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Material Culture: What is it and How Can it Help?

What is material culture?

Since the start of civilization and production of goods, material culture has been around. Museums exist today because of the preservation of goods, we are able to learn so much from cultures as we study their artifacts that have been around for centuries. These items were utilized and passed on for re-use. They were valuable and taken care of so their children or grandchildren could also use them. These goods had such a useful purpose, the sentimental value towards the objects grew as well.

This is something that every single one of us does whether we're aware of it or not. We subconsciously categorize and rank our clothes, toys, food, tools, whatever it may be.

Let me start by posing this question, if your house was on fire what objects would you save? This popular question has several objectives to it. But in this case, I ask you because the objects you decide to risk your life for clearly have value and meaning. Whether it be your grandmother's quilt, your laptop or your favourite painting-these items are important to you. Material culture is the value you give to an item or the meaning it holds outside of its original purpose.

In the same breath, ask yourself what objects would you leave in the fire without hesitation? For me, this question meant more to me than the initial question. It challenges me to think about the products I purchase and the reasons for why I am purchasing them. I am trying to understand the value and meaning that each product will bring me by purchasing it.

If material culture and the awareness of how we rank our things grew, could it slow down the rate of purchasing? We have become players in the game that is advertising and marketing. We are told we need something when we don’t, sold a solution to a problem we don’t have, and convinced that without a product we will be outcasted. Material culture is so much more than material. It is the relationship we have with an object. It could be our connection to a family member, a memory, a location, whatever the case, we’ve connected an object to a feeling and given it a much deeper meaning than it's initial purpose. I am not saying find the underlying message or connection to a tomato plant you bought at your local market, but I am suggesting that by understanding the course of a product, and how it is serving you, you could potentially stop yourself from buying unnecessary products. Or worse buying products for the wrong reasons, because it’s something society has made you think you need. We are all active members of our society, so it starts with us and the message we choose to send to our peers.

Let's dive a bit deeper into that concept of wanting to fit in: How much of your day to day choices are influenced by social norms? The feelings you get when you’re with your colleagues versus when you're with your friends. You adapt your personality depending on who your audience is, you decide who you want to be depending on who you're with because you make assumptions on what is "socially acceptable". This goes beyond the way you act or socialize - you strategically choose what clothes you wear, maybe you wear your newest pair of shoes or drive your fanciest car, maybe you do your hair or wear a hat, put on lipstick or wear no makeup. You decided what version of "you", you want to portray depending on who you're with.

That being said, how much of your material purchases are navigated by how others perceive you? How much of your shopping experiences are motivated by other's identity choices and not even your own? How much of your actual identity is shown through the way you express yourself, verbally and physically? We are all exposed to social norms and they will undoubtedly form our opinions and lifestyle choices. But these questions are asked to challenge you to check in with yourself. To remember that by allowing social customs to tell us what to buy and what we need, we hand over our power to make our own decisions free of external influences.

This is what scares me the most. I am just as much exposed to societal expectations and I am guilty of basing my purchases off materialistic wants formed by social trends and not materialistic needs. Adding material culture to the equation of inevitability of consumerism, perhaps can help to eliminate unnecessary consumption by finding a connection to the products we choose to buy. Our planet needs and the people on it need a resolution. And like I've mentioned before, finding quality goods made from quality human labour standards are just as much at play and, in fact, go hand in hand with material culture. I know for myself, the purchases I know have had zero environmental costs (even better helped the environment), or that contribute to my local economy, I automatically give higher importance and value to. Which means I am more likely to use it to it's fullest extent or keep it for much longer. This is really the issue that lies within consumerism. The detrimental rate in which we purchase and discard our goods when they were still able to give us years of usage.

I leave you with this: We've all been witnesses to heirlooms or artifacts that have lasted for centuries, what items do you think today's society will be known for leaving behind? I truly hope they don't have to be found in landfills.

Sources: "Consumption and it's Consequences" by Daniel Miller

"What is Material Culture?" lecture by Sophie Woodward

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