The Social Lives of Things: The Anthropology of Art and Material Culture


This course will survey anthropological theories of art and material culture with a cross-cultural purview and a concentration on indigenous societies in colonial and contemporary times. We will examine numerous disciplinary approaches—functional, symbolic/semiotic/structuralist, aesthetic, economic, historical, and political—to the study of objects, and discuss ways of bringing them into articulation, both with one another and with indigenous perspectives. After a brief historical introduction to early anthropological theories of decorative art and exchange, the class will focus on contemporary approaches framed around such key phrases as cultural biography, objectification, materiality, social agency, art worlds, cultural production, colonial economies, cultural brokerage, regimes of value, tourist art, primitive art, conservation, and repatriation. Students will apply the range of approaches to a single object or discrete set of objects throughout the semester as a way to test the theories in practice. The course prepares students to bring a wide array of theoretical and methodological perspectives to the study of things—from tools to clothes, from souvenirs to fine arts—among diverse global cultural communities. 3 credits. Depending on final research project, this course can satisfy the non-Western requirement.