Daniel Miller, Arjun Appadurai, and Michael Schiffer

I continue to work on a chapter of my book that emphasizes the growing interest in things in the 1980s and 1990s and its impact on archaeology of the American experience. I posted the first part of the chapter on Monday, and worked more on it this morning. The first part of the chapter will emphasize things, the second part materiality, and the final part agency.

This section that I’m working on now will likely conclude with a case study drawn from Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina that considers how objects in contemporary New Orleans acquired and shed meaning outside of a commodity culture. I recognize that this chapter is rough around the edges and developing, oddly, from the inside out, but I think the ideas are more or less there, even if I’m not entire confidence and comfortable with complex vocabulary used by Miller and Appadurai. 

As before, feel free to comment on this! Any and all critiques, attacks, and mockery is appreciated.


It may be that Danny Miller’s work on contemporary consumer culture was more significant. In a series of books published from the mid-1980s, Miller argued that late 20th century consumer practices were more than just a debased or slavish responses to cleverly constituted marketing campaigns or the manifestation of an uncritical herd mentality, but the complex and often ritualized of identity formation and culture making (Miller 1987, 11). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus (1977), Miller (1987) demonstrated how the interaction between individuals and objects created meaning in both in past and present societies. By grounding his assessment in ethnography of contemporary British society, he argued that the physical form and materiality of objects gave them a place distinct from language and other ritual practices in social interaction between individuals. Despite the ubiquity of modern material culture, objects played a key role in creating social relationships in the same way that archaeologists had increasingly recognized for pre-modern societies (Mullens 2011, 6; Miller 1995). The massive increase in the quantity and diversity of things present in the modern world did not diminish their importance. Instead, Miller’s attention to both consumer practices and everyday life made his work a touchstone for the study of modern material culture and consumer culture. This focus on modern consumer culture, however, despite its origins alongside the work of archaeologists Ian Hodder and Christopher Tilley, neither drew upon nor directly advanced archaeological practices and methods as they confronted the daunting challenge of dealing with the late 20th century abundance of objects and the complex place of objects in consumer practices that produce modern life. Instead, Miller’s work gave rise to the field of modern material culture studies and consumer studies, which have produced an impressive body of scholarship with relatively few contributions from archaeologists of the contemporary world in the United States.

Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986) is contemporary with Miller’s work and included Igor Kopytoff’s “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process.” This oft-cited essay proposed that things had biographies which could be tracked over time with productive results. In particular, he noted that objects could move in and out of commodity status, when it has clear exchange value in a society. In fact, Kopytoff argues that over the life of an object, it may exist outside of commodity status and undergo singularization when it becomes the object of a wide range of social, ritual, and emotional values that go far beyond its value as a commodity. At other points in the life history of an object, it might have acquire a hybrid status where it is both singularized and commodified to varying degrees. This not only represented a salient critique of Marxist views of fetishized objects as commodities, but it also provided another paradigm for the considering the changing social meaning of objects over time. Unlike Miller’s contemporary critical engagement with things in a British setting, Appadurai’s volume drew on a wide range of ethnographic and historical studies which did not explicitly touch upon the consumer culture in industrialized economies. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew did participate with a study of the Chalcolithic Varna cemetery in Bulgaria and argued that changes in technology stemmed from social processes rather than simply technical developments.

While American archaeologists were not at the fore of the European theoretical approaches to the study of things, they did continued to consider modern material culture in an American context. Michael Schiffer’s 1991 book, The Portable Radio in American Life, for example, emphasized not only the development of the portable and later transistor radio and its impact on American life. He documented the history of radio technology starting with vacuum tubes and continuing through the use of transistors, ferrite rod antennas, multiple bands, various battery types, and gimmicky combinations with cameras to show how the radio as consumer technology sought to establish a place within American consumer culture. He parallels the technologies used in radios with their role in American social life through the rise of radio shows like “Amos and Andy”, popular music and news programs, the use of the radio in politics, and, of course, sportscasting. In the conclusion of this remarkably untheoretical book, Schiffer argues that in the 1980s, Japanese companies like Sony have rewritten the history of the technological and commercial development of the portable radio and claimed it as a Japanese invention. He argued that this misrepresentation of the history of the radio, which he calls corporate “cryptohistory,” has a significant impact on how American society and policy makers understand the development of technology. By tracing the history of the portable radio, Schiffer argued that by revealing the origines of objects central to everyday life, Americans can free themselves from corporate narratives that overwrite the key role that inventors, tinkerers, and university researchers had in creating technology. Schiffer applies a similar approach to the study of electric vehicles in the early 20th century. The failure of electric powered vehicles to become the dominant approach to motor transportation despite their initial popularity had as much to do with their association with women and short trips in town on household errands as they did with any technological limitation (Schiffer 1994). His broader study on the history of practical electricity in the 19th century offers a theoretical statement that grounds his approach to the development of technology in the modern period to a range of prospects from Bruno Latour’s Science and Technology Studies (Latour and Woolgar 1979) to Appadurai’s ground breaking Social Life of Things (1986).


  1. Federico Buccellati February 13, 2020 at 5:47 am

    Hi! I enjoyed reading these two sections; I wonder if B. Olsen’s work might contribute to the argument you are making, in particular his “In Defense of Things”. I don’t know if his work has made an impact on American Archaeology, but it might be worth exploring.

    This might be interesting and/or amusing if you want to take a ‘working break’ –

    Best, Federico Buccellati


    1. Thanks so much for suggesting Olsen’s work! His Ruin Memories has been on my shelf for quite some time now, but you’re absolutely right that I should circle back to his In Defense of Things!



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