Accessibility statement

Stuff: an introduction to modern material culture studies  HIS 00043M-A

Module leader: Dr James Symonds


It has become clichéd to say that we live in a material world, but how do we interact with material things? How do material things affect the way that we relate to each other, and do the things that we buy and use reflect our identities, or shape them? Can we talk about the 'social life' of things, and if so, can things, like people, have biographies? This module provides an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of material culture studies. Drawing upon case studies from archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, sociology, and science and technology studies, we will explore how an examination of everyday things, from the designs  beer cans,  or the composition of household refuse, to the designed spaces of houses, shopping malls, or airport lounges, or protest camps, can enable us to move beyond simply seeing material culture as a mute and passive medium.

Learning outcomes

After successfully completing this course students will have become:

  • familiar with issues and debates in the interdisciplinary field of modern studies
  • understand how modern material culture studies may be used to explore aspects of consumerism in the recent past and contemporary world(s).
  • appreciate how the material-turn in archaeological and historical thinking can effectively contribute to debates about consumerism, environmental sustainability, and social justice in late-modern world(s).
  • have developed transferable skills in small group work and oral presentations

Structure and Content

This interdisciplinary course serves as an option for the History Department of History's Early History Modern MA, and for taught postgraduate courses in the Department of Archaeology.  The course is structured around weekly seminars (Weeks 2-9). After a brief introduction by the tutor, selected students will lead discussions with short presentations, and all students are expected to have undertaken the key readings and to participate in seminar discussions. The final session will be a review and general discussion.

The probable programme will include readings on the following topics:

  • Modern material culture studies: disciplinary perspectives
  • Consumerism and the consumer revolution
  • Perspectives on collecting and museums
  • The ‘material turn’ and the ‘social life’ of things
  • Material practices, agency, and identities
  • Objects and humans, entanglements and meanings
  • Landscapes, memories, built environments