Artifacts are generally understood to be simple objects that show human workmanship. They are important to scholars for the role they play in reflecting a society’s level of technological development and aesthetic taste, among other things. Archaeologists analyze artifacts and other aspects of everyday life from ancient civilizations and try to reconstruct these civilizations from the artifacts they have left behind. Sociologists and other social scientists, as well as culture critics, are also interested in artifacts – in the broadest sense of the term – using them and other aspects of material culture to gain important insights into values, beliefs, and ideological aspects of the society or culture being studied. The study of artifacts can be approached from a number of disciplines. In recent years, scholars have expanded the definition of artifacts to include foods, fashion objects, and relatively simple machines.
The great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1924) focused on the symbolic significance of everyday objects, reminding us that medieval thinkers believed that “all things would be absurd if their meaning would be exhausted by their function and their place in the phenomenal world, if by their essence they did not reach into a world beyond this. This idea of a deeper significance in ordinary things is familiar to us as well, independently of religious convictions”.
One of the most celebrated studies of the cultural and symbolic significance of artifacts and everyday life was made by the French semiotician Roland Barthes, in books like Mythologies and Empire of signs. In Mythologies Barthes explored the cultural and ideological significance of artifacts such as soap powders, detergents, sheets, and toys. As an example of his approach, consider his insights into French toys: “French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theatres for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys)” (Barthes 1972, 53).
These toys, Barthes suggests, prepare French boys and girls for their future roles as adults in French society and indoctrinate them with the myths that those who dominate French society want them to believe. There is, therefore, a great deal of hidden ideological significance to toys and, as his other essays show, other aspects of everyday French life too. In Empire of signs Barthes dealt with objects such as Japanese chopsticks, dinner trays, Pachinko (slot machines), and packages, along with popular foods like sukiyaki and tempura.
What Barthes and other analysts of artifacts and the material culture in which they are embedded show is that artifacts can provide a great deal of information if we know how to “read” them. Among the different methodologies for analyzing or “reading” artifacts are: semiotics, which regards them as signs, or more precisely as signifiers whose significance has to be assessed; sociology, which focuses on their functionality and their role in society; archaeology, which uses historical knowledge and scientific techniques to date ancient artifacts and other methods to determine what stage of technological development the society had achieved; and cultural criticism, which uses a variety of disciplines and techniques to interpret the meaning and significance of artifacts. In his book, Bloom’s morning, Arthur Asa Berger used this approach to deal with the cultural meaning of such artifacts as clock radios, electric hairdryers, shoes, toasters, garbage disposals, and trash compactors.
Ernest Dichter, considered to be the father of motivation research, analyzed artifacts from a psychoanalytic perspective, explaining in The strategy of desire that “the objects that surround us do not simply have utilitarian aspects; rather, they serve as a kind of mirror which reflects our own image. Objects which surround us permit us to discover more and more about ourselves” (Dichter 2002, 91). His interest in these objects was based on a desire to understand human motivation and how it could be used to sell certain products and services. Our interest in artifacts and objects reflects a broader interest in understanding human beings, what motivates them, how they arrange their societies, and other topics of a similar nature.
- Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1982). Empire of signs. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Berger, A. A. (1992). Reading matter: Multidisciplinary perspectives on material culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Berger, A. A. (1997). Bloom’s morning: Coffee, comforters and the secret meaning of everyday life. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Dichter, E. (2002). The strategy of desire. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Huizinga, J. (1924). The waning of the Middle Ages. Garden City, NY: Anchor.