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Material Culture in the Social World

Tim Dant
Open University Press: Buckingham
033519821x (pb); 0335198228 (hb)
£13.99 (pb); £45.00 (hb)

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With this book, Tim Dant has written an introduction for social science students to the study of material culture. While the book contains a number of interesting chapters and sections, it is, overall, something of a disappointment Certainly the idea for such a book is a timely one. While anthropologists have long been interested in material culture, this theme is a new departure for most in sociology. It has emerged in a number of contexts: in science and technology studies, in virtual sociology and its questioning of the material/immaterial and in the sociology of consumption. Dant touches on all of these and more and most of his chapters are reviews of relevant literature on such themes.

Dant certainly tries to cover his ground and offers a well conceived series of chapters that take us through different areas of social life where we might want to consider issues to do with material culture. Consumption, homes, fashion, leisure, art, media and other people are all discussed in relation to their material expression and the uses to which they are put in everyday life. Dantıs organising concept is lived practice. Through this he wants interrogate these different areas of social life and their material forms and to suggest that sociology can learn something about society by studying the way that people live with things. Unfortunately Dant rather `black-boxesı this notion of lived practice. He takes its meaning as read in advance and does not discuss directly how lived practice shapes material culture and is shaped by it. Everything is implicit and underdeveloped. It is assumed that we all know in advance what it is to live with things, and worse, that we have a lived experience that is somehow the same for each of us. One could argue that a key opportunity that the study of material culture opens up for sociology is to critically analyse some the taken for granted assumptions that we tend to make around notions of lived experience, practice, interaction, performance, agency and so on. But the effect of Dantıs study is more often the opposite ­ closing down this questioning by suggesting instead that sociologists simply extend their analysis of the social world by applying their understanding of lived experience to this new terrain of the materiality of the social in a rather unreflexive way.

A second disappointment is how the book is written. While Dant expresses himself clearly and students will have no problem in reading this work, the book is annoying in the way it offers suggestive examples and illustrative cases - the sections on the cairn/mini-strip, the windsurfer and blue jeans are by far the best sections of this book - only to not follow them to their conclusion but to move off instead into the seemingly obligatory `review of the fieldı mode found in textbooks. I suspect that the publisherıs remit may be to blame here. This book is being marketed as ideal for that mythical beast the book buying second year undergraduate. While one can recognise the financial motives behind the tendency of publishers to only want to commission textbooks (rather than monographs) that will sell to students, one does have to ask do second year students only want to read literature reviews? There are hints that Dant wants to offer more. The examples are one case, another is his engagement with Baudrillardıs early writing on consumption found in places throughout the book. This is again suggestive - the chapter on fetishism is the most interesting in the book, (it is a reprint of a journal article and as such does not follow the same style and mode of argument as the other chapters). However the format he has chosen does not allow him to develop his interests into anything like a sustained argument. I kept thinking that these chapter length reviews were a cop out. I wanted more of substance and illustration and felt that if Dant had just pushed at the conventions of this format might have provided it.

Dant began this book with a discussion of a cairn - a group of stones put together randomly and without purpose on a mountain top by climbers over an extended period of time. It was a lovely opening to the book and using it as a metaphor Dant hinted that in studying material culture, sociologists have to move up into a moorland terrain where society becomes thin on the ground and we have to use all our resources and sense of self questioning to find something to say. That was the challenge and it is a good one. Unfortunately in the end Dant chose not to venture too far into that uncertain terrain and that is a shame.

Kevin Hetherington
Brunel University

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