Od predmetov do simbolov
The central topic of this paper concerns the study of the material aspects of culture within European ethnology or Volkskunde. This disciplinary sub-field, has undergone quite spectacular changes during the last half century. In this paper the author would like to point out some milestones of how European ethnology has approached and analysed the material dimensions of human cultures.
In this paper, Thomas K. Schippers points out some of the milestones in the history of the study of material culture in the field of European ethnology. The academic interest in material culture started in the XVIIIth century as a complement of the description of non-material cultural elements of peoples both inside and outside Europe in so-called "Völkerbeschreibungen" or ethnographies, with the constitution of museographic collections and the elaboration of typologies. Like in the natural sciences of that time, precise formal and contextual descriptions became the "certificates of birth" which allowed various artefacts to become ethnologically into existence.
In the XIXth century, material cultural elements have also become scientifically invested as indicators of (evolutionary) processes as well as witnesses of (supposed) cultural migrations or diffusions. While generally speaking the ethnological study of material culture in German-speaking countries has been rather less important as that of so-called non-material culture, Thomas Schippers stresses the important exception of the tradition of the "Wörter und Sachen Schule" (in Graz and Hamburg) as heuristically fertile and methodologically and theoretically innovative.
The author also points out the sometimes problematic convergence in the period 1850–1950 between an ideological context of both political nationalism and regionalism and the collection of (mainly rural) artefacts in musea of a new kind, devoted to national or regional culture(s). Here material cultural element like implements but also clothing or culinary preparations have been ideologically invested as symbols or emblems of national, regional or ethnic identity. This political appropriation of material cultural elements has often led to rather arbitrary codification of styles and forms, which has in many countries caused a widening gap between academic scholars, museum curators and lay collectors.
Since the 1960`s the ethnological study of material culture has undergone quite radical chances directly related to the unprecedented change of the material environment of most Europeans itself. In this context the material culture studies have become more and more user/consumer focussed. At the same time the research methods of most European ethnologists have become much more empirical and based on directly observed case studies. this methodological change has allowed much more context related approaches of material culture than before. Inspired by both the French and Scandinavian schools of material culture studies, the interaction of individuals with material goods have become central in research. In more and more ethnological studies symbolic, semiotic or transactionalist approaches have become combined with the empirical observation of gestures or behaviour and the recording of user/consumer life stories.
Notwithstanding the ethnographic interest of these micro-level studies of modern material culture and the economic use that can be made of this grassroots` expertise in consumer behaviour, Thomas Schippers concludes by asking himself if more large-scale research, with the help of data available on mass-consumption of material goods, would not allow European ethnologists to explore new directions in the study of material culture in order to answer some old questions of their predecessors about (regional) cultural diversities and preferences.