The Malice of Inanimate Objects

Andrew M. Jones and Nicole Boivin

in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies

Published in print September 2010 | ISBN: 9780199218714
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology

 The Malice of Inanimate Objects

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  • History and Theory of Archaeology


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The concept of ‘material agency’ and the attendant concept of materiality has been widely adopted in the recent literature in archaeology and anthropology, yet its meaning has been widely misunderstood. Typical responses treat the concept as a step too far or as employed mainly for its shock value rather than for any higher intellectual purpose. This article argues that the perceived problems with the concept of material agency in archaeology and anthropology derive from similarly narrow conceptions. The article begins by outlining the semiotic view of material culture that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, and how recent critiques of this view have prompted scholars to address notions of materiality and material agency. The article then summarizes some of the long history of the notion of material agency, in a range of disciplines from economics to anthropology. The article addresses concepts of material agency in the work of scholars from Karl Marx and Marshall McLuhan to Anthony Giddens and Alfred Gell. It then discusses differing ontologies of agency, including animism and fetishism, in which material agency plays a key role.

Keywords: material agency; concept of materiality; archaeology; anthropology; material culture; ontology; agency

Article.  8401 words. 

Subjects: Archaeology ; History and Theory of Archaeology

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