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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 793-795

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Book Review

The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication

The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication. By Michael Brian Schiffer and Andrea R. Miller. New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. xiv+158; tables, notes/references, index. $65 (cloth); $19.99 (paper).

A professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, Michael Brian Schiffer may be known to SHOT members for his books on consumer goods, including The Portable Radio in American Life (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991) and Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994). In this new monograph, written in collaboration with research assistant Andrea R. Miller at his school's Laboratory for Traditional Technology, Schiffer turns away from the empiricism of ethnography to big ideas. Challenging social scientists who privilege language--that is, sounds and words--in the study of human behavior, Schiffer argues that people-object relations are the key to unlocking the everyday world. Putting the spotlight on things, he offers a theory of communications that is rooted not in verbal performance but in the archaeology of daily life.

Schiffer begins with a salient observation: among the earth's species, only humans display a penchant for "incessant interaction with endlessly [End Page 793] varied artifacts." Significantly, Schiffer distinguishes between "tools"--devices used to advance a utilitarian goal--and "human artifacts" (p. 2). A comparison with our simian relatives, the chimpanzees, illustrates this point. Chimps routinely use tools such as twigs to remove insects from their nests, or rocks to crack delicious nuts. These intelligent monkeys also love to groom, but they use only their hands, feet, and mouths in this activity. In contrast, Homo sapiens has developed countless artifacts that embellish grooming's pleasures--combs, brushes, lotions, perfumes, soap--and, more important, that facilitate grooming's communicative properties. In Schiffer's view, such ubiquitous human artifacts as clothing, jewelry, makeup, tattoos, and watches are more than signs or symbols. In various settings, they become active agents in human communication.

In seven chapters, Schiffer slowly reveals his alternative to conventional language-based wisdom about communication in both the social sciences (sociology and anthropology) and in material culture studies. Arguing that existing terminology limits our understanding of artifacts and behavior, he devotes most of the book to explaining a new "discipline-neutral meta-language" (p. 9) that moves beyond the boundaries of conventional expression. At times Schiffer's jargon is mind-boggling, and far too complex to elucidate in a short review. Using the new language, he ultimately categorizes all human interaction into nineteen "basic communication processes," or "BCPs" (p. 90), which describe people-artifact relations with a high degree of subtlety. Two main points emerge: l) not all artifact-people interactions are the same, and 2) artifacts can play multiple roles--as passive and active agents--in communication.

At the outset, Schiffer warns speed-readers to slow down: this book should not be skimmed. Indeed, it is enormously complex and highly abstract. Each chapter builds on new language and concepts, and a reader cannot simply jump in anywhere. Chapters wrestle with sophisticated social-science concepts, carefully progressing toward a conclusion that outlines Schiffer's own communications theory. As he moves along, Schiffer draws much from the methodology of "archeological inference" (p. 51), the process whereby excavators of prehistoric sites, faced with limited material evidence, infer past behavior from careful, commonsense observations of the present. He also builds on and critiques late-twentieth-century performance theory, casting aside notions that give a back seat to nonverbal expression. Schiffer set out with a particular agenda--to offer a new theory of communications that was informed by artifacts--and he largely accomplished this task.

For scholars already committed to the study of the material wold, Schiffer's new book is most useful for its critique of the antimaterialist bias of the social sciences. The BCPs, which describe the multiple ways in which communication processes always engage human artifacts, also provide much food for thought. For the...


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