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Miller, D. (1998). Material Culture: The Social Life of External Objects. Brit. J. Psychother., 14(4):483-492.

(1998). British Journal of Psychotherapy, 14(4):483-492

Material Culture: The Social Life of External Objects1

Daniel Miller

The Non-Discipline of Material Culture Studies

In six days we are told God made the heavens and the earth and all the creatures therein, giving them their forms and their due. Rather more than a few days later, another set of creatures was created which we may call the academic disciplines. These creatures on further inspection look just as bizarre as any of those in the natural world, and their inspiration looks something rather less than divine.

Why are the things we learn and teach divided up into the categories we have come to expect? In my university (University College London) there is a discipline called geography where people who study rock formations are expected to have coffee with people who study urban ethnicity. An entire discipline of linguistics was given over to the study of language, another called psychology seems to mix and match expertise on emotional breakdowns with those who spend their time guillotining rats; while engineering has come to combine building bridges with building biotechnology.

I know of no grand myths for the creation of the modern disciplines (though there are classical precedents), but sometimes I imagine some moment of creation which I take to be reminiscent of a Kiplingesque just-so story. In it I see a thin young woman representing the world of artifacts - what we call material culture. For some mythical reason she seems to be arriving rather late at the crucial gathering. Upon arrival she discovers that all the other areas of possible enquiry are already leaving with their prized new disciplines from which they could create their identity, but, coming last, she finds to her horror that all the available disciplines have been given out and that nothing is left to her.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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