UCL Anthropology


Working Paper No. 06/2009

UCL Anthropology Working Papers Series

Department of Anthropology
University College London
14 Taviton Street, London
WC1H 0BW, U.K.

ISSN 1759-6688
Editorial Board: Sara Randall, Martin Holbraad

Working Paper No. 06/2009
Published online November 27, 2009
© Copyright rests with the authors



Dissertation submitted in 2008 for the MA Material and Visual Culture


In this paper I propose that materials have been historically marginalised within social theory, art and science. I suggest that, since the nineteenth century, there has been a renewed interest in the social efficacy and value of materials as a result of the perception that materials are becoming more functional, autonomous and person-like, and the belief in their potential to effect social change for better or worse. I propose that materials libraries can be seen as a symptom of this concern, a means by which to determine the social value of materials, and a way to control their development.

I examine and evaluate two competing methodologies that exist for determining the social value of materials: one intuitive, experiential and performative, and the other "rational", analytical, and quantitative (Ashby and Johnson 2002:49). I also investigate the hypothesis that there are two different kinds of knowledge about materials: that of artists and scientists. I explore how materials libraries disseminate specialist knowledge in the face of a perceived divide between the arts and sciences, and the role of the arts community in controlling what are perceived as the unruly and asocial technological developments of an isolated materials science community. I propose that restricting access to materials through patents and corporate secrecy increases their value, but hinders the transfer of knowledge about them in an attempt to control increasingly autonomous materials.