PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Cultural Analysis: Material Culture as Body of Evidence

Margaret J. King, Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis

Technology is the instrumental ordering of human experience within a logic of efficient means, and the direction of nature to use its powers for material gain. But art and technology are not separate realms walled off from each other. Art employs techne, but for its own ends. Techne, too, is a form of art that bridges culture and social structure, and in the process reshapes both. - Daniel Bell, “Technology, Nature, and Society,” The Winding Passage: Sociological Essays and Journeys (1991) 20.


Material expression operates as the body of evidence for culture. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology defines culture in material terms: “The total of human behavior patterns and technology communicated from generation to generation.” The nearly one million artifacts in the museum’s collections describe the span of human history and explain it by inductive logic: researching evidence to construct the story of culture, the longest-running invention of humankind. A current exhibit, “Surviving: The Body of Evidence,” is a capsule of prehistoric material culture that serves to outline human origins and their first cultural expressions. The human body, and its change throughout evolutionary history, is the first showcase of material culture.

Culture embodies an evolving intelligence, expressed by artifacts of every type, passed between generations across thousands of years. Culture is also the shared brain that has informed thinking and behavior for all homo sapiens since human history began. It is the key to shared meaning, beginning with abstraction (and from that ability, speech), that unites the whole of human historical evolution and its bio-psycho-social development.

But of course culture, and its history over time, is fragmented. Making it whole, and integrating its various elements and aspects, as well as the scholarship about those many parts, is an ambitious project. Cultural analysis in its broadest sense (beyond the more limited political application, as in “culture wars” and cultural studies) seeks to locate those common threads that unite every culture, as well as define the singular attributes of the myriad ethnic, national, regional, and period cultures that constitute the widest cultural lens. It is a search for a general theory of culture, an ongoing and varied-method enterprise.

Within that system of interlocking concepts and expression is material culture, along with the shared values that drive the arts, technology, and their array of tools, techniques, and impulses to create and critique “culture made visible.” Material culture is considered from a set of values, from the “arts” approach to the “anthropology” approach to selecting icons for study and explication; material culture operates as an evidentiary narrative for a network of stories about invention, use, and thinking. This is a complex story rooted in both individual ingenuity and collective genius and creativity. At its elite levels, artifact study is focused on highly cultivated skill levels, rare materials or mastery, or exotic and difficult-to-access sources and circumstances. So authenticity, rarity, selectivity, and uniqueness intersect (and also compete) with archetype, model, vernacular, and “aggregate” artifacts with a common significance and meaning to the culture-at-large.

Figure 1. Cinderella’s Castle in The Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando. Photo by Jamie O’Boyle.

Recent research based on cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral science has opened up this art/anthropology dualism by means of Cultural analysis as a direct inductive approach to studying cultural issues and ideas through material evidence. A key case to highlight these distinctions is the theme park, combining elements of both approaches, as an icon central to popular culture studies (figure 1).

While its contents are mass produced, they are also designed by Disney Imagineering, a highly creative team of artists and animators (and filmmakers and techno-crafts engineers rather than trained architects), resulting in one of the most culturally important built environments of the twentieth century. The material outputs of the theme park system include dozens of social and artistic formats, including the pedestrian mall, the stage-set iconography, and integrated streetscape design. In media, one of the leading series since 2000 is the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) forensic science drama. The main draw, besides the high-fashion cityscapes, lab interiors, and idealized personnel, is the inductive reasoning process, which starts from material evidence at the crime scene to work out the crime solution. Numbers, another crime drama, uses the abstractions of higher math to detect systematic patterns as tools to describe and track the dynamics of human, cultural, and social dramas. These programs draw upon the power of material things and human behavior to explain our underlying motivates and values.

Cultural Studies

The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis is a think-tank based in Philadelphia. Our mandate is to explore the dynamics of culture as it drives decision making and shared values. We have developed models of culture that cast it as a system and thinking and behaviors as outcomes of the values shared by Americans (as well as other cultural sets within and outside the United States). Cultural analysis in our work is a science-based endeavor rather than artistic or political–the interest is in cultural development over long time periods, which far outreach the transitory or political trends that change every year. In this sense culture has a small “c,” with “Culture” as an elite achievement is a small subset. We are informed by popular culture in its widest definition–over thousands of years of human history (wide time), extended back into pre-history. Ancient Egypt, for example, is a good resource for the founding of the first luxury culture for a sizeable upper class—the retainers of the ruling system--who were not royalty or rulers themselves—a parallel to the meritocracy within democratic societies. Culture is the shared creation of humankind, and can be studied as a prolonged process of creativity, from the first human insight that a bone can also be a weapon to the ability to decode the structure of the atom. Stones became tools as well as weapons through the craft of shaping and striking them; in the same way, diamonds became world-class works of wealth as well as wearable symbols of enduring love bonds.

Cultural Logic

The outcome of our research is the sense and sensibility of a culture based on its operating assumptions and “prime directives” for a sense of cultural logic: how a group of people defines, approaches, and solves problems and directs their time and energy toward achieving goals. To arrive at the sensibility, which is always the core of thinking for a group of people (a sort of open-source system adaptable to local and present needs), it is necessary to appreciate what drives that thinking, and the “logos,” the collective mentality and assumptions, that drives that logic. Material culture–the visible iceberg tip of what we share in our heads—is critical as the evidence we can observe, describe, and analyze to derive the principles and rules of that system.

So landscapes, sculpture, architecture, cuisine, theaters, sports, and landscapes, though fascinating in their own right, are not just sought after as the objective of understanding, but as a means to it. They are a wide, complex, and interrelated set of clues to be scrutinized, assembled, and organized into a knowledge panorama to make cultural sense from many fragments of meaning.

The use of artifacts as a channel is summarized by Susan Glasser in a recent article in Museum (2008, 32):

Most of us are in the museum field because we are addicted to the deep satisfaction derived from using objects for a deeper purpose—not merely to study them or preserve them but because of the life lessons, personal insights, and mind-clarifying insights we have had with them. Museum staff use objects as a means to an end. The real question is, how do we help our visitors have comparable experiences? How do we transform visitors into object users?

Reading the evidence

Cultural Studies does research, but beyond the dredging and surveying of the land for the end product of intelligence, posing the higher-order question: “What does this research mean?” Research is really raw material: it is there to be processed, for the insight it can yield. How does research then translate to knowledge to help understand and predict, and to explain other cultural aspects? Both in campfires (history) and boardrooms (present-day) and in our future, the challenge is to read from the evidence at hand the mind behind it—in the sense of the shared sensibility that is culture. This involves modeling the key cultural aspects that shape cultural production.

For that purpose, we have identified the main dimensions of culture that work as the key factors in the cultural system for any artifact, event, institution, practice, social bond, or concept. These concepts have then been applied to a wide range of cultural problems in the form of problem-framing and solution-finding over the past two decades.

Implicit in the cultural approach is the unified field theory of culture. Under this holistic vision, Cultural analysis defines culture with a small “c”–Culture (capital “C”) being a rarified subset: the province of fine arts, literature, music, and drama. Whole culture subsumes a unified consciousness. It is the shared logos of a people, nation, era, ethnic base; the collective thinking and imagination passed down through the generations through time. From campfires on the savannah to the high-rise boardrooms of today, it is the longest-running human invention alive and thriving. And it is a fractal system in which any one part reflects the patterns of thinking and aesthetics of the dominant ethic. These major dimensions of culture are:

Context: place and its power to instantly set the agenda of thought and action; from public to private and in-between;

Age-stage development: the cognitive, bio-psycho-social, values shift from infancy through advanced age;

Gender: the sole biological difference that affects information processing;

Community: the group context of thought and behavior, scaled from family to nation to universal human; includes class and hierarchy.

Deep Culture

Contemporary content, from music, pulp and electronic press, novel trends in dress and speech, diners, computers, B-movies, electronic arts, to theme parks, concerts, malls, fantasy game sites, et al., still belong to the contested (and still denigrated) lower terrain of popular culture. It was the mandate of popular culture studies in the 1960s to bring contemporary mass culture into focus under the culture rubric. However, despite the inroads made by popular culture study as an academic player since that time, American culture continues to split the screen between popular and elitist sensibilities, a legacy of our collective cultural inferiority complex from the European breakaway in the eighteenth century. It is ironic that our richest material treasuries--and considered as such in Europe itself--lie within these popular rather than the elite veins.

The outcome advantage of seeing culture as one unified field is that this is the complete database needed to devise the rules and values that drive human thinking, decision-making, and behavior; decoded from the body of visible and behavioral evidence; and, in turn, yield the deepest possible way to understand the deep cultural impulses embedded and concealed within the collective body of art and technology. This physical evidence includes cultural production in all aspects, material, behavioral, and cognitive: art and artifacts, architecture, crafts, landscapes, as well as the narratives and tales about these that comprise and inform material culture.

Material culture is the outcome not just of applied creativity but of “deep culture,” the collective impulse to seek expression of: Meaning–patterns of cause and effect in the human and natural worlds; Identity—who we are as groups by heritage and direction; Purpose—why we are here, and how we direct our thinking, energy, and talents to transform our surroundings and ourselves, and to create and discover meaning to close the cycle.

While the fields of American Studies and Popular Culture are both fairly recent in adding to the academic landscape of cultural topics, both are mandated to collect, research, document, and interpret the cultural record. For American Studies, the focus is on American civilization as exceptional, in contrast but on a par with other civilizations, particularly the origin cultures of Great Britain and Western Europe. Object collection and stewardship, as in folk art and artifacts, point to the value of the underlying culture in its original popular forms from nationhood.

Popular culture entered into the cultural discussion in the mid-1960s to democratize mass culture, enlarging the study of culture to include all class levels and every means of production—at the electronic end of cultural expression, and, like anthropology, observing, documenting, and describing clinically, without judgment. Ethnography is the latest research method used by business for marketing applications, but it is more an extension of the focus group into home, work, and play settings than it is anthropological.

Culture as Insight

What does that research help us to analyze and understand (and even to predict, as in the science model of study)?

Research into any topic can be extensive and exhaustive as to content. But without any clear analysis of an artifact’s meaning against a wider cultural baseline, we have detailed information per se (as fascinating as it is for aficionados). But without a wider meaning that gives insight into other artifacts, those who made and used them, and their importance as clues to the mysteries of human thinking and behavior, this descriptive data is free-floating information, but not anchored to meaning. This anchoring is the real intelligence outcome of material culture studies.

A leading example is the discovery of grave sites in Europe and the Middle East. The attending issue is establishing whether Neanderthals actually buried (in the ceremonial sense) their dead in order to relate this branch of the human family to modern homo sapiens. The interpretation of the data, its implications, is the source of ongoing research to establish benchmarks of human thinking and limitations, and to make critical distinctions in our common ancestry (Dibble 2008).

In a contemporary example, the theme park genre was born with Disney’s creation in the mid-1950s. These public artworks are rich material distillations of cultural icons with core meanings that operate as shared values. However, until architects of the 1970s “discovered” theme parks as repositories of design intelligence, displacing the limited category of “amusement park” with its commercial and lower-market connotations, it was impossible to “see” anything they contained without a lens freed from the lesser category. With this category shift, theme parks have yielded a robust analysis once their code was broken. Deliberate creativity is about category-breaking and is the most difficult way to think, compared to straight deductive logic. It is also, of course, the leading source of breakthroughs in concepts in the arts, science, and technology—the watersheds of change that propel material cultural evolution.

The technique of cultural analysis is thereby best served by inductive reasoning—from the particular to the general. One reason for approaching cultural production by this route is to avoid the ‘category errors” that crop up. There are many instances of whole classes of artifacts simply rendered invisible because they are classified as trivial, transitory, or failure to fall into any classification worthy of study. Everyday behavior—especially important to understanding how people think and why they act—is the largest example of this category problem, because it falls somewhere between the material and mental, the concrete and the abstract. Again, the everyday is the province of what is always in sight, available, common, and therefore difficult to focus on as significant. This is the premise of many a mystery story, in which “trivial” artifacts or events are disregarded because they escape notice—yet emerge as the crux that cracks the logic of the crime.

Material in evidence

Among the first human artifacts, besides pottery, and perhaps even predating clothing, is jewelry. What can this decorative and valuable art tell us about ourselves? In a cultural sense, jewelry is important not because it was a carrying device for wealth--shaped by jewels and precious metals—which it was and still is. But of whatever materials – bone, bead, stone, claws, shells, hair, seeds – rings, bracelets, necklaces, and pins are capsules of relationships and rank between humans. These act as powerful symbolic markers of bonds between people, events that are important to those markers and that signify identity defined by membership, birth, loyalty, and love. An example is the wedding ring, invented, or at least popularized, by the Romans.

Figure 2. The lawn serves to frame this Evanston, IL home. Photo by Jamie O’Boyle.

At the other end of the human scale, lawns are not normally thought of as artifacts. But they are miniature landscapes that extend the domain of the house structure (figure 2). From the seventeenth century in France and England, lawns signaled establishment and then upward mobility and social attainment. Despite environmental concerns that now attend lawn watering and maintenance, new entrants to middle-class membership continue to plant lawns across the landscape (especially in the new edge cities) on a grand scale. When this artifact is expensive, time-intensive, and takes effort to keep up, yet still thrives as the standard backdrop to the cultivated residence, the cultural question is to discover what benefits are being realized—as with smoking and its well-publicized health hazards.

Figure 3. Chinese vase; but why is it important? American Association of Museums, 2008; image used by permission.

Finally, Cultural analysis breaks out beyond the material culture description. A recent American Association of Museums publications guide features a cover photo of a stunning ornate Chinese vase (figure 3). The caption is a physical description, including information about ownership; the complete “story” consists of what it is and where it resides: “A Chinese celadon-glazed double-gourd-shaped vase mounted with French 18th-century gilt-bronze mounts. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California” (American Association of Museums 2008).

The larger questions of who created this artwork, when, for what purpose, and why it is important and how it operates within the dynamics of culture is not even hinted at to explain why this piece exists or why it was and is important today. The leading issues of cultural analysis ask for connections, for cause and effect, for parallels, metaphors, and webs of knowing. “Museum logic” underlying curation and preservation, as well as “interpretation,” still works largely to describe and identify rather than open any wider windows to meaning.

But culture is a dynamic system: any part of it reflects any other part, as well as the fractal whole pattern; pointing to the cultural “engines” of value and direction. These are the dynamic driving and giving meaning to material things. Objects are evidence in a much larger narrative: they construct the cultural logic. De-engineering from the specific to the general reveals far more than the sum of the parts.

References Cited

American Association of Museums. 2008. Publications 2009. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

Bell, D. 1991. “Technology, Nature, and Society: The Vicissitudes of Three World Views and the Confusion of Realms.” The Winding Passage: Sociological Essays and Journeys. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 3-33.

Dibble, H. 2008. “Report from the Field: Did Neandertals Bury Their Dead?” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, presented December 4.

Glasser, S. 2008. “Manifesto Destiny.” Museum 32 (November/December) n.p. Also available at, last accessed July 31, 2009.

“Surviving: The Body of Evidence.” 2008. Exhibit on human evolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, viewed April 4.


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