Materializing Ethnography

The Ethnographic Gaze on Material Culture, between Consumption, Media and Technology Studies

Convenors: Lorenzo Domaneschi (University of Milan) &  Oscar Ricci (University of Milan-Bicocca)

There has been an increasing interest in materiality and material culture within the social sciences in recent years, both extending “classical” works on consumption and science studies and also exploring new “materialist” point of views about media and digital culture. On the whole, the study of material culture challenges the historical separation between the natural sciences as being the place for the study of the material world and the social sciences as being where society and social relations can be understood. In fact, a key area of contestation in the literature on material culture is the question of agency and the ways in which objects can produce particular effects and allowing (or preventing) certain cultural practices.

Although understandings of material culture have often been implicit within ethnographic work, it is only recently that ethnographic methods have started to be explicitly used to observe material practices in context. In fact, ethnographies of material culture operate from the idea that humans construct their social world by making and using things, constructing buildings and dwelling in them. Reciprocally things, artifacts and objects, and spaces construct human subjects, our personhood, our identity. As long as we make things, things make us.

Thus, such approaches pose challenges to the dominance of qualitative word-based methods (such as straightforward interviews) within social science methodological approaches. Studies specifically based on materiality may question existing theoretical models in the sociology of culture and provide researchers with opportunities for new empirical data.

With these considerations in mind, we would like to invite papers related to the role of materiality in different domains of culture. The panel would welcome object-based ethnographies, with an interest in the relationship people have to different kind of objects, things or technological artifacts. Particularly, two main streams of research are considered to be of main interest for this panel:

a) the critical understanding of tacit-knowledge, meaning the non‐verbalised, the embodied, the sensory and the emotional and how such issues could be reframed in relation with material culture approaches;

b) the calling in question of the dichotomy between digital culture and material culture. People consume digital goods for the same reasons they consume material goods: to establish social status and live up to the expectations of their peer groups, to build and express identity.

Open Questions

- If material culture is not simply reflective of social practice, but rather constitutive of it, to what extent can we describe the boundaries between our bodies (humanhood) and things (objecthood)?

- How do people define agency in relation to artifacts and technology? How is it possible to consider the agency of inanimate objects, consider them as active agents in the making of our social world?

- To what extent materiality could be considered as a part of digital culture? Or, instead, is there a need to consider materiality as a sort of theoretical approach in order to understand digital culture? For example, how “memes” or “algorithms” could be investigated through the lens of a material culture approach?

Topics may include (but are not limited to):

- The material culture of video games;

- The material culture of food and wine;

- Material culture and mobility;

- Sport and material culture;

- The material culture of memes and virality.


Material culture, agency, practice, embodied culture, digital culture, brand community.

Fields of Study

Sociology of consumption, Sociology of media and digital culture, Cultural anthropology, Sociology of food, Sociology of sport, Games studies, Fandom studies.

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