I’m a narrative scholar, so I play in the verbal folklore sandbox a lot. But folklore also encompasses customs and beliefs and physical items, which I’m overdue to discuss!
In this post, I’ll define material culture, describe some of the strategies we use to study it from a folkloristic perspective, and give some examples. It’s such a huge topic that there’s no way this post can be exhaustive, but here goes!
Material culture is, to put it glibly, culture made material. In the realm of folklore – or informally transmitted traditional culture – we consider material culture to be the physical manifestation of folklore. The other stuff we study is usually expressed verbally, or through behavior or belief, whereas material culture has a physical presence in the world but is still folkloric in nature (whereas a physical anthropologist or archaeologist might study other types of objects or artifacts that wouldn’t necessarily interest folklorists).
We distinguish between objects created out of nature, and those created out of culture (often called assemblage). The clay a potter digs from the earth comes straight from nature, whereas a quilter using scraps of fabric is constructing her art from premade cultural materials. Other types of material culture might be a blend, as when people make dioramas using both leaves and sticks as well as glue and cardboard.
Lynne McNeill writes:
When most people think of folk objects (often referred to as “material culture” by folklorists), they usually think of handmade goods: furniture, tools, clothing, quilts, decorative cross-stitching, and the like. Handcrafts are, indeed, one of the most studied forms of material culture. For a long period of history, if you wanted something you had to make it; one result of this is that the qualities of folklore (variation and tradition) were easily found in many of the objects that people had in their homes–they had learned the general form and style of furniture from those around them (tradition), and through varied levels of ability and creativity they’d add their own individual touches (variation). (51)
Jan Brunvand’s definition of the area is much briefer:
Material folk traditions include folk architecture, crafts, arts, costumes, and food. (11)
Brunvand’s description focuses more on items that originate in folkloric ways, whereas the items McNeill discusses have a bit more leeway in terms of origin. McNeill reminds us that “mass-produced objects become folk objects when they are turned into something else…[and] when they are used in an unexpected, traditional way” (52). In other words, patterns of use can help transform a commercial object (like a garden gnome or Barbie doll) into something folklorists are interested in studying.
What’s really fascinating here is that unlike with the process of narrating a joke or carrying out a superstition, we can observe the context of creating material culture. I can’t peek inside a narrator’s brain when they’re telling a joke or a story, but I can watch a sculptor’s hands, or a make-up artist’s brushes, at work. I can observe and ask questions about the specific techniques and tools involved, which is super cool.
In addition to the context of creation, we want to ask questions about the context of communication, which is also distinct from verbal and customary folklore in a few key ways. One of the main concepts we use to study folklore is that of function, or how folklore always communicates or accomplishes something in the world. If you record a narrative from a narrator, it becomes words on a page or a voice on an audio recording, and it communicates outside of its normal performance context. But if you take a quilt or friendship bracelet away from its maker, that’s already how it was intended to function for the most part. Material culture already speaks apart from its makers. And that is freakin’ cool (and a point I am not likely to forget, given that one of my dissertation advisors, Dr. Pravina Shukla, emphasized it during my PhD qualifying exams).
Finally, material culture is consumed in noteworthy ways. When it comes to food, yes, the object is literally consumed. But other material culture texts get used and displayed in ways that are unique because they occupy the physical realm. The concept of texture applies literally in some cases; we’re not just talking about the stylistic qualities of a verbal arts genre like a proverb but about the texture of a pot, a basket, a loaf of bread, a piece of jewelry. If you’ve got any fine arts background, this is the time to bust it out, and describe the item’s use of color, contrast, shape, dynamism, line, and so on.
I’ve written about a handful of material culture genres are already, so I’ll link to them below (along with a few I intend to fill in as I continue with my #FolkloreThursday genre posts):
- Body art
- Vernacular architecture
- Folk art (including quilting, basketry, and pottery)
- Folk costume
- The instruments associated with folk music
- Children’s crafts
Material culture weaves in and out of verbal and customary folklore too; rites of passage often have elaborate costumes and foods associated with them, and folk medicine usually has a physical component to it. Getting a handle on how specifically we study material culture is thus an important step in understanding folklore more generally.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.