Getting THINGS Right: Mothers and Material Culture
Daniel Miller is Professor of Material Culture Studies at the Department of Anthropology. University College London. His recent books include 2008. The Comfort of Things. Polity 2010.Stuff. Polity, 2010 (with Z. Búriková) Au-Pair Polity, 2011 Tales from Facebook Polity, 2011 (with M. Madianou). Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia. Routledge.
This paper is concerned with the role of material culture in understanding the experience of being a mother. It introduces the study of material culture as taught under the auspices of anthropology. The concept of objectification as the reduction of persons to things is contrasted with the use of the term to consider the role of objects in making persons. There are three case studies, the first based on an ethnography of Slovakian au pairs, the second on how mothers come to terms with the growing autonomy of their infants as expressed in their relation to consumer goods, and the third is a study of how new media have transformed the relationship between Filipina migrant workers and their left behind children. These three studies help us shift between these two opposed meanings to the concept of objectification, and come to appreciate the degree to which material culture is constitutive of being a mother and problematizes our common sense distinction between subjects and objects.