UCL Anthropology


Materials and Society

Material and Society

Materials are rapidly emerging as one of the most important and exciting research fields globally and across disciplines. We consider studying the innovation and mobility of materials that are being created and developed world wide to be fundamental to researching contemporary culture and society, and how they are materially constituted. Our research questions include how the boundaries between human and natural economies must be re-conceptualized, how new materials and processes can be implemented, and used beneficially, and how we need to develop new understandings of our engagement and inter-dependence with the material world.

Whether arising as naturally-occurring matter or man-made substances, all materials only come into use through social intervention. People and cultures direct the extraction, processing, design, engineering, innovation, selection and use of materials in ways that have an enormous impact on the environment, economy, human health and quality of life. Yet critical developments in material economies and innovation that might potentially lead to increased efficiency, sustainability or improved environmental impact face substantial challenges to their uptake due to cultural perceptions and misunderstandings surrounding materials - challenges that only now are beginning to be recognized.

Why certain materials succeed in the market while others fail is a fundamental research question that underpins the following themes:

  • Parallels between human, social, national and material life cycles
  • The conception and development of new materials, including the issues of legal ownership and the intellectual property they generate
  • Risk, regulation and ethics surrounding the development of new materials, and their effect on innovation and entrepreneurship
  • The development of networks, materials libraries and trade fairs in order to facilitate the entry of materials into the market
  • The transformation materials undergo through during their development and use phases, including their movements across time and space and genetic modification
  • The challenges faced by the disposal of new materials at the 'end of life' phase.

The failure to see the whole picture and to examine materials critically in their social contexts results in over-production, wastage, pollution, environmental damage, lack of sustainability and the inability to respond to cultural change and social needs.

Recent initiatives include the 'Material Properties' forum for UCL's Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences Faculties Institute of Graduate Studies (Joint FIGS). The group is actively promoting networking between scholars working across the disciplines at UCL and developing joint projects at all levels. Interested scholars include those working in Chemistry, Nanotechnology, Engineering, Materials Science, the Bartlett School of Architecture, History of Science, STS, Geography, Archaeology, the Institute of Making, History of Art and the Slade School of Art.

  • Shweta Barupal (Anthropology Postgraduate)
  • Dr Timothy Carroll (UCL Anthropology)
  • Dr Adam Drazin (UCL Anthropology)
  • Prof Susanne Küchler (UCL Anthropology)
  • Dr Lucy Norris (UCL Anthropology)
  • Dr Kaori O'Connor (UCL Anthropology)
  • Dr Peter Oakley (RCA)
  • Camilla Sundwall (PhD student)
  • Dr Sarah Wilkes (UCL Institute of Making)

The work of the group falls into two main areas, Textile Imaginations, and Fashioning Material Life:

Textile Imaginations: Fibre Innovation and Perception

Textiles are essential to our interaction with our environment, and the study of them as social materials enables us to ask new questions about human cognitive processes, changing perceptions of the relationship between nature and culture, and how to develop sustainable modes of living.

Today textiles form one of the principle categories of a vast range of materials that enable and enhance human activities, affecting the way we think and act in the world. They are incorporated into aeronautics, architecture, engineering, high-performance technical fabrics, medical applications, sports and protective clothing and wearable computing. The need for analyses of how new fibres and fabrics come into being and why they succeed or fail as culturally acceptable products in society is only now being recognized. Textiles are a critical medium for investigating links between the social processes of innovation, and cultural assumptions underlying their perceived properties.

Inventing new fibres and textile technologies, developing prototypes in labs, and bringing products to market as tools for designers and consumers are social processes. Ethnographic methodologies and theoretical anthropological approaches to this area of research will bring valuable insights to complement related work across the physical and social sciences.

Projects in development include research into the role of materials libraries, international networks and textile trade fairs; the use of innovative fibres in the Chinese automative industry; rethinking fabrics in the global recycled plastics industry, environment-sensitive "smart" fibre textiles and their ethical evaluation, and the development of new bio-fibres emerging in the European market and elsewhere.

Fashioning Material Life: Creating and Consuming

Fashioning Material Life continues our long-established interest in the theoretical dimensions of material, visual, and design culture, critically examining the social and cultural significance and dynamics of the material world through the analysis of objects, images, materials, foods, technologies, built forms, places and fashion and design.

The work focuses on how ideas, nanotechnology, geometry, and mathematics animate materials, generate tactile human environments and their prospective vision, and mediate human relations with each other and their material ecologies. Innovation is explored with reference to knowledge economies, industrial prototypes, the transformation of social perceptions that come with technological change, and design as a social process.

Ongoing group research in this area includes the material culture of food, the cultural perception of new food materials and processes, the genetic engineering of materials, and the sustainability of new materials. It also includes fashion and design in cross-cultural and transnational perspective, and the way in which culture determines how materials such as gold are valued.

Cleaning Materials (Dr Kaori O'Connor, Theodore Hayes and Professor Julian Evans)

'Mending' has begun to receive academic attention, and there is growing interest in design approaches to extending product lifetimes, but the act of cleaning and cleaning materials themselves remain understudied. This interdisciplinary team, comprised of an anthropologist, a chemist and a materials scientist, sought to redress this through historical research to explore questions like: how do we clean; why do we clean; what are cleaning products made of; how do cleaning products work; and how does cleaning modify product lifetimes, affecting the environment, resource efficiency, waste reduction and sustainability?

Each researcher conducted a separate historical study, focussing on the same time period but different themes, according to their disciplinary strengths. Evans focussed on a materials history of the transition from natural materials to synthetic/man-made ones. Hayes conducted a chemical history focussing on three main types of cleaning products: laundry soaps and detergents; bleach and cream cleaners, isolating and describing the chemical processes involved. O'Connor contributed a social history of cleaning and the factors that influenced changes in cleaning products, practices and values. These separate histories were then superimposed on each other and cross-analysed to produce a chemical / social history of cleaning in modern times. For example, they explored shifts in social attitudes towards cleaning over time: at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the promotion of everyday chemistry in domestic practice and after World War 1 as a result of the germ theory of disease, the medical consequences of the war and the post-war decline in domestic servants. 

The team recently presented their research at the Society for the History of Alchemy & Chemistry (SHAC) conference, and this pilot will form the foundation of a grant proposal they are developing for submission later this year. Beyond the academic impact of this research, the project team also want to combat a lack of understanding among the public about the cleaning products they use, enabling people to make informed choices that would have a direct impact on sustainability on a practical, everyday level. 

The research was supported by a grant from the Institute of Making, UCL.

Selected Publications

Drazin, A. & Kuechler S. (Eds, forthcoming) The Social Life of Materials: Studies in Materials and Society, London: Bloomsbury.

Kuechler, Susanne (2011). The Extended Mind: An Anthropological Perspective on Mind, Agency and 'Smart' Materials. In Stafford, B. M. (Ed.). A Field Guide to a New Meta-Field pp.84-108, University Of Chicago Press.

Kuechler, Susanne (2008) Technological Materiality: Beyond the Dualist Paradigm. Theory, Culture and Society 25(1): 101-120.

Kuechler, Susanne (2009) 'Empathie avec la Matière' with G. Were. In Technologies edited by Ludovic Coupaye & Laurence Douny. Special edition of Techniques & Cultures 52-53: 190-212.

Kuechler, Susanne (2012) New Materials and New Technologies: Science, Design and the Challenge to Anthropology. In R. Fardon et al (Eds) Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology, pp391-399, London: Sage.

Kuechler, Susanne (2012) Materials and Sociality. In N. Long and H. Moore eds Sociality:: New Directions, pp177-189, Berghahn Books.

Kuechler, Susanne & Miller, Daniel (Eds.) (2005) Clothing as Material Culture, London: Berg Publishers.

Miller, Daniel (2008) The Comfort of Things, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Miller Daniel (2010) 'Anthropology in Blue Jeans' in American Ethnologist 37 (3): 41,5-428.

Norris, Lucy (2010) Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Re-Use and Value, Indiana University Press.

Norris, Lucy (2012) 'Trade and Transformations of Second-hand Clothing: an Introduction' in Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture, Vol 10 (2): 128-143.

Norris, Lucy (2012), 'Mutilated hosiery, shredded rags and the regeneration of yarn: Perceptions of textile recycling in north India' in Alexander, Catherine and Reno, Josh (Eds) Global Recycling Economies London: Zed Books.

Norris, Lucy (2012) 'Economies of moral fibre: materializing the ambiguities of recycling charity clothing into aid blankets' in Journal of Material Culture, Vol. 17(4): 389-404.

O'Connor, Kaori (2010) How Smart is Smart? T-shirts, Wellness and the Way People Feel about Medical Textiles'. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 8:1, pp 50-67.

O'Connor, Kaori (2011) Lycra: How a Fiber Shaped America, New York and London, Routledge.

O'Connor, Kaori (2013) 'Beyond 'Exotic Groceries': Tapioca-Cassava-Manioc, a Hidden Commodity of Empires and Globalisation'. In Curry-Machado, J. (Ed) Global Histories, Imperial Commodities, Local Interactions, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

O'Connor, Kaori (2013) 'Invisible Foodscapes: Into the Blue' in Abbotts, Emma-Jayne and Anna Lavis (Eds) Why We Eat, How We Eat. Ashgate, 2013,

O'Connor Kaori (2013) The English Breakfast: The Cultural Biography of a National Meal. London and New York, Bloomsbury.

Kaori O'Connor (2014) Anthropology, Archaeology, History and the Material Culture of Lycra. in Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (eds) Writing Material Culture History. Bloomsbury.

Kaori O'Connor (2015) The Never-Ending Feast: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Feasting Bloomsbury.

Copyright Notice: Header picture by Camilla Sundwall (acquired licence and true copy)