MA Material and Visual Culture

About the programme

This programme is designed as an advanced research degree providing exposure to a vanguard and creative field within anthropology and related disciplines.

In the first term the core course will introduce students to recent ethnographic writing on visual, material and digital culture, explore the contribution of key thinkers in the field and engage a number of key theoretical paradigms. The second term students will be presented with 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 with a view to exploring how these might be illuminated from a material culture perspective.

During the year students will also have the opportunity to take three specialist options from a range of courses offered within the Department. Finally they will be able to concentrate on a single topic, involving their own original research, through a dissertation at the end of the year.

The programme is suitable both for those with a prior degree in anthropology and for those with degrees in neighbouring disciplines who wish to be trained in anthropological and related approaches to material and visual culture.

The degree can lead to further doctoral research or 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.


The MA is nominally completed in one year of full-time study or two years of part-time. In the autumn term students enrol in the Material and Visual Culture core course (and at least one optional course), followed in the spring term by the second half of the core course and 2 optional courses. The two-hour written exam is administered in the third term (usually in May), and the bulk of dissertation research and writing is conducted between May and August, with submission in mid-September.

Those studying part-time are restricted to enrollment in the core course in their first year (with the exam in term 3 of that year), while optional courses and dissertation research/writing normally occur in the second year.

The MA in Material and Visual Culture is based on the following components:

1. Core course in Material and Visual Culture

This is taught over two terms. The course is examined by a combination of a 2,500 word essay, a methodology practical, and a written examination at the end of the year.

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.

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
  • Mass Consumption and Design
  • Anthropology of the Built Environment
  • Anthropology and Photography
  • Advanced Topics in Digital Culture
  • Transforming and Creating the World: Anthropological Perspectives on Techniques and Technology
  • Social Construction of Landscape
  • Documentary Film and the Anthropological Eye
  • Practical Ethnographic and Documentary Filmmaking (Lab-Based)

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

5. A weekly seminar series

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

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).


Current Course Tutors:

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 several research projects on the 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 is currently working on the impact of social networking and webcam on transnational relationships and within Trinidad.

See Prof. Miller's discussion of his just-released Tales from Facebook (on YouTube and Vimeo).

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.

Further Reading

  • Banerjee, M and Miller, D. The Sari 2003
  • Basu, P. Highland Homecomings 2006
  • Buchli, V. The Material Culture Reader 2002
  • Küchler, S and Were, G Pacific Pattern 2005
  • Pinney, C. Photos of the Gods 2004
  • Woodward, I. Understanding Material Culture 2007
  • Miller, D. The Comfort of Things 2008
  • Tilley, C. Metaphor and Material Culture 1999

Key Information

Programme starts

September 2017

Location: London, Bloomsbury


The programme can lead to 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.

Top career destinations for this degree
  • Senior Curator, Frifthdi School of Art, Design and Technology
  • Research Executive, Basis Research
  • Web Designer, Elena Boykova Sirakova
  • MSc Anthropology, Københavns Universitet (University of Copenhagen)
  • Associate Director, DA and Company

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.

Careers data is taken from the ‘Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education’ survey undertaken by HESA looking at the destinations of UK and EU students in the 2012–2014 graduating cohorts six months after graduation.

Degree last modified on 6 January 2017 at 11:58 by UCL Publications & Marketing Services. Please contact us for content updates.

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.