UCL Anthropology


MA Material and Visual Culture

About the Programme

This advanced research degree will train you to be critically aware of the way in which the material world has social and cultural significance through an examination of social phenomena such as objects, images, materials, technologies, built forms, and places.

For more than 50 years, the study of artefacts, images, materials and places has occupied a critical position in anthropology and other social sciences. Questioning common assumptions about commodities, gifts, artworks, signs, bodies, sites, or appearances, anthropologists have sought to flush out of the shadows in which they were hiding the humble objects that we make and which in turn help make us. Anthropology has shed new light too on discourses and practices which surround our interaction with the material world. UCL Anthropology has been at the forefront of these material and visual critiques of anthropological conceptions, and the MA Material and Visual Culture will ground you in this critical tradition. 

Programme Aims

  • To train both those with a prior degree in anthropology and those with degrees in social and historical disciplines or with relevant professional experience. For such applicants, the programme serves as a prerequisite for the MPhil/PhD in anthropology.
  • To equip students with expertise necessary for further doctoral research or for careers in a wide range of areas such as architecture, media, commerce and aspects of development work, where an emphasis on the material and visual environment is central.
  • To provide training for professionals who need to employ anthropological techniques in, or formulate an anthropological dimension to, their work.

Core Course

In the first term the core course will introduce you to the major philosophical and conceptual approaches to material and visual culture, exploring in depth key thinkers in the field and examples of ethnographic writings about things and people.

In the second term you will learn about methodologies in relation to material forms: how to analyse domestic spaces, public places, landscapes, monuments and the built environment, digital technologies, museum and exhibition spaces, artefacts, technologies, design and clothing.

The first term grounds you in key ideas, concepts and theories, the second in how to understand and analyse material culture and collect information. These provide the two foundational building blocks for the individual dissertation work undertaken during the third term and over the summer.


We have been teaching the MA Material and Visual Culture for more than twenty years. Over the years it has attracted a wide variety of students from different backgrounds. It has appealed to students with a first degree in archaeology who wish to deepen an understanding of anthropological approaches to material culture, to students with first degrees in anthropology and sociology, to those who have studied art, art history, architecture, human and cultural geography, culture and media studies, fashion and design. Our teaching is explicitly structured to appeal both to those with a background closely related to anthropology and those who may have comparatively little knowledge of the subject. Above all the MA in Material and Visual Culture  is a broad based degree and this is reflected in both the diversity of our students and the interests and research of our staff.

The MA in Material and Visual Culture is structured around the following components:

1. Core course in Material and Visual Culture

coin garland

This is taught over two terms. In the first term students write a formative essay (not assessed) and receive personal feedback by their personal tutor. They then write a 2,500 word assessed essay on one of the topics taught. The second term is assessed by a combination of a 2,500 word essay on one of the methodological approaches and a coursework handbook in which they discuss a further four topics of those taught in Term 2. The format for the latter is very flexible in terms of length and style of presentation (notes, sketches, photos are all acceptable as part of this). Students do individual research for this that may include participant observation and discussion of objects/exhibitions/photographs and digital images that they have collected. Note that the aim of the practical skills training component of the core course is not to provide comprehensive fluency in technique (since we deal with a wide range of applications over the period) but to give enough sense of each technique that a student can envisage how and why these might be incorporated into anthropological research. During the summer term there is a written examination based on the topics taught in Term 1. The core course makes up 25% of the marks for the degree.

2. Optional courses

Students take three optional courses, at least two of which are typically from among those taught by Material & Visual Culture staff. These courses are examined by one essay each of 3,000 words, worth 8.33% of the course grade each.

  • Anthropology of Art & Design

Focusing on 'assemblage' art, this course traces phenomena such as the 'scrap-book', collage, and recyclia in western culture as well as contemporary 'non-western' examples as found mainly in the culture of Voodoo, and in the cultures of Oceania.

  • Mass Consumption and Design

The course examines the key historical literature on mass consumption and critical approaches to the theory of culture as a form of objectification. We then evaluate the ways in which the paradigm of design as a cultural field continues or replaces the paradigm of consumption in social relationships and identities.

Christmas Cake. Amy Buxton.
  • Anthropology of the Built Environment

Buildings are good to think with. This course will explore anthropological approaches to the study of architectural forms. It will focus primarily on the significance of domestic space and public private boundaries, gender and body, the materiality of architectural form and materials and the study of architectural representations.

  • Anthropology and Photography

This course has three central purposes: to provide a historical introduction to the way in which anthropologists have used photography, to provide a grounding in photographic theory, and to encourage students to think how they might best use photography in their own anthropological projects.

  • Advanced Topics in Digital Culture

This course will equip students to engage critically with a range of social, cultural and political issues that surround the increasingly pervasive practices of the production and circulation of data in digital settings.

  • Transforming and Creating the World: Anthropological Perspectives on Techniques and Technology

This seminar series will approach two interrelated topics: the first is the question of technology within anthropology and other social sciences. The second will consider objects as "processes-made-things", that is, objects as the coalescence of what we call "practices", "techniques".

  • Social Construction of Landscape

Landscapes are never inert: people engage with them, re-work them, appropriate them and contest them. They are part of the way in which identities are created and disputed. This course looks at the number of theoretical approaches to the Western Gaze; colonial, indigenous and prehistoric landscapes; contested landscapes; and questions of heritage and 'wilderness'.

  • Time and the Staged Index - photography and narrative in the digital age

This course explores the nature of photography as a realist medium on the one hand and the photograph as a constructed space on the other. We will examine the conventional understanding of photographic realism and photography's perceived objectivity/truth-value.

  • Practical Ethnographic and Documentary Filmmaking (Lab-Based)

The course is led by award winning director Sandhya Suri (I for India) and focuses on self-shooting skills, with a focus on the fundamentals of observational filming. Students will shoot, record sound, edit and direct their own film, learning to respond to an undirected actuality and structure their footage into a compelling film.

View full list of the optional courses.

3. Masters Research Methods seminar

Typically 16-18 sessions are convened within the Research Methods seminar over the academic year. These sessions are made available to all masters students, and while only six are usually compulsory for students in the programme they may attend as many additional sessions as they wish. The Research Methods seminars vary from year to year but typically include the following sessions:

  • Participant observation
  • Ethics
  • Investigating space and place
  • Interviews (I & II)
  • Questionnaires (I & II)
  • Sampling
  • Using new technologies for research
  • PRA (participatory rural appraisal)
  • Photography
  • Against method
  • Investigating kinship and relatedness
  • Ethnographic writing
  • Fieldnotes
  • Film
  • Historical sources
  • Researching ritual

4. Dissertation

A 15,000 word dissertation to be submitted by mid September of each year, conducted under the supervision of a member of the material and visual culture staff, on an agreed topic. This will count for 50% of the overall mark.

Some recent titles of MSc dissertations include:

  • Last Thoughts: Toward an Anthropology of Shoes
  • Spectacular Politics & the Image: Tamil Cinema and the Making of History
  • Doing the Best for Children on a Budget: Food Consumption Practices of Mothers on a Limited Income
  • Marking National Boundaries: Taiwanese Cuisine and Night Markets as Natural Symbols
  • I Can See the Calm Pull Chaos: Ritual and Identity at Comic-Con


This diagram illustrates the individually assessed components of the programme. The area of each box is proportional to its weighting (the upper layer represents the core course, the middle layer the options, and the bottom half the dissertation).

5. A weekly seminar series

A weekly seminar series in Material and Visual Culture, with invited international speakers. Not examined.

Part-time Study

Many of our students are studying part-time for the Masters in Material and Visual Culture and are working in a large variety of professional fields. Part-time study normally involves taking the core course, the methods training and possibly one of the optional courses in year one and two further optional courses or all three in year 2. The core course is taught on a Monday and followed in the afternoon by the open seminar in Material & Visual Culture with invited speakers; methods training is on Wednesday morning. Optional courses are taught in 2 hour seminar format. Every student has a personal tutor who advises students on the sections of options with particular attention to achieving the best possible personalised timetable.


Research spans a range of material manifestations, including for example landscapes, gardens, photographs, food, computing, and textiles. Learn more about individual research projects on the Material Worlds research platform.

You can also read about the latest activities on the Material World blog

Materials and society

War of photos

Research seminars and activities

We co-host the Material, Visual and Digital Culture Research Seminar Series and the Anthropology in the Professional World Seminar Series during term time.

Collaborating institutions

Also developing relationships with:

Current Course Tutors:

Research on Material and Visual Culture spans across the department, with colleagues working on topics such as migration (Ruth Mandel), resource management/mining/exchange (Rebecca Empson), and subjectivity/ontology (Martin Holbraad). However, the staff listed below teach on the core course and are involved in the design and implementation of the programme.

Victor Buchli

Victor Buchli

Victor Buchli works on architecture, domesticity, the archaeology of the recent past, critical understandings of materiality and new technologies and the anthropology of sustainability and design. He also teaches on the UCL Urban Studies MSc and supervises on the Mphil/PhD programme at the Bartlett and serves on the Board of the Victoria and Albert/Royal College of Art MA History of Design Programme. He has conducted fieldwork in Russia, Britain and more recently in Kazakhstan, where he concluded research based on a neighbourhood ethnography in the new capitol of Astana, Kazakhstan, examining questions of materiality, architecture and urbanism in the post-socialist period. In addition, he is writing a new book Immateriality which examines the significance of material cultures that paradoxically attempt to deny their own physicality and another entitled The Anthropology of Architecture (Berg 2011).

Currently he is starting new research in new materials and new technologies examining the rise of rapid manufacturing or 3-D printing. This research is part of a co-organised ESRC funded intiative entitled New Materials, New Technologies with Susanne Kuechler and Graeme Were in UCL Anthropology and Materials Sciences at Kings College London. In addition, he is a member of the Eco-Town Delivery Consortium: an industry based knowledge transfer initiative examining the development of carbon neutral living through which he is conducting a long term ethnographic project 'Assembling the Carbon Neutral Subject' and supervising research into the anthropology of ecologically sustainable development and design. More recently he has begun work as a member of the interdisciplinary Templeton Scholars Group on the origins of domesticity at the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük in Turkey where he is examining long term culture change and processes of material iteration and innovation.

Ludovic Coupaye

Ludovic Coupaye

Coupaye focuses on the arts and anthropology of the Pacific, with an emphasis on the groups, material cultures and technologies of Melanesia. His doctoral thesis (SRU/UEA 2005), was titled Growing Artefacts, Displaying Relationships: Outlining the Technical System of Long Yam Cultivation and Display among the Abelam of Nyamikum Village (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea). He is currently writing on the magic and social life of ritual objects among the Abelam.

Haidy Geismar

Haidy Geismar

Haidy Geismar came to UCL from the Dept. of  Anthropology at NYU, where she was assistant professor in anthropology and in museum studies and taught courses on digital culture. She has written extensively on museums, issues of cultural property and archives, and has conducted fieldwork in New Zealand and Vanuatu. Her book Treasured Possessions will be out later this year with Duke University Press. She has papers in many leading journals such as American Ethnologist, Journal of Material Culture Studies, Comparative Studies in History and Society. She is joint founder editor of www.materialworldblog.com

Susanne Kuechler

Susanne Kuechler.jpg

Küchler is currently working on a new manuscript, which develops the theoretical implications of her past ethnographic research into the making of sculpture and the cognitive work of images. The Material Mind takes insights into the nature of innovation, won during long-term and collaborative research on the take up and transformation of cloth in the Pacific, to the context of the development of 'mindware' in laboratories. The manuscript offers a critical review of the existing theorisation of the aesthetics of the material [Materialästhetik] and sets out a new vision for the study of sculptural art and design, which takes into account the interface between the material and the cognitive as symptomatic of knowledge economies. Geographical: South Pacific; Papua New Guinea, New Ireland; Polynesia, the Cook Islands. And laboratories. September 2005-July2006: Invited Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin: The library research conducted during the year of residency concerned the evolving technology and fabrics supporting wearable computing and investigated its implications for the theory and methodology of material culture and anthropology. 'Smart' clothes and ambient intelligence provoke questions of how notions of mind and of life inform and are informed by prototyping, where it is the functionality of collections of artefacts which supports systemic relations between artefacts, and where a sociality with objects is mediated by such inter-artefactual relations. The initial work on the manuscript also concerned itself with a critique of current work on innovation, directing attention to the need for anthropological research to be conducted on the social history of the prototype in order to develop new methodologies and theories capable of handling emerging futures.

Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller

Miller has carried out several research projects on new media which have resulted in publications including The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (with D. Slater) Berg: Oxford 2000 and The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (with H Horst) Berg: Oxford 2006, Tales from Facebook Polity 2011, and with Dr. M Madianou of Cambridge University Migration and New Media: transnationalism and polymedia (Routledge Sept 2011). He has previously worked on the impact of social networking and webcam on transnational relationships and within Trinidad. See Prof. Miller's discussion of his Tales from Facebook (on YouTube and Vimeo).

Miller is currently involved in a 5-year ERC-funded project on the consequences of social media in 9 fieldsites around the world. See the Why We Post project website for further details.

Chris Tilley

Chris Tilley

Tilley is a UCL specialist in archaeology, material culture and social identity. He has written a number of books on archaeological theory exploring the relations between hermeneutic, structuralist and post-structuralist perspectives and material culture.

Chris Tilley's research falls into two main areas (i) the exploration of different theoretical perspectives in relation to the study of material culture and (ii) the relationship of these perspectives to the study of substantive archaeological and ethnographic data sets. These concerns are reflected in his publications. Theoretically he have explored the use and value of structuralist, post-structuralist, Marxist, hermeneutic and phenomenological perspectives. His substantive analyses have been very broad and wide ranging including the following: studies of museums and tourism, modern material culture, contemporary and prehistoric landscapes, topography and monuments, Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art, The Neolithic in south Scandinavia, Brittany, Britain and Malta, Artefact construction, ethnicity, heritage and identity in the western Pacific (Vanuatu), Landscape and installation art, Contemporary residential gardens and gardening in Sweden and England. 

Chris Pinney

Chris Pinney

Pinney's research has a strong geographic focus in central India: initial ethnographic research was concerned with village-resident factory workers. Subsequently he researched popular photographic practices and the consumption of Hindu chromolithographs in the same area. His publications combine contemporary ethnography with the historical archaeology of particular media (see eg. Camera Indica and Photos of the Gods). The Coming of Photography in India, based on the Panizzi Lectures was published by the British Library in October 2008.

He is currently interested in cultural spaces which conventional social theory has tended to neglect: "more than local and less than global", and spaces of cultural flow that elude the west. In addition to ongoing projects with an Indian focus (for instance, a filmic record of two central Indian Dalit intellectuals) he is also working on visual dimensions of cultural encounters from 1492 to the present, and thinking through Kracauer's later work and the question of 'multiple temporalities'. Current book projects include, Photography and Anthropology (forthcoming from Reaktion in April 2011), Zoom: Seeing and Believing in Colonial and Postcolonial India,Lessons From Hell (concerned with popular Indian depictions of punishment), a 'visual history' of modern India, and Visual Encounters.

We are also fortunate to draw on the expertise of the following Honorary Professors:

Further Reading

  • Banerjee, M and Miller, D. (2003) The Sari. Berg Publishers. Oxford. 
  • Basu, P. (2006) Highland Homecomings. Routledge: London
  • Buchli, V. (2002) The Material Culture Reader. Berg Publishers. Oxford.
  • Geismar, H. (2013) Treasured Possessions: indigenous interventions into cultural and intellectual property. Duke University Press.
  • Küchler, S and Were, G. (2005) Pacific Pattern. London: Thames & Hudson
  • Küchler, S. (2009) Tivaivai: The Social Fabric of the Cook Islands London: British Museum & Te Papa Press; with Andrea Eimke, Photographer.
  • Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things. Polity Press.
  • Miller, D. (2012) Consumption and its Consequences. Polity Press.
  • Pinney, C. (2004) Photos of the Gods. London: Reaktion Books
  • Pinney, C. (2011) Photography and Anthropology. London: Reaktion Books & Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Tilley, C. (2010) Interpreting Landscapes. Left Coast Press, CA.
  • Woodward, I. (2007) Understanding Material Culture. SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Tilley, C. (1999) Metaphor and Material Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.


The programme is designed as an advanced research degree providing exposure to a vanguard and creative field within anthropology and related disciplines. Students learn how to apply ethnographic theory and methodology in material and visual culture to a wide range of case studies highlighting material culture in the wider world - ranging from art, through photography, clothing, consumption, cultural memory, monuments and the built environment.

The degree can lead to further doctoral research or careers in a wide range of areas such as architecture, media, museums, business and aspects of development work where an emphasis on the material and visual environment is central.

Our students have gone on to secure employment in a range of positions including:
  • Senior Curator, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology
  • Research Executive, Basis Research
  • Web Designer
  • Associate Director, DA and Company

Transferable Skills

Interpretation of objects and images

Skills in decoding meanings and understanding the limits of 'meaning'. Phenomenology and Deconstruction as alternative methods. Ethnographic research and different modes of contextualisation.

Project design and implementation skills

Designing a practical project exploring a 'material' methodology. Conceptualising initial hypotheses and developing methods to explore and test these.

Field and research skills

Preparing for participant-observation. Interview techniques. Observation and documentation strategies.

Presentation and written skills

From field notes to written dissertation. 'Writing-on-the-spot'. 'Texture' and 'voice' in different styles of ethnographic writing. Small group and formal presentation skills.