the study of material culture into three questions: whose was it, where has it been, and what will we keep (356, 358 & 360). This approach was interesting because it signals a shift from the others to looking mainly at the people behind the object instead of the object itself. Indeed, Kitch makes the distinction between the information value and the artifactual value, in which the aura is part of why the thing is preserved since it is part of what the object is (360). This method is important and in clear opposition to Ingold’s method since it is focused on the thingness of the object and how that relates to us. Due to this, it is a valuable method for studying material culture since it communicates the culture aspect by giving insight into how we understand objects from the past.

The final article was a New York Times article by Sam Anderson on artist Edmund de Waal, who creates art with porcelain. While not a traditional article like the other ones, this piece does shed light on an approach to material culture which relies heavily on the emotional connection to the object. De Wall stressed that one must touch an object to transcend both space and time since objects become “repositories of human experience.” Furthermore, in his book The Hare With Amber Eyes, de Waal believed that “touch tells you what you need to know: it tells you about yourself.’’ This is the important part of de Waal’s method since it is used not only to understand the history of the object but also to understand one’s relation to that object. While this method is weakened by its lack of scholarly approach, in that it relies solely on emotion, it can still be very important for tackling the cultural aspect of material culture.

The six different articles have given a number of different views on the study material culture. For my purposes in this class the most useful seem to be Fleming, Kitch, and Ulrich’s since they offer the best approaches for studying the torpedo tubes on the USS Becuna. While de Waal’s method is very interesting, it will be difficult to do much touching of the tubes since majority of it is within the structure of the submarine. In addition, while Prown’s method has value, it seems to be a less effective version of Fleming’s more thorough approach. Finally, Ingold’s approach seems to be limited in scope and lacking in-depth cultural analysis.


E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio 16 (1981): 154-173. Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter,” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 1-19. Tim Ingold, “Materials against Materiality,” Archaeological Dialogues 14 (2007): 1-16. Ulrich, “Furniture as Social History,” American Furniture. Carolyn Kitch, “Making Things Matter: The Material Value of Old Media,” American Journalism 32:3 (2015): 355-62. Sam Anderson, “Edmund de Waal and the Strange Alchemy of Porcelain,” The New York Times Magazine (November 25, 2015).  See online for images at http://tinyurl.com/oyj69y9.



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