BASS Social Anthropology and Philosophy / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Material Culture: The Social Life of Things

Course unit fact file
Unit code SOCY30192
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


What do we do with unwanted Christmas gifts? Why do we have ‘junk drawers’? How do we relate to digital music differently to analogue? These are the kinds of questions that this course addresses through sociological work on material culture. Due to disciplinary divides between the natural and social sciences, objects and materials have been neglected within the social sciences. However, since the 'material turn', social scientific approaches have highlighted the ways in which culture, social relations and individual identities are constituted through things. This course will explore how, far from being superficial or as a sign of materialism, everyday objects - whether mass produced commodities or hand-made items - are central to individual and collective identities and relationships. This course outlines how sociologists and social scientists more broadly have approached everyday objects theoretically and empirically; it will consider debates around materialism, minimalism, and wastefulness, and how we understand practices of making and the consumption of everyday objects. It will also explore different types of things, such as gifts and commodities, specific examples of things, such as clothing, food and music, as well as different theoretical and empirical approaches to things, such as 'follow-the-things'. The course will encourage students to think critically about the things that surround us, and in the assessed work, students will draw upon empirical examples to critically evaluate through the theories introduced in the course.


The course unit aims to: 

  • Introduce students to sociological ways of approaching everyday objects in contemporary society and give them an understanding of the importance of things in constituting social relations 
  • Introduce students to different theoretical approaches for studying everyday objects 
  • Give students an awareness of how our relations with things, either through making or consuming, connects to broader social and economic structures of society 
  • Allow students to explore the relationships between different types of objects, as well as to understand debates around materiality and agency 
  • Encourage students to use the theories introduced in the course to think critically about everyday objects

Teaching and learning methods

Weekly 1 x 3 hour lecture and workshop. The course will utilise Blackboard 9 in delivering the module's course content, core readings, lecture slides, supplementary material 
including films, and communication.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Interpret and critically evaluate the ways in which different categories of object (such as gift and commodity) or different genres of material culture (such as music technology) produce different kinds of identities and social relations 

Intellectual skills

  • Understand the complex ways in which things and people are co-constituted and the role of things in the construction and reproduction of social relation

Practical skills

  • Develop skills in research, by exploring empirical examples which will be critically evaluated through the theoretical and empirical approaches introduced in the course. 
  • Apply an understanding of different theories of the 'agency' of things to explore how everyday objects are not passive but bring about effects 
  • Apply their knowledge of sociological theories of material culture to a range of everyday objects

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Develop skills of critical thinking, and communication skills.

Assessment methods

1 non-assessed mid-term written coursework (500 words) + 1 end of semester assessed written coursework (2500 words; 100%). 

Feedback methods

All sociology courses include both formative feedback - which lets you know how you're getting on and what you could do to improve - and summative feedback - which gives you a mark for your assessed work.

Recommended reading

  • Appadurai, A. ed. 1986 The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. 
  • Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Duke University Press. 
  • Buchli, V. ed. 2002. The Material Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg. 
  • Ingold, Tim (2010) Bringing Things Back to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. NCRM Working Paper. Realities / Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. 
  • Miller, D. 2010 Stuff. Cambridge: Polity. 
  • Woodward, S. 2019. Material Methods: researching and thinking with things. London: Sage. 

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Sophie Woodward Unit coordinator

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