UCL Anthropology


Very Big and Very Small Societies

Daniel Miller


My concern today is with the potential for Anthropology to provide a specific perspective on the state of the world. One which draws from the traditions and achievements of that discipline but is applied in an unprecedented manner to that which is unprecedented about the contemporary world. I will argue against any view that suggests that the changes and developments that create our contemporary world have made anthropology anachronistic or less appropriate as a means to try and understand our world. On the contrary I will argue that it is some of the most traditional aspects of anthropology that have come into their own as an ideal resource for directly confronting the challenge represented by the phrase `the state of the world'. In order to achieve this goal I will argue that we must start with that core tradition by which anthropology has endeavoured to describe and account for societies on the assumption that culture and society are the products of an a priori historical diversity based on regions. The challenge today is to confront a world that expands in both directions from this initial state. On the one hand we have the growth of a global world which starts to become a genuine entity in its own right; the macrocosm of social analysis. On the other hand as the enlightenment tradition always predicted, along with greater generality and encompassment, comes greater particularity in the form of an unprecedented individualism and potential for personal autonomy that has become the microcosm of social analysis. I will ague that the study of society as practiced by anthropology has the potential to address both macrocosm, microcosm and the relationship between these two.

We might have argued the opposite, that anthropology is an anachronism, that its topic based on the plural term societies or cultures assumed to be relatively homogeneous internally and associated with specific regions, are being dissolved away and replaced by a growing individualism on the one hand and globalisation on the other. As a result anthropology should give way to psychology for the individuals and macro-sociology for the global. I will argue the opposite, that the study of a society or a culture is the foundation for studying these other entities, as long as we treat the global as one very big society and treat the individual as many very very small societies.

Let me start by briefly by characterising the relevant traditions of anthropology. Anthropology has grown up around two hard to define and in some ways hard to defend units of study, that is society and culture. In Britain we tend to think more in terms of social anthropology, in the US there is more of an emphasis on cultural anthropology. Although there has always been an internal critique of the idea that the world was cleanly divided into simple units that represented the plural or comparative societies or comparative cultures, nevertheless it must be acknowledged that anthropology proceeded on the working hypothesis that given regions could be identified by relatively coherent cultural and social orders which could be characterised as such. Even in the heyday of classic anthropology the more homogenising issues of modernity were ceded to sociology while the microcosm of the individual was ceded to psychology, giving anthropology is own relatively bounded niche in modern academia.

Two classic studies can be used to characterise the result of this tradition. In his analysis of Kabyle society, amongst the North African Berber traditions, Bourdieu (1977) exemplifies anthropology as a perspective by demonstrating how within this regional niche as represented by precisely this term `society' one could find a previously unexpected degree of internal coherence. According to his concept of habitus the structure of apparently highly diverse fields of life ranging from kinship, to the agricultural cycle, to the internal order of the house, were found to be homologous with each other. Unusually Bourdieu was prepared also to extrapolate from this study of less developed regions to the metropolitan. In his analysis of French society represented by the book Distinction (1979) he implied a larger structural cosmology such that the taste of any particular French individual found its position relative to all others along an overall spectrum of differences that could be excavated from genres ranging from taste in music to political affiliation. In a similar vein the structural anthropologist Louis Dumont (1972) provided in his book Homo Hierarchicus an exemplary model of another such region, South Asia, in which again the meaning of any one element, or in that case caste, within Hindu society could be comprehended best by its relationship to the encompassing structural whole. This, I would suggest, is the familiar face of anthropology occupying its appropriate niche between the global and the individual. Having established the larger model of this unit of analysis - the society, anthropologists can then demonstrate how any particular group or custom is generated by the larger logic of the social or cultural system. So, for example, Jonathan Parry (1994) produced an excellent monograph on a particular group, the funeral priests in Banares. If his results had been taken in isolation they would look quite bizarre. For instance, at one point he notes that some of these priests eat the leftovers from dogs out of human skulls. But for Parry this is not some voyeurism of the exotic. On the contrary, given this larger anthropological study of Hindu cosmology, this practice makes perfectly good sense as the logical outcome of a series of beliefs in purity and pollution, such that if a group, such as these funeral priests, have as their duty the removal of pollution, eating the leftovers of dogs from skulls seems an appropriate and explicable expression of their devotion to their task, because it is a systematic, not a random repudiation of normal pollution taboos. To use an analogy from modern electronics, anthropology presumes a kind of pixel theory of society, in which the overall picture of that society is made up of a multitude of pixelated positions that occupy their appropriate niche in order that we can discern the overall shape of the whole. It is derived from an underlying structuralist theory. I would think that by now this is the accepted, if you like comfortable, vision of what anthropology has done.

The problem for the discipline is that this task could be threatened by several generalisations that have become more or less taken for granted about the contemporary world. These represent the expansion of both what I earlier called the macrocosm and the microcosm. The first is represented by the breaking up of this original cultural diversity through the homogenisation of global forms. To take an example which I intend to be one of my main research projects over the next few years - denim or blue jeans. I have done counts in various parts of the world, that suggest that, leaving aside South Asia, within a couple of decades, at any given time perhaps half the worlds population will be wearing just one of all the many textiles they might have selected to wear that day. It is possible for anthropology to study denim blue jeans in each local context. I am working with a student who is writing about Brazilian jeans as a specific trajectory (Mizrahi 2006). But nevertheless the standard form of anthropology cannot answer the larger question of what denim represents as a global, as opposed to a local, phenomenon. If as I would argue for London that denim is a response to certain issues of anxiety (Clarke and Miller 2001) then would I have to argue that denim in each region is a response to the same anxiety? We need to find ways of dealing with vast new forms of both homogeneity and heterogeneity. I wish to study the political economy and commodity chain that explains how denim is global, but I also want to understand why consumers wear denim, and the reason denim is global is going to be more than the sum of the reasons why it is local (Miller and Woodward submitted)

I would suggest the obvious route forward for anthropology is to use its core traditions and apply them by analogy to the globe. That is to say treat the global as a very very big society. The implications of this would be that there are new forms of global homogeneity and heterogeneity but that these can actually make sense through an approach to global encompassment in which structurally any specific element takes its meaning from the whole. I think this corresponds to an actual change, and there is such a thing as global society. So my argument would be more or less the exact opposite of the post-modern tradition. That tradition eschewed the idea of global history or transcendent explanation in favour of a focus upon fragmentation. By contrast I want to move the structural tradition upwards to encompass the globe. The grand narrative Hegelian tradition of history as rationality was going to be abandoned at exactly the time when it was starting, for the first time, to be true to the world. I want to indicate what I think would be the results of such a commitment to a treatment of the entire world on analogy with the concept of society or culture as an entity, by reference to two examples, that of religion and of sex.

With respect to religion my suggestion would be that today many people who belong to the variety of extant religions in the world are becoming increasingly aware of cosmological ideas and religious practices that have been developed in areas and religions other than their own. There is increasing cross-fertilisation between these, so that one can start to see a pattern of global religiosity. What this means is that each of the major religions and their various denominations start to be influenced by each other and subsequently to occupy the wide spectrum of niches that are available within the cosmological potential of religion per. se. So for example when I look at Christianity, in places such as Trinidad where I conduct fieldwork (Miller and Slater 2000: 173-193), I see a wide range of groups from Jehovah's Witness through to Pentecostals, Catholics and Anglicans. Between them they have diversified the practice and thought of their religion to colonise a whole spectrum of possibilities rather as Bourdieu saw France as colonised by a whole spectrum of taste in music or food. So there are highly ritualistic groups, fluid compromises with secularism, fundamental returns to literal interpretations of text, and groups that colonise new technical possibilities such as internet Christianity. This occurs within as well as between denominations. So, for example, the charismatic Catholics incorporate within Catholicism some of the developments of Protestantism. As such Christianity develops all sorts of extreme and bizarre forms, which make sense however when each is seen as developing some logic of religion as a whole. Take for example Engelke's (2005) portrait of an Apostolic church in Zimbabwe. This follow an ideal of an unmediated relationship to their Christ, by eschewing all material interventions. They have successively dispensed with churches, vestments, books or any other mere material form in this quest. In short they take one logical possibility inherent in the underlying theology and objectify this as their practice. Similarly in Islam we can see the rise of some of what have been called fundamentalist groups actually quite analogous to these more literalist Pentecostals and Apostolic Christians, with similar disputes over Darwinian evolution, just as we see reformist trends in Hinduism based on more literal readings of text. Less reported for Islam are the analogies in their relationship to secular society. For example, a recent paper by Tarlo (2007) on the Hijab or veil as worn by British Muslims completely refutes the idea that this is some clear, simple or consistent expression of Islam. Rather she finds a very wide spectrum of reasons for wearing the Hijab many of which actually incorporate quite secular concerns with movements that produce something one could describe as variations in feminist, nationalist and humanistic Islam (compare Sandikci and Ger 2005 for Turkey). We would find similar varieties of feminist, nationalist and secular, Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism in London today. In short, if we take religion as a global phenomenon we can see that just as in Parry's analysis of Hinduism in the region of India, each practice can be seen as a pixel in the overall picture. As many more logical possibilities are filled with groups that decide to objectify that theological possibility we see a proliferation of religious possibilities given form. So today we can see the globe as a larger encompassing unit of cosmological order in which separate groups occupy particular niches expressing a whole spectrum from extreme religiosity to every kind of compromise with secularisation.

Let me give a second example, that of sexual practice. Recently I was reading work by two students in our department. One an MA student Kate More wrote her thesis on an extreme form of what used to be called Sadomasochism but is now known as BDSM. These were women who, not content to be merely masochistic in their sexual actions, had started to devote the whole of their lives to becomes the slaves of men. Sometimes staying at home all day in chains waiting to serve their man on his return. The other student is carrying out her PhD on bugchasing (Reynolds 2007) that is men who deliberately go out to become infected with AIDS from HIV positive males. Now I would say both of these examples are at least as bizarre and disturbing as the earlier case of priests eating the leftovers of dogs from skulls. But I believe they are also equally comprehensible as positions within an overall picture. So these slave women take their place in a wide range of BDSM behaviour. They represent one logical extreme of such practices which then go all the way through to the apparently quite common use of spanking buttocks in sex, which seems to be regarded as quite a mundane part of `normal' sexual practice. The global nature of these practices is evident from the internet where in effect people at any given degree of adherence to BDSM can be in contact and develop a network irrespective of whether they live in Peru, Poland or the Philippines. Each group then becomes what I have called a pixel within a picture that only has its shape and form at the global level. The internet is clearly as much a facilitator as a representation of such developments. If BDSM is seen as a single dimension of sexual practice that creates a spectrum of possibilities with each group as a position along this, then in turn it is linked to all other sexual practices with their own spectrum of possibilities to create an overall picture of which each practice is a pixel.

I would further suggest that philosophy was the harbinger of this global society. Many philosophers devoted themselves to working out in abstract, the logical possibilities of their moment of history. If one considers the enlightenment concept of freedom, for example, then at one stage Rousseau was the early consciousness of the new possibilities and the new contradictions that were opening up with this sense of freedom. Later on, French Left bank intellectuals such as Sartre developed through existentialism many more examples of the possibilities and contradictions of modern freedom. While philosophy made these logics explicit they could also be worked out within areas such as theology, as seen for example in Kierkegaard or Levinas, but equally through actual forms of practice such as sex. Indeed sex has become one of the central idioms of modern freedom. Thus while Bataille as a philosopher considered some of the more extreme possibilities of sexual freedom, increasingly these possibilities were actually objectified through the act of sex itself. For example, the recent film Shortbus explores the sexual practices of contemporary New Yorkers with careful attention to the contradictions and frustrations they give rise to. I think, if anything these contradictions become still more prominent when possibilities are expressed through practice rather than just abstract philosophy, So, if you like, philosophy ponders new potentials in the state of the world, but in a relatively abstract genres, while practices such as religion and sex make this then actually the state of the world.

What is true of religion and sex would then follow for all other practices. There are in the modern world all those who play or watch snooker or play or watch football. But within that larger number there are those, much fewer in number, who seem to devote 95% of their waking lives to expressing a passionate attachment to either snooker or football. Similarly there are hundreds of thousands of hairdressers, but I also recall a television documentary about an individual whose whole life was devoted to winning the world championship hairdressing competition in Las Vegas. Each practice develops its own field of possibilities which is then populated by actual persons. Television thrives on the exoticism of these processes. Contemporary television reveals to us on a daily basis the way in which people, we would regard as in most senses ordinary, excel in finding some obscure niche which is actually an extreme attachment to some otherwise unoccupied potential. Extremely organic, extremely stylish, extremely introverted, extremely devoted to tropical fish or collecting beer mats. The question that is surely raised by these observations on the state of the world is how can this be? We may see an overall, now global structure, but as one of my colleagues put it, what leads all these different individuals to `fill in' all the gaps within this logic of structure. The problem is not at all that we live in a fragmented disordered world. The problem is quite the opposite. That we exist in a world in which people seem to live as an expression of an order they cant possibly have conceived of as a whole.

I want to develop an anthropology that is not afraid to confront this state of the world, and will embrace the idea of the global as the macrocosm which is viewed as analogous to our traditional model of a society. Because this perspective on the globe as holistic structural and ordered, is more or less identical to the traditional form by which anthropology has understood society and culture. If that is the case then anthropology is ideally placed to take over the task of understanding the globe from macro sociology and start to work analytically upon this state of the world. My forthcoming project on global denim is intended to be an experiment in the possibility of just such an anthropological engagement that confronts global diversity as a holistic problem in which all forms of diversity are best understood in relation to the whole. In short I want a new anthropological cartography that maps global diversity and in that mapping accounts for the landscapes it documents.


But re-colonising global society from meta-sociology could only be one part of a wider ambition. In order to understand the state of the world we cannot just start from the top and work downwards. I would suggest that we also need to start from the bottom and work upwards. We also need to develop an anthropology of the microcosm, that is the individual. My argument would be symmetrical. Just as we start to confront the global by analogy with study of society, so also we should start to confront the individual by analogy with the study of society. Traditionally the study of the individual was ceded by anthropology to psychology. While the understanding of individualism as a global phenomenon was ceded to macro-sociologists such as Beck and Beck-Gersheim (2001) and Giddens (1991). What I am proposing is, however, entirely distinct from either of these. The approach to the individual that I would wish to develop is consummately anthropological in that it treats each individual on analogy with society. In short each individual becomes understood as just as very very small society. In each case, just as in the traditional study of society, we try and look to see how far there is consistency, logic and cosmology that brings together all the diverse facets of that individual, their social, economic, material, sexual, leisure and other practices. In other words we are studying not the habitus of the Kabyle, but the habitus of each individual Kabyle as though each was a separate society. In some respect this is something we could always have done had we not tried to keep a clear boundary with psychology. A complex novel that spends several hundred pages on an individual often produces in narrative something not dissimilar to what is envisaged here as the product of anthropological analysis. But there are other reasons for suggesting this particular development at this point, which have just as much to do with the state of the world. There is an unprecedented shift in the very nature of the individual, and one that will probably be equally important in ultimately explaining the previous observation that somehow individuals colonise unoccupied niches in a larger global logic. This is to suggest that individuals today have a much stronger relationship to the vast spectrum of global diversity, through television, travel, the internet and many other forms, and to some extent internalise this diversity as what might be called individual culture. But this is more than I can tackle in a single lecture. Instead I want to spend most of the rest of this talk in a more sustained engagement with the forces and influences that plausibly come together to produce this modern individual.

In this case I have done rather more work than in my speculative project on denim. I have tried to consider this more holistic and encompassing approach to the individual as a society, through ethnographic fieldwork. I have done so by concentrating on the place that I think is in the vanguard to this new state of the world, and the radical and unprecedented changes it represents. That is the city where I was born and where I work - London. Over some 18 months I carried out an ethnography alongside a student Fiona Parrott based upon a hundred individuals and households selected simply because they happened to live on a single street in South London. In turn this street was chosen because there seemed to be nothing special about it, and no reason to choose it. It was just a place Fiona Parrott and I who live in very different parts of London could easily get to.

London seems to present a complete repudiation of the concepts of society and culture as employed in traditional anthropology. This street was no community or neighbourhood. Most of these people will never meet each other. A recent survey suggests that 6 out of 10 Londoners dont even know the names of their immediate neighbours. Many are single person households. They are also the world in a more literal sense. Only 23% of our participants were actually born in London. They come from anywhere and everywhere, Australia to Eastern Europe. A typical household on this street would be a gay Argentinean with a partner from Estonia. Extraordinarily as predicted in the idea of the globe as a very big society, there are generalisations to be made. As I point out in my book A Theory of Shopping (Miller 1998) even people who only migrated to London a couple of years previously quickly learn a common discourse and sometimes practice that pertains to shopping apparently oblivious of cultural traditions that have developed over generations. But there is also extraordinary diversity that makes every household and individual seem at the same time a unique challenge in their own right. I have mentioned various forms of extreme behaviour, and even on this nondescript and random street such extremes were soon evident. As we discovered the day, when in the morning we met a man who it turned out had personally murdered several hundred innocent others, and in the same afternoon we met a woman who had fostered sequentially nearly fifty of the most deprived children in the area. But in seeing these microcosms in the light of the macrocosm, I refuse to regard contemporary society as merely some kind of freak show. After all anthropology did not have a problem studying in Melanesia where one tribe might eat its dead parents and in another men might bleed their penis to appropriate female menstruation. Some of these tribes were less than three hundred people. For me a household where the husband comes from Norway and the wife is Kabyle is in and of itself a brave new society. To understand the state of this world, we must start from the top, but also, as here start, from the bottom.

To take this path I need to introduce you to some of my societies or, as you might call them, individuals. I am not a typical anthropologist, I work within a specific area called material culture, in which I explore peoples' lives through their expression in the artifactual world. I would look across the different genres of possessions, their music, food, clothing, car, and interior decoration in order to explore any common pattern that link them. In addition, just as we would use history to account for a society, I need to understand family history to understand an individual.

Sharon, for example, started out with certain key strategies designed to repudiate her parents. Her mother spent ages looking feminine or glamorous before even going out to the shops. Sharon, by contrast, played with the boys and ended up a champion body-builder. On the other hand the fact that she was the youngest and smallest in her class, could also explain the emphasis on strength and size. We could see the relationship to her parents therefore as completely incidental or essentially formative to her adoption of body-building. But most likely it is precisely because of the conjuncture of the two factors that this life trajectory become sustained. Most of what people come to be in life, seems in our material to be overdetermined, but meaning here simply multiply caused, not necessary its technical use by Freud or Althusser.

Sharon also hated the way her parents hoarded and collected things. She notes for them it was security while for her it is clutter. But then Sharon's life fell apart. She went through an appalling divorce after which her ex-husband either stole or destroyed her possessions. She ended up homeless, without work, living on the street with her baby. For three months she camped outside the local government offices, until eventually she was re-housed. Under these conditions, aspects of her parent's lives that she had repudiated came back to her as an integral part of herself. She started hoarding things, conscious now of the fragility of possession. Today she moves furniture and other things around her flat almost daily to confirm that has returned to control over her own house. Yet she has successfully returned to the education she originally missed out on because of dyslexia to the extent that she is now a professional who trains social workers. Unusually for a social worker Sharon still does body-building and works at night as a bouncer that is someone who expels undesirables from clubs. She still refuses to engage with the kind of glamour she repudiated early on. She recalls a vision that took place when she was nine years old of a much older woman, dressed in pink and with pink lipstick and orange blusher. She claims this led to her sustained aversion to women dressing younger than their age. The vision fits her current condition, her daughter is now nine and Sharon is terrified about her dressing in sexually provocative ways.

This structure or order to her life has two main dimensions. The first is vertical and corresponds to a study of how events or circumstances build a narrative that is commonly first explicated around the relation to parental influence. This logic of biographical narrative is not simply a sequence of events, it is also in part an accounting for that order, as one thing literally leads to another. Whenever a person says this thing happened and then they did that, we have responsibility to decide the degree to which they are implying the cause of what they then did or became. This vertical dimension is cross cut by a horizontal dimension which is the logic, what Bourdieu referred to as the homologies, between different areas of practice. This leads us to ask to what degree we can explain someone's way of dealing with one area of their life by virtue of its consistency with what otherwise might seem an entirely unrelated part of their life. The way they relate to their work sometimes seems reminiscent of the way they relate to lovers, or collections of glass.

Finally one of the features that defines what we mean by `modern' lives is the degree of conscious reflection. We might quote the sociologist Giddens (Giddens 1991) on the way people try and keep order in their narrative of their past as a means of legitimating their present. But then so could Sharon. She has probably read Giddens. But such academic accounts often assume that this self-consciousness creates in some measure a less immediate or authentic relationship to ourselves. A more abstract, or ironic distancing, such that we could be said to be acting ourselves. But I saw no evidence that having read Giddens would lead Sharon to distance herself from her own behaviour, any more than traditional rationalisation or legitimation of behaviour. The fact that she can explain the relationship between constantly moving furniture around and the way it clears her head, in much the same way as we would explain it, doesn't seem to diminish one iota the efficacy of her action in actually moving furniture or her need to do it. Just as her knowledge of why people need to hoard, that she describes as irrational, didn't at all save her from needing to hoard when her own circumstances fitted her theory of hoarding.

Malcolm's work fluctuates between Australia and the UK, but what he understands as his permanent address is his email, and the nearest thing to home is his laptop. Both his friendships and his work are largely organized by email, a place he constantly orders, returns to, cares for, and where in many respects `his head is'. But to understand the intensity of this relationship to his laptop, we need to read the anthropologist Fred Myers (1986) . Because, Myers notes, that for many Aboriginal groups there is a tradition of avoiding the physical possessions of the deceased. Malcolm's mother was Australian Aboriginal and most of her possessions were indeed destroyed at her death. But he took from her a mission to locate and preserve the history of his family, including those once taken away from their parents. As he sees it, too much Aboriginal history is viewed as lying in police records, he wants a proper archive he will deposit in an Australian State archive.

Malcolm has an antipathy to things. He has given most of his inherited or childhood objects away. In his devotion to immateriality he prefers anything digital. He is getting into digital photographs, he downloads music and immediately throws out the covers. Very unusually for the street he even gives away his books after he has read them. One could relate this to his mobility, one could relate it to his interest in the potential of new technologies, one could relate it to this Aboriginal inheritance. There is more. His father sold antiques but the result was that at soon as he started becoming attached to things in his childhood, they would be sold, another possible source of his detachment from things. Once again then his personal habitus is overdetermined. Even he can't decide how much his mobility is cause and effect. But the overall result as he puts it is that `I think I've set myself up to be out of touch with objects and things, so there's probably something psychological behind that.' He has a more ambiguous relation to less tangible things like documents; sorting both his mothers and his own things into neat box files. But his real identification is with digital forms. He constantly updates and sorts his emails which becomes the updating of his social relationships. In going through them he recalls all those friends he owes emails to.

One could try and stretch the Aboriginal inheritance. The laptop as a kind of digital dreamworld that connects current relationships with those of the dead, a place he comes in and out of, as more real than merely real life. He retains this intense concern with lineage devoting much of his time to creating order out of kinship history. He seems obsessed that if he were to die, that thanks to constantly sorting his emails, he would leave a legacy that was archived and up to date, so no one would have to do the work he did recovering and ordering his ancestral lives. But for my purpose what he typifies is firstly the multiple determination of his cosmology. Both father, mother and his work come together as possible explanations. One could not claim to have predicted him, but given what we now know, this relationship to his laptop that at first seemed so bizarre, can certainly make sense. It is an aesthetic, a material cosmology. One can see how the horizontal dimensions of order merge with vertical, the overdetermination in his background.

People's lives are anything but consistent. Quite the contrary the juxtapositions of influences both past and present are quite bewilderingly mixed. But as with parents understanding children, a consistency appears in retrospect between the influences that are picked up on because they are compatible with present orders. The vertical is made consistent with the horizontal. We can observe this at any stage in life. As in the case of Peggy who drops a whole slew of childhood influences and brings to the foreground a completely different set when her life changes at 60.

Today she would emphasis the significance of movement during her early childhood, the fact that her family lived in several different countries when she was a child. Yet for most of her life these early childhood experiences were pretty irrelevant and by no means dominated the way she behaved. It is only now in her 60s that everything gets reconfigured. She and her partner Cyril both had previous marriages and very different lives. But once they discovered each other they found a happiness and compatibility beyond anything they could have imagined. It is now in this new relationship that things about her background that previously were important because they gave her stability in difficult times and relationships can be safely disregarded, while earlier childhood influences become the source of a quite profound freedom that these sixty year olds experience. They have become part of a kind of cruise society whose primary interest is in how many places they can see in the world before they are too old to continue the quest. They have a fantastic new set of relationships across the world, with people constantly coming to stay in London and they staying in turn in far flung lands. This is helped by the way they have consolidated their relationship with their own descendents, obligations they restrict to within a niche of time that doesn't much detract from their cruising. What they demonstrate is that, contrary to most psychology, a relationship at 60 may be just as formative as a relationship at 6.

There is an important contrast between Malcolm and Peggy. In the case of Peggy her relationship to objects and to the order of objects was essentially subservient to her relationship to particular people, everything has changed because of her meeting Cyril. But that is not true of Malcolm. He may well have entirely fulfilling relationships with people, but one senses an overriding concern with the way he needs to order his relationships to things, even if it is immaterial and digital forms intended to repudiate objects per. se. Actually people, especially the deceased become objects which need to be ordered as other objects. There is no sense in trying to privilege persons or objects on this street. The determinant relationship might be to a partner or parent, but it might be to cruising or clubbing or cars.

The mini analytical portraits I present here derive mostly from recording objects around the house or discussing them and their associated memories. We did not collect biographical narratives as such. It is my analysis that concludes that Peggy would have regarded a completely different set of earlier events as formative if we had met her at a different stage in her life. So although I am trying to construct explanations that would make sense to these participants they are not necessarily their own ways of accounting for their actions and possessions.

Nevertheless it often helps to start by focusing on parental socialisation. Because however complex that relationship, and we find it just as rich and contradictory as that revealed in the psychoanalytical literature, it follows from the logic of vertical development that in some ways the relationship to one's parents is actually one's simplest ever relationship. Because all subsequent relationships include the contingency of the way they inflect prior relationships. Initially what is most common is both the systematic repudiation or systematic reproduction of parental models.

Take, for example, Marina's relation to MacDonald's Happy Meals. For six years she took her three children every week to MacDonalds to eat a Happy Meal and keep the toys produced in series that came free with them. If going on holiday she tried to make sure she went to the MacDonalds at the airport so as not to miss out on the series as a whole. She is lyrical in her praise for both the toys and the place. She says `I just think they are incredibly well made, such beautiful things and their free, you get them with the meal. They are mass produced to an exceptionally high standard.' She also harps on about MacDonalds itself, their baby changing facilities, the way they encouraged breastfeeding, how she got to know the personnel, the reliability of their food, which she also claims is healthier than alternatives.

Why? Firstly it turns out that Marina like Sharon repudiates her parents through becoming a tomboy and then in her case training in engineering. Her parents were brought up in the colonial office in Africa, but without quite enough money to live up to their class pretensions. She feels she was neglected, given over like the other kids, to their African nannies, but carefully trained to make sure they only ever said lavatory, never toilet. So at one level MacDonalds is a repudiation of these class pretensions, of parents who would never go to MacDonalds, but who treated their children so coldly. But there is more. These six years were sandwiched between this conflict with parents who she stopped speaking to and the recent unemployment of her husband which means that while working she never has enough time to spend with her children. The MacDonalds period was the only time that wasn't either alienated from the past or from the present.

Taking her kids to Macdonalds including the half hour playing with the new toys, was for her almost the only moment of pure indulged motherhood, away from competing domestic tasks. These were precisely Happy Meals where her children learnt, to care about, systematically collect, develop imagination and create perfect moments of family life. All her precise memories of her children's development are associated with obtaining specific toys which still today come out as collections in the summer. MacDonalds Happy Meals became an aesthetic totalisation of her existence. She is delighted that her children are regaling us with detailed stories evoked by these toys while we are sitting having tea. As such she exemplifies these same themes of overdetermination, an aesthetic and verticality.

Although for convenience I am often referring to individuals, actually the unit is commonly dyadic. Peggy makes no sense without Cyril, Malcolm without his laptop. With James and Quentin a gay couple of thirty years standing, each exists largely in relation to the other. James may have failed in his arts career, but his charming juxtaposition of ornaments and other possessions, his aesthetic based on creative disorder prevents Quentin from becoming enslaved to his own skilled use of memory and order. What determines each are the needs of the other.

Even when it comes to reproduction or repudiating parents the unit need not be an individual. Another house consists of four 20 and 30 something's. They are typical post-university, completely unrelated, tenants. Yet they only make sense when taken as a collective. Each has issues and problems they have had to face up to, some deep and difficult. In response to this fragility, although without partners and children, they are all to some degree desperate to get back to the kinds of order and comfort represented by their original middle class homes. In their collectivity of tennis, gardening or wine tasting they can construct what they need, which is the reproduction of the firmer foundations of their earlier life, in many ways making themselves appear more like fifty or sixty year olds. But they cannot do this without the support of the others in that same household.

For anthropologists the vertical dimension is often anyway best seen more generically as background rather than just as parents. Take for example Marcia. One might look at her living room absolutely stuffed with ornaments and see this as her Caribbean inheritance. But such Caribbean displays that I studied in Trinidad and Jamaica tend to be full of objects that speak to close relationships; educational certificates or presents from grandchildren. On close inspection Marcia has no ornaments at all that speak to the existence of her husband, son or grandchildren. This turns out to be in part because certain early influences of her respectable mother, a schoolteacher, and the self-reliance that came with poverty. A set of cultural rather than simply parental ways of being. The problem is that these cultural rules such as respectability which worked well in a Caribbean context were much less helpful to her in the isolation of South London and led to a defensive rejection of accepting anything from relationships and only integrating that which she obtained for herself. The problem for Marcia was that being rigidly true to her Caribbean roots ended up as tragically limiting when no longer in the Caribbean, because what would have confirmed her as a matriarch in the Caribbean left her completely isolated in the very different context of South London.

The horizontal dimension complements the vertical. At any given point of time what I am calling there the aesthetic by which I mean an individual habitus, is distributed through a series of relationships that may be homologous or systematically contradictory. Genres such as accumulated collections of ornaments, the friends one goes drinking with, holidays, or neighbours. I will take just one example, the exploitation of the spatial order represented by the house itself. The kind of normative structure that Bourdieu presents to us of the Kabyle house, here becomes the often ad hoc aesthetic of particular houses which are ordered in relation to diverse practices.

Di, for example, like many others, wants to retain something of her parent's possessions as memories, but doesn't want these to undermine the autonomy she has carefully constructed for her own life. So when they move house she takes certain things, but keeps them today, not in the house, but in her garden shed. The shed is both near enough and far enough to exemplify the place in her life she wants her parents to inhabit. This matters because the most consistent relationship she has cultivated in her life is to the house itself. Starting from her hippy days the house became the repository of ethnic paraphernalia that stands also for her liberal attitudes reflected today by her working with immigrant children. Even her husband at their divorce knew he could not ask for things from this, their once shared, house. The house is full of her emotional repertoire. It has places to cry in, to have great sex in. She can look at a wall of tickets to rock gigs she has been to. But it's also her logistical base, without children, the object of her practice of care. The house links the very particular schema of emotions and pragmatism that is Di's aesthetic form.

A more extreme example comes when a house objectifies the values of its inhabitants with unrelenting aesthetic consistency. Designers whose house is a shrine to their cosmology. The house that proclaims there is no colour but cream. The house whose doctrine is that objects must express dynamism not become museums. So on the wall are not pictures as in other houses but clothes hung as decorations, which can be changed over time. Thirty pairs of jeans are carefully ordered according the precise degree of wash, fade and distressing. A similarly overt cosmology is evident when one walks into a Feng Shui house. It speaks to a life that insists no sentiment or other interest can disrupt the tyranny of calm order. Gifts from relatives, indeed all gifts are carefully stowed away in unseen cupboards or given away. Light, the sound of fountains, rock and wood, all where they should be. Consistency resolving contradiction. This Feng Shui is just as important as an antidote to his wife's stressful work as a management consultant as it is to his own work as an acupuncturist with an Eastern spiritual inflection.

In some cases one feels if it wasn't for the material culture one would have lost the person. The clearest example comes with Fred. Despite his powerful local South London working class voice, Fred is obviously fragile. Most of his friends are dead, from the heroin that nearly finished him off on several occasions. The difference was almost certainly the house. Fred has his armchair situated between what we come to realise are his two most powerful supports; his CD collection on the one hand and his photos on the other. Having worked moving gear around for musicians, he not only knows individual tracks on his CD's, but each track can elicit specific memories. The CD's anchor him, return him to his own narrative. As do the photos. Whether stored in albums or displayed as very large images; whether of his children or of the dog that could stay with him when it was too dangerous for the children to be present. But both photos and CD's needed the house, and the fact that somehow this remained in his possession, even when he sold the possessions themselves to buy heroin, gave consistency of context to memory and the present and restored him to himself. So that he too was able to craft an order, an underlying habitus that comes across in his relation to music, to visual images, to people and to the dog. I use the house here to introduce the horizontal but the idea would apply to people's relationship to work on the church.

To summarise. I have introduced you to a number of the people I have worked with ethnographically, in order to convey my sense that it is possible to study these people not as a psychologist would have done, but in the same spirit in which anthropology would analyse a society. Let me give one final example to illustrate this analogy more fully. An anthropologist who I much admired and who worked on material culture was Annette Weiner. In her book Inalienable Objects (1991) Weiner studied the material culture of the Maori, and the famous Kula ring as participated in by the Trobriand Islands, best known from the work of Malinowski (1922). In her discussion of taonga amongst the Maori Weiner describes a wide range of objects and a wide diversity of significance, some very general some quite specific (Wiener 1991: 54-62). Much of her interest is in the different capacity of objects to represent the inalienable, that bones, stones and cloaks lend themselves to different qualities. Cloth, for example, being ambiguous in its symbolism as a second skin is good for mediating the transition from human to larger cultural reproduction, as Henare (2005) has shown for the idea of Maori weaving ancestors together. These might contrast with, for example, stone. But also there is quite a bit of contingency and personalisation surrounding the taonga of such objects. They may represent a chief, or a particular warrior, have individual names, be inherited by individual recipients, or be buried with a particular person. The term society here may indicate the greater authority of social hierarchy, that is taonga as something that enhances chiefly power, or the authority of the sacred, what Weiner calls cosmological authentification, but it can also connote a commitment to one relationship. (Weiner 1991: 54).

This has resonance with my material from South London. On a bookshelf lies grandfather's tin from the First World War. By now though this tin simultaneously represents, the specific grandfather, England and history itself. A ring is felt to be inalienable because of the deep love between one's parents, but also for the importance of love in general. Objects may also be inalienable because they have come to stand for Nigeria or Argentina or some other place one has come from. A clock from one's grandparent's farm stands for roots in the countryside as well as them specifically. A print of one of the hero's of the IRA also stands for one's specific Irish roots within this cosmopolitan, but possibly hostile, social environment. Inalienability tends to pass within family, or occasionally across deep relations. A man may want his wife to wear something he inherited from his grandmother.

All of this is as you might expect. But what I think stands as a better testimony to Weiner is the way people here, as in Melanesia, create whole genres of the inalienable. Practices that totalises their lives, what I have called an aesthetic, can form around this relationship to the inalienable. Charlotte exemplifies the self-construction of the inalienable as a consistent material ontology. She has systematically carried out a very large number of piercings followed by a series of tattoos, and simultaneously developed a clear philosophy of how these acts of self-construction contribute to her understanding but above all her control over her own life. She exemplifies both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. The vertical dimension starts once again from her relationship to her mother. This is not a simple repudiation, it was her mother's friend who first introduced her to piercing at the age of eleven. But she then appropriates this as a means of distancing. For example when her mother said - 'oh but your just trying to be the same as everyone else' she responded by searching out the most extreme and different piercings that for her said, (her words), 'I've got a piercing, but not because everyone else has that, but because nobody does, actually'.

From this came her desire to establish complete mastery over memory itself. She established a fictive relationship to her past. Although born in London she associates herself completely with the country of origin of her lover. She has mastered the accent, had a flat built for her to move to when she has qualified, and was already tattooing designs from that country before ever visiting it. As a lesbian she also feels that her sexuality is something she chooses and controls. Control for her means objectifying memory as a thing one can choose to attach or detach from the self. Every piercing represents a specific memory. Life consists of accumulating happy memories that are objectified in this way, So even if she is embarrassed by chasing boy bands as a teenager the memorabilia is retained as something happy at the time. Key piercings and then tattoos represent her best relationships.

With regard to the horizontal, Charlotte, just as Weiner or the Maori, carefully considers the precise materiality of each genre within which memory can be objectified. There is clothing she can throw away. Piercings have a potential transience, for example, when she moved to another part of London she says, (her words) `I took out a lot of my bottom rings, so at that stage, and I think that was probably because I had left a lot of rubbish and a lot of people that were not doing me any good, like old memories behind, so I didn't need it any more.'. Abandoned rings from piercings are kept in a box, photographs of piercings and tattoos on her back allow her to recall a memory, but can't be as easily accessed as those she can look at when on the move. The placing matters, as with nipple piercing viewed the position closest to her heart. Each material form is used to extend and complement the others.

It is the tattoos that establish the full possibilities of the inalienable. They ensure that memories of the best relationships can never be excised. These include her relationship to the tattooist, a close friend who is practicing on Charlotte to obtain her professional qualification. Also her relationship to her lover through having identical tattoos. The memory is precise. Unlike others she will never have supplementary tattooing since this blurs the relationship to the particular time the tattoo was created. As with Weiner she works out a material technology of inalienable memory. She can't understand people who tattoo for pattern itself rather than to establish the inalienable. She starts from an awareness of people such as her grandfather who lived to regret the tattoos of her youth, yet now has the complete confidence in her current total leg tattooing. She does understand the logic of those who tattoo a cross for a deceased love one, but remains consistent to her own systematic accretion of happy memories and relationships. Rather, as in the Kula of the Trobriand islands, she seems to have a technology of objectification that controls the internal circulation of memory in her head through the external circulation of incised memories on her body.

Charlotte is not then just another person who does piercings and tattoos. In her early twenties she has a systematic cosmology of memory and objectification. Just as we try and understand the logic of sacrifice or exchange or Kula, we can understand how relationships are made and mapped and become forms of materiality which order the experience of subsequent relationships. We can study how the vertical relationships of time cross cut the organisational horizontal relationships of space and specific material genre.


To conclude, in this lecture I have tried to address the state of the world as an anthropologist. I have argued that in order to do so I need to expand the traditional remit of anthropology in the comparative study of plural societies or cultures and accept that the contemporary world has seen a development of both further generality and further particularity just as the dialectical tradition, established by Hegel, predicted would always be the fate of the world. At one end of this spectrum lies the global as macrocosm. I have proposed that we employ the traditional perspectives of a structural and holistic anthropology in order to understand this unprecedented form of global society or culture. That we develop what I would call an anthropological cartography devoted to mapping this diversity of the world in its multiplicity of genres of practice and belief as for example in religion and sex. That we view this as a global picture with each practice as a pixel that makes sense through its contribution to that picture. This also opens up anthropology to the study of genuinely global phenomenon such as denim where global denim has to be understood as more than the sum of local cultures of denim. The global is thereby understood as one very big society. Here anthropology attempts to re-colonize academic terrain traditionally ceded to macro sociology.

At the other of the scale I also accept the challenge represented by of the new forms of diversity and the lack of community represented by my home city of London. That the new forms of generality represented by the global are equally objectified in the new forms of particularity represented by the individual. Here anthropology descends downwards to claim academic territory it has traditionally ceded to psychology. In this case the challenge is to find a way to adapt the anthropological study of society and culture to the study of the urban individual. This is the aspect of my project which I have so far most fully developed as shown in the results of my study of a street in South London. Taking together the vertical dimension that is the variety of influences such as family and cultural tradition that bear historically upon the formation of that individual together with the horizontal homologies between genres of material and less material practice that create the contemporary aesthetic or habitus that is their order in the world.

This represents an approach to the state of the world that provides both a top down anthropological perspective on the globe and a bottom up anthropological perspective on the individual, without in either case relinquishing the cumulative study of social and cultural traditions that are the legacy of a more traditional anthropology. Put together this is clearly an ambitious set of projects. But even if accomplished would not I think fully complete the jigsaw, or provide the picture we ideally want in order to achieve a more satisfactory comprehension of our modern world. Or rather more modestly to feel that our ability to comprehend at least tries to keep pace with our ability to change the world. In addition there is the central question posed earlier on as to how it is that individuals populate the world in such a manner as to represent these pixels within an overall global picture. The process by which individuals come to as it were fill in the gaps and explore the possibilities created by the cosmological logic of modernity and to inhabit its myriad niches is something I find absolutely extraordinary That to my mind would be the third perspective that is needed to complement the two that have been sketched out in this essay. But as yet I will not claim to have much of an idea as to precisely what the answer to that final question will turn out to be.


Beck, U and Beck-Gernsheim, E. 2001 Individualization. London: Sage

Bourdieu, 1979 Distinction : A social critique of the judgement of taste. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1979:

Bourdieu, P. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Clarke, A and Miller, D. 2001 Fashion and Anxiety. Fashion Theory

Dumont, L. 1972 Homo Hierarchichus. London: Paladin

Engelke, M 2005 sticky subjects and sticky objects: the substance of African Christian healing. In. D. Miller Ed. Materiality. 72-87 (Durham: Duke University Pres)

Henare A. 2005 Nga Aho Tipuna (ancestral threads):Maori cloaks from New Zealand. In S. Küchler and D. Miller Eds. Clothing as Material Culture (Oxford; Berg) 121-138

Giddens, A. 1991 Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press

Malinowski, B. 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Miller, D. 1998 A Theory of Shopping. Cambridge: Polity

Miller. D. (forthcoming) The Comfort of Things. Ms completed and to be submitted for publication.

Miller, D. and Slater. D. 2000 The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg

Miller, D and Woodward, S (submitted). A manifesto for the study of denim (submitted for publication)

Mizrahi, M 2007 Brazilian Jeans (www.materialworldblog.com 30/01/07

Myers, F. 1986 Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press

Parry, J. 1994 Death in Banares. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Reynolds, E 2007 Becoming HIV: Disease as Agency (www.materialworldblog.com 25/02/07)

Sandicki, O. and Ger, G. 2005 Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics of the Turkish headscarf. In Küchler, S and Miller, D. Eds. Clothing as Material Culture . Oxford: Berg pp 61-82

Tarlo. E. 2007 The Hijab Effect", , Journal of Material Culture, vol.12: 2:….

Weiner, A. 1992 Inalienable Possessions Berkeley: University of California Press