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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 791-793

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Book Review

Material Culture

Material Culture. By Henry Glassie. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. 413; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $29.95.

Material Culture is the personal statement of Henry Glassie, a distinguished folklorist who has devoted his career to studying technology in cultural context. Actually, the term "technology" rarely appears, but the book's subject matter--the multifaceted relationships of objects to the lives of their makers and users--is what studies of technology should be about. Glassie seeks to reorient studies of history and art by furnishing an antidote to the [End Page 791] postmodern pall that has settled over humanistic research. Rejecting postmodern dichotomies, he suggests that upon studies of material culture we can build new intellectual practice that transcends disciplines and is "at once humanistic and scientific" (p. 1) and attentive to both objective reality (artifacts and behavior) and subjective experience. I agree.

To justify and illustrate his ambitious project, Glassie elaborates theories and presents case studies. The theories are his own creative synthesis of ideas and methods from cultural anthropology, archaeology, and folklore. The case studies, which furnish a foundation for comparative analyses, draw from his ethnographic fieldwork on three continents.

There are five chapters. The first is about history, which Glassie defines as "a story about the past, told in the present, and designed to be useful in constructing the future" (p. 6). In crafting tales both useful and true, the historian should seek new narrative structures rooted in the wisdom of nonacademics. Investigators can also offer general insights by examining "neglected varieties of excellence" (p. 6), the handcrafted works of women, people of color, and the poor. In addition, Glassie contends that because "all people have the power to shape their lives against circumstances" (p. 32), one can generalize about patterned responses to changing conditions.

In chapter 2, Glassie presents ideas for orienting studies of material culture, which he defines as "the tangible yield of human conduct" (p. 41). As such, he reminds us that most people, past and present, leave their marks only on mundane objects, not documents. Thus, comparative and inclusive studies of humankind should begin with everyday artifacts. He adopts a life-history framework for examining "creation, communication [i.e., distribution], and consumption" (p. 48) as the concrete contexts in which all artifacts acquire meanings through their composition and association with other objects.

Chapter 3 is the life story of Hagop Barin, an Armenian Turk, who repairs carpets; it is told in his own words, interlaced with Glassie's commentary. For example, Glassie notes that in Turkish one word, sanat, takes in all objects, not distinguishing between art and craft. The latter distinction, Glassie emphasizes, is not based on medium but on social class. Barin's engaging life story is woven around his trade as practiced in different sociocultural circumstances.

Pottery, being a nearly universal medium, offers a far better opportunity for understanding "art" in context than, for example, does painting. In chapter 4, Glassie brings together vignettes of potters from Bangladesh, Sweden, the United States, Turkey, and Japan. He argues that potters, regardless of culture, blend aesthetic and utilitarian values in creating their products. By virtue of these embodied values, pots help to order their makers and users in relation to natural, supernatural, and social worlds. This pattern, Glassie suggests, is universal, as are the skill and passion that artisans bring to their practice. [End Page 792]

The last chapter treats vernacular structures, Glassie's specialty. His theme is simple yet profound: "every building is a cultural fact, the consequence of a collision between intentions and conditions" (p. 230). In examples drawn from the United States, Ireland, England, and Turkey, Glassie adds a deep historical dimension, exploring patterns of response to change that transcend individual lives and sociocultural differences.

Historians of technology seeking alternative explanatory frameworks and narrative structures should read Material Culture with care. Not only does it furnish many warm fuzzies--as good humanistic texts should--but it also supplies intellectual resources that bridge "inside" and "outside" strategies for understanding technology. Glassie's...


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