Graduate Course in Ethnohistory for Spring, 2004

ANTH 605: Biography and Material Culture


In this course we will apply an anthropological approach to everyday and precious objects. Treating biography broadly to include cultural biographies as well as individual biographies, we will ask questions like: How do objects relate to people’s understandings of themselves as individuals and as participants in specific cultural communities? How do cultural understandings, personal biographies, and public historical events come together in unique objects touched, worn, used, or inhabited by living, breathing human beings? What happens to objects we discard and what meanings are associated with such objects possibly valued, loved, and then refused? How do we relate to ‘things’ over the course of people’s lives from birth to death? What is the relationship between the biographies of things and the biographies of persons? We will answer these and other questions by reading classic and contemporary cultural anthropological writings about ‘things’—stuff. We will also spend some time discussing the similarities and differences between cultural and archaeological approaches to objects.  Some hands-on participant-observation, oral history, or other form of original research will be an integral and required component of this course.


Required Books


Į The Sari. Daniel Miller (co-author). 2003. New York, NY: Berg.

Į Waste and Want. Susan Strasser. 2000. Owl Books.

Į Car Cultures. Daniel Miller (editor). 2001. New York, NY: Berg.

Į Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Elizabeth Chin. 2001. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Į Selected Articles




Grading (See Grading Key for complete instructions)


            Attendance                  15%                 Prospectus for Final Essay     15%

            Responses                   20%                 Annotated Bibliography         20%

                                                                        Final Essay                             30%




In a class of this kind and size, your presence and participation are essential to the quality of the experience for others as well as yourself. Your attendance grade will be based on the number of days you are absent, calculated as points missed on a one-hundred percent scale.


Reading Responses


There will be no exams in this class.  Students will write weekly 1-2 page responses to the readings (20% of grade).  These should include very brief summaries of all readings and at least a paragraph of critique. They must be typed.


Writing Assignments:


Prospectus for Final Essay (15% of grade):  This will be a 2-3 page essay discussing the theoretical perspective and topic you will pursue for your final paper.  It should be written in a clear, essay style, containing a preliminary argument and topic and identification of the kinds of material (essays, books, popular media, local fieldwork) you will use to pursue that argument.


Annotated Bibliography (20% of grade):  This will be an annotated bibliography of sources you are using so far in your paper.  Write a one-paragraph summary for each of 4 or 5 sources, and a sentence or two of how they should be useful to your paper.  Include full bibliographic information for each of these sources, and do not include course readings!  Course readings should be used for your paper where appropriate but do not count towards this assignment. You must limit yourself to one web site source only, and use at least one book.


Final Essay (30% of grade):  This will be a 15-25 page essay based on original research.  It can be on a topic of your choice, which is relevant to the course readings. Original research can be in the form of, for example, local fieldwork, archival work, or contemporary media work. If you have difficulty in coming up with a topic, please feel free to see me. Include a bibliography for anything you cite, and for readings you already know you will be using.  When you cite, quote, or paraphrase in text, put an in-text citation in parentheses (author’s last name, date, page number if a direct quote).  It looks like this:  (Straight 1997) or (Straight 1997: 37).

Bilinda Straight’s

Grading Key


All letter grades are converted into a quantitative grade (see key below).  All quantitative semester grades are multiplied by the percentage of the spread they represent.  Thus, if attendance is worth 20% of the grade, it would be calculated as follows:  If you were absent 3 times out of 30 total class days, 3 out of 30 is 10 percent absence, or 90% presence. So you have a 90 on attendance, multiplied by 20% of the spread, gives you 18. All grades thus calculated are added together to equal the total percentage out of one hundred.  Your semester grade is then calculated as per the key below.


                                    Grade Scale for Final Grades


97-100                 A+


94-96                   A


87-93                   BA


84-86                   B


77-83                   CB


74-76                   C


67-73                   DC


60-66                   D


below 60              E

Course Outline



Things as Extension of Persons I


Week One, January 6th


            Introduction to Course, Review of Syllabus and Expectations, Film “Hearts and Hands”


Week Two, January 13th


            The Sari (Banerjee and Miller) Chapters 1 and 2

            Annette Weiner “Reconfiguring Exchange Theory: The Maori Hau”

            Marcel Mauss excerpt from The Gift [pp. 1-46]





The Unequal Lives of Persons and Things


Week Three, January 20th


Waste and Want (Strasser) Chapters 1 and 2

The Sari Chapter 3


Week Four, January 27th


Peter Stallybrass “Marx’s Coat”

Karl Marx: “On James Mill” and selections from Capital

Jack Amariglio and Antonio Callari, “Marxian Value Theory and the Subject”


Week Five, February 3rd


Paul Gilroy “Driving While Black” (in Car Cultures)

Purchasing Power (Chin) Chapters 1, 2, and 3


Week Six, February 10th


            Purchasing Power Chapters 4, 6

The Sari, Chapter 5

            Gertrude Stotz “The Colonizing Vehicle” (in Car Cultures)





The Lives and Deaths of Things/Things as Cultural Biography


Week Seven, February 17th


            Igor Kopytoff “The Social Life of Things”

Waste and Want Chapter 3

Jojada Verrips and Birgit Meyer “Kwaku’s Car” (in Car Cultures)


Week Eight, February 24th


Waste and Want Chapter 4

Waste and Want Chapter 5

Sarah Hill article


Week Nine, March 9th


Jon Holtzman “In a Cup of Tea”

Tom O’Dell “Raggare and the Panic of Mobility” (in Car Cultures)

Jane Parish “Black Market, Free Market”


Things as Extension of Persons II


Week Ten, March 16th


            The Sari Chapters 4 and 6

            Bilinda Straight “From Samburu Heirloom to New Age Artifact”

            Annelies Moors “Wearing Gold”




Week Eleven, March 23rd


Daniel Miller “Possessions”

            Michael Nassaney article

            Anat Hecht “Home Sweet Home”


Death (and Loss) and Things


Week Twelve, March 30th


Diana Young “The Life and Death of Cars” (in Car Cultures)

            The Sari Chapter 7

            Janet Hoskins “The Betel Bag”

            Ellen Schattschneider  “Buy Me a Bride” (AE article)


Week Thirteen, April 6th


Week Fourteen, April 13th