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Understanding Material Culture by Ian Woodward Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: May 21st, 2019


Things we possess and own form part of our culture. These things shape our identity as they have a direct influence on us. In this article, I undertake a review of the book Understanding Material Culture authored by Ian Woodward. This book basically explains what material culture entails in a manner that is easily understood. The book specifically shows that consumption is an act of culture creation.


Ian Woodward makes a very comprehensive and yet simple to understand approach in discussing material culture. He organizes his ideas in a pragmatic manner making it a very useful starter text for students as well as an accompaniment for even the experts in this field.

Using illustrations, the author discusses various aspects of material culture in manner that does not deviate from the main objective of the book which is to show the reader that consumption is part of culture creation and not slavery to culture industries.

Understanding Material Culture

The book is divided into four parts with a total of nine chapters taking up to 201 pages. The chapters in each of the four parts are structured well. Each chapter starts with a summary of the main points covered and at the end the author makes a short but detailed suggestion for further reading.

The parts support each other and going through each is necessary in order to have a good understanding of the part that will follow. These parts are reviewed below and their significance is highlighted.

Locating Material Culture

This part discusses material culture in an introductory manner. This is done by examining the main concepts and terms common to material culture studies. A few case studies are highlighted to show the significance of understanding material culture in everyday life.

As illustrated in the case of Helen, materials have aesthetic value (Woodward 6). Materials can also act as identifiers – people identify with different objects and the value attached to different objects differs from one person to another.


This part is important in showing that people do not just buy objects without a reason or because of being compelled by some forces but rather that consumption is made to fulfill some need. Indeed the author argues that industries in the process of production aspire to find out what people need and produce goods that satisfy that need.

Theoretical Approaches to Studying Material Culture

This part examines the ideas of significant authors who made remarkable contribution to the field of material culture. Marx’s views are first to be analyzed. The author points out weaknesses in Marx’s views on objects that people own. Marx observed that capitalism advanced exploitation of some classes of people and predicted that there was no possibility that it would keep on progressing.

On the other hand, Lukacs’ views tried to address the weak sections in Marx’s observations. Lukacs tried to explain why men cannot rebel against abusive systems: he argued that products are deceptive and they blind people from seeing that the process of production is oppressive.

This part also examines the Critical Theory as discussed by the Frankfurt School scholars. The author observes that the views and observations presented through the Critical Theory are relevant today and actually explain the production of commodities on large scale. He also examines the role of tastes and preferences in material culture.


This part is used wisely to bring out the views of previous authors who view the act of consumption as one that progresses enslavement of some class of people. The views that objects are deceptive and are symbols of enslavement best described as “crystallizations of the sweat, blood and energy of workers” (Woodward 38) are discussed.

Objects in Action

The third part examines the process through which objects turn from being just objects into acquiring status, aesthetic value and personal taste. It also looks at the correlation between material culture and identity. It shows how objects help in the formation of social identities and collective identities.

This part shows that objects acquire cultural significance through narratives and performances. The manner in which an object is talked about shows how it is valued. An object which is not valued is usually ignored and the role it plays is often not recognized. A narrative brings a social life into an object and makes it a social object.

Objects are also said to have “performative capacity” (Woodward 152). This happens when an object and a person become symbolic and complement each other. For instance, a bus conductor and a mobile ticket machines complement each other.


This part best brings out the argument that consumption is an act of creating culture and that it is made consciously without any form of enforcement. This part shows how objects make who we are. It is shown that the objects a person buys are for specific needs which are unique to the buyer. This is actually why the author considers consumption an art that requires skills.

Part four makes the concluding remarks. The author recounts the significant ideas covered in the previous chapters and makes important remarks about them. The author has included a list of reference used in the book after the conclusion.

Critical Remarks

This book helps to create a new understanding of material culture. In a comprehensive manner, it refutes bourgeoisie ideologies on consumption as proposed by Marx and chooses to view consumers as conscious beings who make deliberate choices of objects. The book views acts of consumption as emanating from the artistic nature of consumers as opposed to being due to manipulation.

This book helps us to understand that acts of consumption are meant to bring out personality. In regard to consumption, the author claims that it is “merely one part of the process of building culture, through continuously expending, rebuilding and expending bits of it” (Woodward 97). It shows that objects have some influence on us though that does not mean that objects control us.

The illustration of a home used in the book is best in understanding the argument of the author that consumption is an artistic act by the consumer. The home is used as a showroom by the owners for self expression. The organization of a home and the furnishing made speaks much about the material culture of the owner. It is easy to learn a lot about the material culture of a person by examining his or her home.

In reviewing Woodward’s book, Ossewaarde is in agreement that consumers create culture through consumption. He argues that consumptions should not be regarded as an act of slavery to capitalist systems but rather an act of culture creation (Ossewaarde 783).

In the process of consumption, Woodward views choice and taste as key components, he says, “making choices is a fundamental skill, perhaps a duty, required for people who live in a consumer society…taste is a core component of this” (Woodward 6).


Understanding Material Culture is a text which attempts to show the significance of consumption in creation of a culture. The author refutes that consumption originates from manipulation by capitalistic systems and culture industries. He instead views consumption as an art which requires the skills of choice and taste.

Works Cited

Ossewaarde, Marinus. “Joint Reviews.” Sociology 43.4 (2009): 782-785. Print.

Woodward, Ian. Understanding Material Culture. London: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.

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