Chapter 4: Sociological Analysis of Material Culture

Silvana Rodarte
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Chapter 4: Sociological Analysis of Material Culture


  • By Silvana Rodarte Citation Berger,A. A. (2016) What Objects Mean: AnIntroduction to Material Culture (2nd ed.). NY, NY: Routledge.  
  1. Methodology: Sociological Theory
    1. Definition: It deals with attempts that sociologists and other scholars have made to understand how institutions, function in society.
      1. Sociology is the study of human beings in groups and institutions. It includes areas such as marriage, family, class systems, race, gender, religion, and other aspects of collective behavior.
      2. French philosopher August Comte 1798-1857 used the term “sociology” to integrate theoretical and practical studies of human beings. “…to know in order to predict in order to control”. He wanted to know how people organized their lives.
        1. French scholar Emile Durkheim 1858-1917, known as founder of French sociology. He argues there two beings within him: individual (physical endowments) and social (ideas and values shaped by social order). We are in society as society is in us. Artifacts are in society and society is reflected in them.
          1. Method: Duality of our nature has its consequence in the practical order, the irreducibility of a moral ideal to a utilitarian motive, and in the order of thought, the irreducibility of reason to individual experience.
            1. Method: We have individuality, which is based on our physical endowments, the fact that we are “organism”, and we are also, at the same time, social beings, whose ideas and values are shaped, to varying degrees, by the social order.
            2. Methodology: Functionalism
              1. Definition and Characteristics: Focus on whether an institution ( or something else) helps contribute to the stability and maintenance of society, in which case the institution is “functional” or helps contribute to the destabilization and breakdown of society, in which case the institution is “dysfunctional” or “dysfunctional”. If it plays no role then its “non-functional”. There’s more to an object than its primary function.
                1. Six aspects of functionalism: Functional- helps maintain entity. Dysfunctional- helps destabilize the entity. Non-functional- plays no role in the entity. Functional alternative- substitutes for original function. Manifest functions: obvious, stated reason for using something. Latent function unconscious factors involved in using something.
                2. Method: We can apply functionalism to components of institutions and to all kinds of different entities, including artifacts, asking what function the artifact has for people.
                  1. Method: Example of cell phones. Manifest function is to be able to make phone calls just about everywhere. Latent functions involve anything from helping deal with loneliness and keeping track of children to making people feel powerful by being able to summon others at their command, so to speak, by punching a few numbers in a cell phone.
                    1. Method: From functionalist perspective, we can ask questions about artifacts and have an analysis on different aspects. For example, using cellphones, a functional aspect would be it connects with others. A dysfunctional aspect would be it disturbs others, or wastes time. A non-functional aspect would not be present. A functional alternative aspect would be it substitutes for traditional phone. A manifest function aspect would be it makes phone calls, and sends texts to others. Lastly, a latent function aspect would be it controls others, and avoids loneliness.
                    2. Methodology: Taste Cultures
                      1. Definition and characteristics- Typologies are classification schemes. One typology done by Herbert J.Gans in his book “Popular Culture and High Culture” talks about wanting to defend people who like popular culture against attack by elitists who like high or “elite” cultures. He argues for aesthetic pluralism, pointing out that each taste culture finds media and fashions to its interests. Taste cultures entertain us, inform us, and beautify our lives. They consist of values, the cultural forms which express these values: music art, design,…books, magazines,…films,…architecture,…etc.
                        1. Method: Gans defended his idea by suggesting that in America there are a number of different popular cultures and elite cultures, each of them is part of what he described as taste culture.
                          1. Method: Gans points out that choices people make about the objects they purchased are connected to one another.
                            1. Example: People who read “The New Yorker” tend to like foreign films, listen to classical music, eat gourmet foods, and choose contemporary furniture.
                            2. Method: Five distinct taste cultures on America offers us a way of thinking about who uses what kind of material culture.
                              1. High Culture- socioeconomic-cultural elites. Upper Middle Culture- executives, professionals, managers, spouses Lower Middle Culture- older lower-middle class people Quasi-Folk Low Culture- unskilled blue collar and service workers Youth, Black, and Ethnic Cultures Psychedelic and multimedia art Tie-dyed and unisex clothing Paraphernalia of drug culture.
                              2. Method: The reading we do in books and newspapers, and magazines serves the purpose of giving us notions about what objects and other kinds of material culture are appropriate for individuals who are members of each socioeconomic class or taste culture.
                                1. Method: advertising teaches us to be “discriminating” consumers and to recognize what brands go with what kind of people.
                                  1. Wearing brand names seems to make us feel good about ourselves and in our minds, name brand objects are indicators of success.
                                2. Methodology: Uses and Gratifications Provided by Artifacts
                                  1. Definition and Characteristics: Originally developed by media theorists to see the uses people made of the media they consumed and the gratifications the various media genres provided.
                                    1. List of uses and gratifications provided by Artifacts
                                      1. 1. To have beautiful things
                                        1. Method: There is a kind of psychological reward we get from having desired and beautiful things to wear and have in the house, which leads to the feeling of success.
                                        2. 2. To find Diversion and Distraction
                                          1. Method: Process of purchasing objects enables us to escape from mundane preoccupations, and gives us a sense of power.
                                            1. Example: Buying a smartphone or T.V are used to entertain ourselves.
                                          2. 3. To Imitate Model We Respect
                                            1. Method: According to Rene Girard, we purchase things advertised using celebrities because we imitate their desires.
                                            2. 4. To Affirm Aesthetic Values
                                              1. Method: Choice we make in clothing or jewelry reflects our “taste”, our aesthetic value, our status. Our choice of objects may be connected to our lifestyles.
                                            3. Method: We can do the same thing for artifacts and theorize about the uses people make of the objects they have and the gratifications these objects have for them.
                                            4. Methodology: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender
                                              1. Definition and Characteristics: Race involves categorizing people by their genetic heritage (three racial categories: Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasian). Some objects are gender specific.
                                                1. Example: (birth control bills, nylon stockings)
                                                  1. Method: As more people from different races marry one another and have mixed-race children, the utility of race as a construct seems questionable.
                                                  2. Ethnicity refers to groups such as Jews, Italian-Americans, abd Hispanics that share certain religious, racial, national, and cultural traits and cuisines.
                                                    1. Method: Example, a bagel. From Jews but has become widely popular that it has lost its ethnic identity.
                                                    2. Method: Marketers use race and ethnicity to plan advertising campaigns.
                                                    3. Methodology: Status
                                                      1. Definition and Characteristics: Status is the position an individual has in some group, or that a group has relative to other groups. Sociologists suggest there are two kinds of status: ascribed (based on factors such as gender, our age, and status of the family in which we are born) (traditional societies), and achieved (based on our merits, our abilities, and our success in various endeavors) (Modern societies).
                                                        1. Method: One of the ways we demonstrate our status to others is by purchasing objects that function as status symbols, artifacts that suggest our wealth and socioeconomic class.
                                                        2. Methodology: Role
                                                          1. Definition and Characteristics: role refers to behavior expected of people who have a particular status. Our role behavior is generally unconscious. “Dramatic role presentation” deals with conscious efforts individuals make to create a positive impression among other people.
                                                            1. Method: Full professors have more status and play different roles than associate professors and assistant professors.
                                                            2. Socialization refers to teaching people what roles to play in various situations in which they find themselves.
                                                              1. Method: Fashion is an area where one can display improper socialization by wearing clothes that are not appropriate to one’s status. Example: Motorcycle riders wear leather jackets and ne may be acting like one but does not own a motorcycle.
                                                              2. Method: For example a mother can be an executive at a corporation, and a member of a religious organization.
                                                              3. Methodology: Jean Baudrillard’s “The System of Objects”
                                                                1. Definition and Characteristics: Jean Baudrillard was a French Marxist, sociologist, and semiotician. Perspective on material culture: Baudrillard alerts us to the many different qualities of objects and the variety of roles they play in our lives- private and public. He is interested in what objects reveal about social relations and society in general.
                                                                  1. Method: For classifying objects we look at: the size, degree of functionality, relationship to its own objective, gestures connected with it, form, duration, time of day in which it appears, material that it transforms, degree of exclusiveness or sociability attendant on its use, etc.
                                                                    1. Method: Baudrillard states that advertising is pure connotation. It contributes nothing to production or to the direct practical application of things, yet it plays an integral part in the system of objects, not merely because it relates to consumption but also because it itself becomes an object to be consumed.
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