by Marguerite Coetzee. Material culture is the relationship between material systems and the human being. It is the intersection of learned behaviour and instinctual interactions with objects. In other words, it is how we produce, exchange or consume a material object; whether those methods are born into our instincts (nature), or we are taught through socialisation (nurture).


Material culture is the physical aspect of culture. It is the relationship between people and things. An object has physical properties — the materials it is made up of, and the cost of the production that went into making it — but it also has semiotic and intangible value, meaning and qualities. Have you ever wondered how packaging is designed? Why a tap opens when turned to the left? Why a soda bottle is indented at the middle? Or why a computer mouse is curved? The design is inspired by ergonomics — the process of designing products to fit the people that use them; it is about comfort and function.

Coca-Cola applies this “human tech” way of thinking when creating new pack designs, as well as taking into consideration how to make the most-efficient use of its employees’ time. It prioritises the human factor in the interaction with products.


Material culture blurs boundaries. We are able to trade commodities across time and space: transporting goods to/from far-away places, or passing on and receiving heirlooms across generations. Objects have the ability to blur these spatiotemporal boundaries. But material culture also defines barriers. It’s able to take the abstract or imagined aspects of a person — their personal identity, social status, religious belief — and make them tangible. Objects categorise people.

Take, for example, what we wear. Our clothing is a representation of how we see ourselves and how we want to present ourselves to others. It both expresses our individual identity, and it gives an indication of the broader sociocultural context we operate in. How we dress is influenced by who and where we are, both in space and time.

We’ve all seen the recent H&M advert depicting a person of colour wearing an item of clothing that caused much unrest. In order to understand how this material item manifested itself into discussions of oppression, racism and social conflict, it’s important to consider the different elements of this object.

  1. There’s a long, problematic, degrading history of black people being compared with monkeys.
  2. ‘Hoodies’ have been criminalised — often being associated with rebellious connotations. Those who wear hoodies risk becoming victims of social profiling violence.
  3. H&M, a brand situated in a European country, had an African child wear a hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on it.

The advert was subject to controversy and public outcry because of what the object represented — historically, socially, personally.

Vitally important

It’s vitally important for marketers, advertisers and brands to take note of all elements of a product:

  • its material composition (its quality)
  • the manufacturing process (its creation)
  • its functional attributes (its use), and
  • its semantic qualities (its value and meaning)

We need to understand the learned and instinctive behaviour around the use and consumption of products, the trading patterns and commercial channels through which products travel, and the semiotic context the products operate in.


Marguerite de VilliersMarguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Kantar Consulting. “Why Things Matter”, her latest regular column on MarkLives, applies an anthropological lens to the world of commercials and commodities.

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