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Material Culture and Global History

The global turn has slowly but surely gained ground within the field. More and more historians recognise ‘global history’ is not about writing the history of the globe, but about looking across borders and about a willingness to challenge the nation-state as the natural unit within which historical developments take place. There are many fields that intersect with that approach to global history (e.g. economic history and the global trade in commodities; history of migration and the movement of people; history of science and the multiple (global) sources for scientific developments), but at Warwick, one of the strengths of our approach to global history is the willingness to take material culture on board as potential sources for global history. Things moved, but what happened to meaning and form when things moved? How did people approach object from afar and made them their own? How can we study the changing meanings of objects in the global past (and present)? These questions will form part of our discussions.


Core Readings

Kopytoff, Igor, The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process’ in Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Online.

Nappi, Carla, ‘Surface tension: objectifying ginseng in Chinese early modernity’ in Paula Findlen, ed., Early modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800, pp. 31-52


Seminar Questions

What methods are used in studying global history?

What are the methodological challenges involved in doing global history?

Is a history of the global really possible or desirable?

Is global history Eurocentric? Is a truly cosmopolitan history possible?

Why were historians hesitant to use material culture until the 1980s?

'Material culture emerged when historians fell in love anthropology in the 1980s.' Discuss.


Further Readings

Jeremy Adelman, 'What is Global History Now?' Aeon (2017)

Sebastien Conrad, What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016)

Pamela Kyle Crossley, What is Global History? (Cambridge, 2008).

Paula Findlen, ed., Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500-1800 London (2002)

Grasskamp and Juneja, eds., China, Europe, and the Trancultural Object, 1600-1800. Springer,2015.

Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: 2014).

Anne Gerritsen, and Giorgio Riello. The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London, 2016).

Wiesner-Hanks M. ‘What is global history?’ Journal Of Global History [serial online]. November 2016;11(3):481-485.


Truffle Hunt

Material culture is everywhere around us, and so it is not difficult to find your own examples of material culture.

Obviously, fine examples of material culture are collected in museums, and most museums now have very fine online collections. I recommend these two to get you started, but then look for your own area of interest and find what museums have:

Victoria and Albert Museum online collection:

British museum online collection:


If you find a museum that doesn’t have the resources to put their collections online, then you can consider not only visiting the museum yourself, but also writing to the museum to ask about images.


For more ordinary objects, have a look at ethnographical collections (museums of ethnography), for example this one:


History of Science collections are also fabulous resources, for example, or the


But you can also think far more down to earth about objects that mean something in your own life, or collections of objects associated with parts of the world or communities of people you care about. Material culture is everywhere, literally!

Further orientation

An introductory approach to researching material culture for History students

1. We should attempt a description of the object itself, its physical attributes:

  • Assess the materials of the object. If it is a manufactured object, how was it made and when?
  • Production methods and manufacture, materials, size, weight, design, style, decoration and date are some of the key issues to address here, though different forms of material culture will require different questions.
  • If possible, find out how much such an item would cost for contemporaries.
  • If the object is a found or naturally occurring object, the materials of the object are still important and the shaping of the object (by the weather and/or human action, for example) may also leave traces.



2. We can place the object in a series of different contexts, historical and spatial, for example:

  • We can do this by drawing on the information gleaned in step 1, as well as by using a range of other evidence.
  • Depending on the nature of the object, we might explore who owned or used this (or similar) objects, when, and what for.
  • Some of this can also be gathered from handling, viewing or experiencing the objects themselves, an important part of the research process, and to be undertaken if possible.
  • Knowledge about the physical attributes of an object, combined with external information, should help us understand how it was used.



3. We can explore more fully the place of the object (or its type) in social, cultural and political context, perhaps including ‘documentary’ and ‘imaginative’ written documents, as well as visual references:

  • At this stage, and indeed throughout, the researcher will continue to engage with and reflect on the material nature of the object.


[Based on Karen Harvey, ‘Introduction: Historians, Material Culture and Materiality’ in Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), p. 18.]