Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life

Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life
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  IntroductionIntroductionIntroductionIntroduction Phillip VanniniThe drive to work was awfully cumbersome today. Two accidents—each withits own mile-long backup—treacherous road conditions, and heavier-than-normal Monday morning traffic led to a very late arrival to the office and in a lot of lost patience. The primary cause behind all this? A wildly unusual mid- April snowfall that made roads slippery and drivers edgy.Now, why in the world—you must be wondering—is this worthy of concernin the opening of this book? Well, because—as it turns out—this is precisely thesubject matter of this volume. No, not the snow itself, but rather thetechnological and material character—or in other words, materiality—of everyday life of which the snow, the roads, the size and weight of the vehiclesdriving on them, the technical skills of drivers, the quality of tires, the density of traffic, the meanings of driving, the road infrastructure offering (or not)commuters alternative routes—and the availability of maps and GPS systems tofind out about such routes—as well as the air temperature (only to mention a few) are great examples. Indeed, this is a book about what makes everyday lifepossible (and at times, like this morning, difficult) stuff. Or, in more technicalterms, material culture and technology.So what kind of stuff are we talking about when we say “material culture”and “technology”? In a way, it really depends on whom you ask. If you askedlexicographers they might suggest that “technology” refers to the “practicalapplication of knowledge” or a “capability given by the practical application of knowledge” and even a “manner of accomplishing a task” ( Merriam-Webster’s   online dictionary). According to the same folks “material,” on the other hand,refers to something “relating to, derived from, or consisting of matter” (we won’t ask them about “culture” for now). In contrast, anyone “off the street”might give you a simpler set of definitions. Technology for them might refer tomachinery, gadgetry, or devices with which one accomplishes instrumentaltasks, whereas material could simply denote objects or things. This is simpleenough so far: both the erudite writers of our dictionary and Joe and Jane Average would agree that technology is about doing, knowing, and using objects and that materiality is about the character of those objects. Given that the concept of culture, broadly speaking, refers to practices, bodies of knowledge, ways of engaging the world, and so forth, we might be tempted at this point to claim that to speak of technology or to speak of material culture isbasically the same thing. But we should not. At least not just yet, and at least not in those terms; as the good academics that we are, both you and I, it behooves us to complicate things a little bit before we reach a conclusion. Soshall we?   Vannini2Material Culture and TechnocultureMaterial Culture and TechnocultureMaterial Culture and TechnocultureMaterial Culture and TechnocultureTo suggest that the subject of this book is both technology and material cultureis to imply that these two topics at the very least have something in common,and that perhaps they are even somewhat of the same entity (cf. Eglash 2006).Indeed it would be wrong to disagree with the validity of that implication. Torealize this better it is best to situate our comprehension in the pertinent academic research and theoretical traditions rather than in the common or thelexical understanding of technology and material culture. In doing so we willhave a deeper grasp of what this book is about. Now, to get there one can findat least three such traditions to borrow from traditions clearly tangible if you were here with me in my office and could see the three neatly stacked piles of books and articles crowding my desk.The first stack, or tradition, is about the contemporary study of materialculture, or as some refer to it, modern material culture studies (e.g., Buchli2002b; Miller and Tilley 1996; Tilley et al. 2006). Modern material culturestudies attempt to rediscover the significance of objects not only in terms of their role in economic exchange, but also (and more importantly) in terms of their cultural role (see Appadurai 1986; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Gell1998; Strathern 1988)—a role historically considered secondary in most socialscientific disciplines traditionally more interested in what is “behind” (e.g., values, beliefs, mind, collective consciousness, social structures, etc.) materialobjects (Buchli 2002a; Knappett 2005; Miller 1998). As Miller and Tilley (1996) have stated, material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field—thoughit is obviously deeply rooted in social anthropology and ethnoarchaeology.¹Regardless of this tendency the contemporary study of material culture is anopen discipline, both theoretically and methodologically, with a commonconcern: processes of objectification, through which humans shape, and areshaped by, the materiality of life (see Miller 2005; Tilley 2001, 2006; Woodward 2007). More on this later.The second stack of books and articles on my desk is about the socialaspects of technology. This is a very diverse pile that comprises writings on theanthropology of technology (e.g., Ingold 2000; Lemonnier 1993; Pfaffenberger1988, 1992), science and technology studies (STS) (e.g., Latour 2007), thephilosophy of technology (Scharff and Dusek 2003) and cultural theory ontechnology (e.g., Haraway 2003; Penley and Ross 1991), communication andcultural studies (Carey 1989; Cowan 1983; Du Gay et al. 1997; Fischer 1994;Silverstone and Hirsch 1992; Slack and Wise 2007), the sociology of technology and science (e.g., Clarke and Olesen 1998; Star 1995), the socialconstruction of technology (SCOT) (e.g., Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch 1989;   Vannini 3Bijker and Law 1992; MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999) and within it especially the subfield of technology users (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003).² Despite theirdiversity most of these scholars would agree on the idea that social relations inall societies are heavily mediated by technological arrangements, and that therefore technology (as a form of social organization) is a key player in society and culture.Despite the similarity—or at least the contiguity—of the concerns of material culture studies and technology studies, not much cross-proliferationhas seemingly taken place (for recent exceptions see Eglash 2006 and some of the literature cited therein; Pinch and Swedberg 2008). One might argue that in part this is due to the different geographical srcins of these fields—the first being decidedly more British and in lesser part French, and the latter being decidedly more American. Or one might argue that it is instead due to theremnants of disciplinary boundaries (with material culture studies being decidedly more anthropological and technology studies being definitely moresociological). But whatever the causes may be, we can safely agree that suchboundary is the result of accidental practice instead of motivation and planning (see chapter one). Material culture studies and technology studies have muchin common, and for this reason they should be drawn in closer dialogue. Thisbook is written with that intention. As each of the chapters in the following pages shows, to study materialculture is to study the technological underpinnings of culture, and to study technology is to study the material character of everyday life and its processesof objectification. What is central to such a view is an understanding of sociality and culture as a form of  making  , doing  , and acting  and anunderstanding of the world as a material presence apprehended by humansthrough pragmatic, sensuous intentionality. In comprehending culture asdeeply shaped by techne—that is, craft, skill, creativity—and in viewing socialinteraction as a process rich with material properties we do not intend to eitherreintroduce antiquated notions of instrumentalism or essentialism. Rather, wesimply intend to remark on the importance of treating everyday life as anactive form of negotiation—a form of work as it were—that engages the colors,the textures, the tastes, the fragrances, the sounds, the temperature, thekinaesthetic movement, and the practical and symbolic value of the stuff that makes up life.If bringing together the tradition of material culture studies and technology studies is a key concern of this book, so is achieving that goal throughmethodological and epistemological means that expose the meaningfulnessand polysemy of materiality, and the potential of technological relations forshaping culture (and being shaped by it). For us what that means is   Vannini4ethnography: the subject of the next reflection. But before we get there it isimportant to realize that we have come full circle in our own understanding of technology and material culture, and in claiming that the semantic differencesbetween these expressions are more the result of putative scholarly practicethan ontological reasons. Thus, throughout this book, I and every other author will refer to material culture  and technological culture  (or technoculture  )interchangeably. These expressions point to an emergent process consisting of the interaction between human actors and nonhuman actors—all acting withtheir strategies and techniques, endowed with material properties. Also, by using interchangeably the words “material objects,” “things,” “technics,”“technological devices,” or similar expressions we will refer to the same thing:the resources (cf. Gibson 1979; see also Van Leeuwen 2005) that actors usefor instrumental and symbolic purposes. In fact, we will view the differencebetween instrumental and symbolic purposes (and the related dissimilarity between function and style) to be hindering more than helping our agenda,and for this reason we will explicitly blur the boundaries between action andcommunication. When different concerns and arguments force somecontributors to favor the use of certain expressions over others, we ought tokeep in mind that their lexical choices are motivated by their need to treat different empirical subject matter with attention to detail, rather than to reify categories by erecting unnecessary boundaries among them. With that inmind, each chapter of this book will feature various approaches and highlight different angles of our common subject matter. Indeed variety and diversity are the strength of any edited book. Yet the chapters that follow have theirsrcin in the shared understanding that technology is never in the thingsthemselves, in materiality alone, in the techniques and strategies of makers orusers alone, in the selves and collective identities of makers or users alone, inthe discourses encompassing the interaction between human and nonhumanactors alone, but rather in the process whereby all those entities interact andgive form and content to our world. To speak of technology, therefore, willentail speaking of technoculture or material culture. And to speak of materiality, therefore, will entail speaking of material culture or technoculture.The third and last stack sitting on my desk consists of books onethnography. Traditionally rooted within both cultural anthropology andclassical urban sociology, ethnography is now one of the most commonresearch strategies across the social sciences, and one that is currently enjoying an impressive outburst in creativity, scope of applications, and diversity. Whilethere are many types of ethnography, its defining characteristic resides in theresearcher’s attempt to understand realities from the perspective of thosehe/she wishes to study. In practice, this form of epistemological relativism   Vannini 5translates into data collection methods such as (different combinations of)participant and nonparticipant observation, conversations and interviewing,analysis of records, texts, material objects, and reflection and introspection. Inits focus on mundane practices of social actors, attention to context, andemphasis on agency and interaction (Adler, Adler, and Fontana 1987),ethnography is the everyday life research strategy par excellence. While thereare other research strategies that could direct us on the everyday life aspects of material culture and technoculture, in this book we focus specifically onethnography alone because we find that its application to the subject matter of our field—while already prolific and successful—requires reflection and furtherdevelopment.In particular, we aim for methodological reflection that can allow us tosurpass—or at least be more cognizant of—the limitations of traditionalethnographic research strategies in relation to material culture andtechnoculture. An example ought to shed light on the nature of theselimitations. Suppose—to return to the opening of this introduction—that we wished to study the meaningfulness of an unusual mid-spring snowfall inrelation to the value of mobility and the technological infrastructure of roads ina particular geographical area. What information could an ethnographicresearch design provide us with? Observation from the roadside or the cocoonof your car—if you are lucky enough to be caught in traffic as it is happening—might yield impressions, reflections, and experiences of driving in suchconditions. A later search through publicly available data on traffic and roadinfrastructure, as well as on historical weather records, might give us furtherknowledge to put our observations in proper context. But those data—even when rich in volume and detail—could be insufficient for our scope. As most ethnographers do, we might then decide at the end of the day to interview drivers who were caught in the snowstorm. And here is where both ourmethodological potential and problems might begin to be obvious. Evenassuming that a sample of drivers is promptly available and enthusiasticenough to dedicate sufficient interview time to us (and this may be difficult,given how reticent some people may be to invest time on reflecting on suchmundane matters), we will inevitably run into the difficulties of gathering interview data that are sufficiently insightful, or in other words not thick enough, for our purpose. This is no one’s fault; after all who—even among themost eloquent and articulate of us—would have detailed answers for interview questions directed at uncovering the meanings of unseasonal (or seasonal forthat matter) snow precipitation, the values underlying highway mobility, or thesignificance of studded winter tires. Even in the best case scenarioethnographic interviews of that type might yield either the kind of practical
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