A summary of Stuff by the anthropologist Daniel Miller
The premise of this book is that things make people as much as people make things. Following Bordieu, Miller argues that individuals learn to become members of society, not through formal education, but because they are inculcated into the general habits and dispositions of that society through the way they interact in their everyday practices, which is already pre-structured in the objects they find around them.
For example, in modern society, we grow up to think of cars as being a normal part of life not just because of the fact of cars themselves, because so much of our environment is shaped around cars (the layout of cities and houses for example), and thus few of us ever seriously question the place of the car in our society.
Miller is also at pains to point out that it is not just in more materialist cultures where stuff is important in framing people’s life experiences – things are just as important in those cultures which have many fewer material items – even in Aboriginal cultures stuff is intricately bound up with the the processes of human communication and the construction of self and society. (He is an Anthropologist after all!)
For Miller, the primary process in society is social interaction, or communication – and things are part of this process, not separate from it (things don’t precede and shape culture like crude Marxism suggests and things are not just made to perform functions that have been predetermined by previous generations) – hence the concept of ‘material culture’, things are intimately bound up with the processes of identity construction and boundary maintenance, in all cultures.
Following Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx, material culture develops (I think for Miller ‘evolve would be the wrong word) through a dialectical process that is contradictory, paradoxical ambiguous and full of doubt. The agentic process of ‘doing material culture’ is a means whereby some people empower themselves, but the process of making and using things can disempower others, and things themselves become objectified and (almost?) take on an agency of their own, developing a kind of power over us. In this later aspect of his theory of material culture Miller draws on Gofmann to argue that the real power of things lie in their ability to frame our view of the world – certain objects come to have power over us because we are so used to them – something which Miller refers to as the ‘humility of things’
So what you see in any material culture (which is all culture) is people using stuff to facilitate communication, and as a result some people become empowered, but at the same time, this stuff becomes objectified and constrains people in unanticipated ways – leading to a range of responses (people always have agency).
Miller gives the classic example of the Kula Ring (a classic example in anthropology which I won’t repeat here) -his point is that the goods in this trading ring don’t have to be traded, they are traded as a means to facilitate social communication – and some people get wealthy through participating – however, the fact that the trading rings exists means that anyone who doesn’t participate (and some people choose not to) risks being branded a witch.
Elsewhere he analyses the ‘normal’ clothing strategies in London as a blasé response to a material culture in which there is too much choice – London is one of the shopping capitals of the world for fashion, and yet look around the streets and so many people choose very similar looking clothes – (blues, blacks and greys!). Millers theory seems to be that fashion is used by some people to empower themselves (women in particular, although personally I don’t buy this, excuse the pun) – but the majority of us fashion appears as bewildering and so we revert to choosing not to choose by wearing very similar clothes to everyone else.
Elsewhere he focuses on housing – In modernist council housing, which was very much imposed on the poor, people feel a sense of alienation because it was built for them and has since become associated with a sense of drugs and crime – however, people try to undo this sense of alienation by decorating them – but mainly couples – because of a combination of woman providing the aesthetics and men providing the DIY – where singles live together, hardly any changes have been made.
He also says that he feels inferior to his own early 1900s house – because it is a period property which he feels he can never decorate appropriately – objects have agency in some way, power over the individual. Simply having a nice house doesn’t lead you to a utopic state he says.
In Conclusion – what I like about the book…
Well, if you want depth you can’t really fault anthropological methods – the on the ground research, using Pobs and interviews over several months in each case does reveal the complex ways people use material objects in a variety of ways. These methods are useful in understanding how people use stuff!
I also buy the whole material culture existing everywhere argument too – I think he’s correct to remind us that less material cultures are still material
And, yes he’s right in that stuff can empower us – it is employed socially – part of the fabric of social life, and yes it does create opportunities for some and constrain others.
In conclusion – what I don’t like about the book…
I guess I’m uncomfortable about the fact that all of the above is where it stops – the point is to elucidate on a theory of material culture rooted in in-depth observations – there’s no real critical analysis – despite the fact Miller says he’s left-leaning at one point.
I’m especially uncomfortable with the chapter on housing – where he seems to be suggesting that couples in council housing have more material freedom in relation to their house than he does in his period property, and I don’t buy the idea that shopping is a means for people who are traditionally marginalised to empower themselves.
I think the whole study needs relating more to the amount of money people have – shopping for sure, is probably liberating for the wealthy, but is unlikely to be so for people who cannot afford to shop.
Also, I think we need more of an objective position on what liberation viz stuff actually means – if you can empower yourself with less stuff – such as a monk who has expert knowledge and perceived rights to access and interpret and manipulate scarce religious symbols, I think it’s fair to say you’re a lot more liberated than an uneducated 40 year old house wife who needs to spend £1500 a month on clothes to feel empowered, and is about to regret that pre-nup she signed because her high-income earning husband’s on the verge of upgrading to a younger model.