Feb1. Theory of Things & Entangled Objects (Objects, Exchange, Anthropology)

Posted: February 1, 2012 by jnnice in Uncategorized

The two authors of this weeks readings are Miller and Thomas.  “The theories of things” (The Theories), by Miller in first person narrative style, starts from the author’s personal experience, and interest gained from it, as an anthropologist to argue that today’s anthropological view is missing the critical point of view in studying other cultures and civilizations based on the analysis of objects. Meanwhile “Object, Exchange, Anthropology” (OEA), by Thomas, is starting from the attempt to describe exchange relations by its characteristics and goes into how other scholars analyzed the situation.

Personally, both readings were not very easy to read since I am personally weak in theories. However, by style, the reading of Miller was easy to follow since the narrative strategy was first person singular with the semi-formal language use that even invites ‘we’ to the table of discussion, making us nod time to time for– whether we agree or not– we are accustomed to show reactions to someone who is directly talking to ‘us’. In contrast, the reading of Thomas was much more straight forward to the point where the actual arguments start. I felt in this sense, it was much clearer from the beginning what Thomas had pin-pointed. Not that Miller’s introductions were vague in any sense, for he actually introduced how he is going to lead ‘us’ to the final argument, laying out his plan of writing in that second paragraph; however, in the beginning, I still thought why he was giving all those small details of how he had lived as an anthropologist, to us. In fact, Miller’s layout was more easy to see where the goal of his argument is.

Nevertheless, the both authors pointed out the notion of material culture that had been under-estimated or under-emphasized in the studies of anthropology, that the theories should be linked to the wider consequences (Miller, 43), which has been lacking in cultural and economic anthropology (Thomas, 33). Using the flaws of evolutionary theories and the main streams of anthropology, Miller is prompting questions as to considerations in the nature of materiality and the interpretation of the society cannot be described on its own without enough emphasis on the material culture of the society. Also he claims that the relationship between material culture and people’s behaviour interacts reciprocally which is forming each others’ life. Indeed, the common argument can be found in the reading of Thomas that a thing would not exist without someone’s labor, which is a large part of human society. The exchange of objects, thus gets emphasis by Thomas, for it is the thing that human behaviour is attached to; whether that was as an act of offering a gift or of selling commodity, the human beings by nature cannot live without other’s help that also involves the exchange relations.

Interestingly the counter argument of Miller’s against functionalist analysis of anthropology was a fresh notion to be reminded to me. For I had a adoration of architects who built the buildings based on the theory, “form follows function”, I thought it is one of the coolest design theory, and obviously thought it is the nature of things. However, when Miller mentioned about how an act of wearing a skirt in almost every occasion, for instance in farming, cannot be a ‘functional’, implying the meaning of effectiveness, it was a reminder that the theory of “form follows function” is what the modernist thought defined beauty of life that is based on people of this era preference of convenience for the benefit of civilization in this era. In other words, his argument that we should not interpret the ‘symbolic representations’ i.e. the objects forms itself as the ‘functions’ that we can think of now to apply to reconstruct the scene of the past. In his account, there are notions of objectification, using Marx’s materialist view and Hagel’s theories of ‘self-alienation’, then Simmel’s view that the culture is inherently tragic which is including the ‘stuffs’.

From the OEA, the claim that exchange relations is the substance of social life and how that was underemphasized by the fault of wrong interpretations of cultural differences. The point of view, once again, is challenged and to be fixed. Also another key point is that the exchange relations that is the movement of objects which are the mediator between individuals and/or groups, making the history of commerce, that is also a foundation of civilization. The absence of money itself is not important for it was the stuffs that had the monetary values in it. Moreover, for the part of discussion, the inalienability of the gift was analyzed using the arguments of some other scholars such as C. A. Gregory–who distilled the ideas of gift and commodity–and Arjun Appadurai, who wrote an theoretical essay on commodities. (Thomas, 14) And Thomas goes on to comment on Miller’s argument the objectification of identity, i.e. the ways in which artifacts express individual or collective subjects (Thomas, 25). To Thomas, “what animates these texts is the scope for reducing various cases to the overall form that is focused upon”, and this movement of distinctiveness of a particular entity or process has been established, the general concept needs to be fractured; not split up, as a partitioned essence in a formalistic typology, but instead scattered through the nuances of practice and history” (Thomas, 27). As a conclusion he re-emphasize that in this particular discipline of anthropology, we have to be vulnerable to recognize the differences of other socio-economic system/ regime, while the tiny particle of difference should never become the representation of the larger whole.


If, as Miller mentioned, reasons why objects have certain forms are not related to their “function”, what are they related to? A “purpose” for it at least has no connotation of being necessarily effective?  (e.g. Car has its own engineering as much as other objects have. It has its purpose to the human, for they invented those to have greater convenience)





  1. elyssamayer says:

    Very interesting response. I found your reference to the “objectification of identity” very interesting. I have wondered what makes the object important and what gives it identity? Does the object act upon the individual, or does the individual act upon the object?

  2. tupakkat says:

    Hello Jenice,

    I liked Miller’s remarks about functions because it provided an alternative understanding of the term. Probably influenced by modernism we tend to think of “function” as a merely mechanical process, of manually using an artifact to produce to do something. The way he described it, though, opened a much broader understanding of “function”. Conveying a message could be a function, expressing a feeling or an attitude can be a function, etc.
    From that point of view it is not a very long step to the understanding that differences in things can be related to their symbolic meaning.

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