The social life of things

Origins and History

In 1986, the edited volume The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective was published. This work was born out of papers presented in 1983 and 1984 at a workshop and symposium run by the Ethnohistory Program at the University of Pennsylvania. These meetings represented a combined effort by anthropologists and historians to better understand commodities (Farriss 1986). In his introductory essay, editor Arjun Appadurai gives a provisional definition of commodities as “objects of economic value” (1986:3). By deconstructing notions of value, it is possible to reveal the social relations that help create and define such objects:Economic exchange creates value. Value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged. Focusing on the forms or functions of exchange, makes it possible to argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics, construed broadly. This argument… justifies the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives (Appadurai 1986:3).While economic exchange is the focus in this volume, the insights provided by investigation of how commodities operate in human social life have proved applicable to the broader study of the “politics of value” (Preucel and Hodder 1996:106).
Basic Premises

People “make” the world through physical manipulation and ideational construction. That humans shape, change, and manipulate the material world is readily apparent and uncontroversial. Less obvious are the ways in which objects in turn shape human existence. The idea of a social life of things addresses the interactions between human beings and the material world in a way that pays particular attention to the specific reactions elicited by objects. This reflexive relationship in which the existence of people is responsible for the creation of objects and objects are responsible for the creation of the particularities of human existence is a useful avenue for archaeological thought.Thinking of static objects as having the potential to “create” the world of human existence does not necessarily come naturally, but it may be clarified by use of specific examples.  For instance, imagine a man in a house.
People build houses, but houses also help shape human experience. Houses provide shelter, contain an idea of “home,” and through their size, upkeep, and decoration convey social messages about the identity of their occupants.
Clothing protects the body from the elements and projects a message about the identity of the wearer. Houses and clothing, like other objects, carry multiple utilitarian, ideational, and social uses. In these ways, they help shape human existence.     
Discussion of the social life of things is ultimately an examination of the various ways in which objects hold value for individuals and groups. There are many types of potential value, including emotional, aesthetic, spiritual, and knowledge value, or an object’s ability to be sold in an open market. The characterization of value made by German philosopher Georg Simmel is particularly relevant. “Value, for Simmel, is never an inherent property of objects, but is a judgment made about them by subjects” (Appadurai 1986:3). Value may be ascribed by society at large (“gold has a high value in economic exchange”) or it may be intensely personal and subjective (“this teddy bear means a lot to me”). However, as  Renfrew (2001) notes, when discussing “valuables,” “their value may be ascribed, but it is inseparable from their substantive and material existence” (2001:134).
Appadurai’s (1986) discussion of commodities may be used to illustrate a further point: the values ascribed to an object are constantly in flux. He refers to the “commodity phase” as representing the moment during which an object is operating as a commodity. “Commodity candidacy” refers to the ability of an object to operate as a commodity in a certain situation in line with the needs and desires of buyer and seller, the cultural framework in which the exchange takes place, and other situational factors. Lastly, the “commodity context” refers to where and when exchange takes place (1986:13-15).

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