Mõtestades materiaalset kultuuri / Making sense of the material culture

  • Ester Bardone
  • Maarja Kaaristo
  • Kristi Jõesalu
  • Ene Kõresaar


People live amidst objects, things, articles, items, artefacts, materials, substances, and stuff – described in social sciences and humanities as material culture, which denotes both natural and human-made entities, which form our physical environment. We, humans, relate to this environment by using, depicting, interacting with or thinking about various material objects or their representations. In other words, material culture is never just about things in themselves, it is also about various ideas, representations, experiences, practices and relations. In contemporary theorising about material culture, the watershed between the tangible and intangible has started to disappear as all the objects have multiple meanings. This paper theorises objects mostly in terms of contemporary socio-cultural anthropology and ethnology by first giving an overview of the development of the material culture studies and then focusing upon consumption studies, material agency, practice theory and the methods for studying material culture.

Both anthropology and ethnology in the beginning of the 20th century were dealing mostly with ‘saving’; that is, collecting the ethnographical objects from various cultures for future preservation as societies modernised. The collecting of the everyday items of rural Estonians, which had begun in the 19th century during the period of national awakening, gained its full momentum after the establishment of the Estonian National Museum in 1909. During the museum’s first ten years, 20,000 objects were collected (Õunapuu 2007). First, the focus was on the identification of the historical-geographical typologies of the collected artefacts. In 1919, the first Estonian with a degree in ethnology, Helmi Reiman-Neggo (2013) stressed the need for ethnographical descriptions of the collected items and the theoretical planning of the museum collections. The resulting vast ethnographical collection of the Estonian National Museum (currently about 140,000 items) has also largely influenced ethnology and anthropology as academic disciplines in Estonia (Pärdi 1993).

Even though in the first half of the 20th century the focus lay in the systematic collection and comparative analysis of everyday items and folk art, there were studies that centred on meaning already at the end of 19th century. Austrian
ethnologist Rudolf Meringer suggested in 1891 that a house should be studied as a cultural individual and analysed within the context of its functions and in relation to its inhabitants. Similarly, the 1920s and 1930s saw studies on the roles of artefacts that were not influenced by Anglo-American functionalism: Mathilde Hain (1936) studied how folk costumes contribute to the harmonious functioning of a ‘small community’, and Petr Bogatyrev (1971) published his  study on Moravian costumes in 1937. This study, determining the three main functions – instrumental, aesthetic and symbolic – of the folk costume, and translated into English 30 years after first publication, had a substantial influence on the development of material culture studies.

The 1970s saw the focus of material culture studies in Western and Northern Europe shifting mainly from the examination of (historical) rural artefacts to the topics surrounding contemporary culture, such as consumption. In Soviet Estonian ethnology, however, the focus on the 19th century ethnographic items was prevalent until the 1980s as the topic was also partially perceived as a protest against the direction of Soviet academia (see Annist and Kaaristo 2013 for a thorough overview). There were, of course, exceptions, as for instance Arved Luts’s (1962) studies on everyday life on collective farms. Meanwhile, however, the communicative and semiotic turn of the 1970s turned European ethnology’s focus to the idea of representation and objects as markers of identity as well as means of materialising the otherwise intangible and immaterial relationships and relations. The theory of cultural communication was established in Scandinavian ethnology and numerous studies on clothing, housing and everyday items as material expressions of social structures, hierarchies, values and ideologies emerged (Lönnqvist 1979, Gustavsson 1991). The Scandinavian influences on Estonia are also reflected in Ants Viires’s (1990) suggestion that ethnologists should study clothing (including contemporary clothing) in general and not just folk costumes, by using a semiotic approach.

Löfgren’s (1997) clarion call to bring more ‘flesh and blood’ to the study of material culture was a certain reaction to the above focus. Researchers had for too long focused exclusively upon the meaning and, as Löfgren brought forth, they still did not have enough understanding of what exactly it was that people were actually and practically doing with their things. Ingold’s (2013) criticism on the studies focusing on symbolism, and the lack of studies on the tangible materiality of the materials and their properties, takes a similar position. In the 1990s, there was a turn toward the examination of material-cultural and those studies that were written within the framework of ‘new materialism’ (Hicks 2010, Coole and Frost 2010) started to pay attention to objects as embodied and agentive (Latour 1999, Tilley et al 2006). Nevertheless, as Olsen (2017) notes, all materialities are not created equal in contemporary academic research: while items like prostheses, Boyle’s air pumps or virtual realities enjoy increased attention, objects such as wooden houses, fireplaces, rakes and simple wooden chairs are still largely unexamined. The traditional material culture therefore needs new studying in the light of these post-humanist theories.

Where does this leave Estonian ethnology? In the light of the theoretical developments discussed above, we could ask, whether and how has the material Making sense of the material culture turn affected research in Estonia? Here we must first note that for a significant part of the 20th century, Estonian ethnology (or ethnography as the discipline was called before 1990s) has mostly been centred on the material culture (see the overview of the main topics from vehicles to folk costumes in Viires and Vunder 2008). Partly because of this aspect of the discipline’s history, many researchers actually felt the need to somewhat distance themselves from these topics in the 1990s (Pärdi 1998). Compared to topics like religion, identity, memory, oral history and intangible heritage, study of material culture has largely stayed in the background. There are of course notable exceptions such as Vunder’s (1992) study on the history of style, which includes analysis of their
symbolic aspects. It is also interesting to note that in the 1990s Estonian ethnology, the term ‘material culture’ (‘materiaalne kultuur’) – then seen as incorporating the dualism between material and immaterial – was actually replaced with the Estonian translation of German ‘Sachkultur’ (‘esemekultuur’, literally ‘artefact culture’). Nevertheless, it was soon realised that this was actually a too narrow term (with its exclusion of natural objects and phenomena as well as the intangible and social aspects of culture), slowly fell out of general usage, and was replaced with ‘material culture’ once again. Within the past three decades, studies dealing with material culture have discussed a wide variety of topics from the vernacular interior design (Kannike 2000, 2002, 2012), everyday commodities (Kõresaar 1999b) and spiritual objects (Teidearu 2019), traditional rural architecture (Pärdi 2012, Kask 2012, 2015), museum artefacts (Leete 1996), clothing, textiles and jewellery (Kõresaar 1999a; Järs 2004; Summatavet 2005; Jõeste 2012; Araste and Ventsel 2015), food culture (Piiri 2006; Bardone 2016; Kannike and Bardone 2017), to soviet consumer culture (Ruusmann 2006, Rattus 2013) and its implications in life histories (Kõresaar 1998, Jõesalu and Nugin 2017). All of these these studies deal with how people interpret, remember and use objects.

The main keywords of the studies of European material culture have been home, identity and consumption (but also museology and tangible heritage, which have not been covered in this article). Material culture studies are an important part of the studies of everyday life and here social and cultural histories are still important (even though they have been criticised for focusing too much on symbols and representation). Therefore, those studies focusing on physical materials and materialites, sensory experiences, embodiment, and material agency have recently become more and more important. This article has given an overview of the three most prevalent thematic and theoretical strands of the study of material culture: objects as symbols especially in the consumer culture, material agency and practice theory as well as discussing some methodological suggestions for the material culture studies.

To conclude, even though on the one hand we could argue that when it comes to the study of material culture there indeed exists a certain hierarchy of „old“ topics that relate to museums or traditional crafts and „new“ and modern materialities, such as smart phones or genetically modified organisms. However, dichotomies like this are often artificial and do not show the whole picture: contemporary children are often as proficient in playing cat’s cradle as they are with video games (Jackson 2016). Thus, studying various (everyday) material objects and entities is still topical and the various theories discussed in this article can help to build both theoretical and empirical bridge between different approaches. Therefore, there is still a lot to do in this regard and we invite researchers to study objects form all branches of material culture, be they 19th century beer mugs in the collections of the Estonian National Museum that can help us to better give meaning to our past, or the digital and virtual design solutions that can give our academic research an applied direction.

Keywords: material culture, artefacts, consumption, practice, agency, research methods


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