Living in the Material World
Vocabulary: material culture, nonmaterial culture, artifacts
Materials List: Pens/pencils, paper
1. Write the term culture on the chalkboard. Ask students what this word means. Have students arrive at their own definition. Make sure they understand that culture is the entire way of life within a society. It includes the tools, houses, customs, and beliefs that people of a society adopt as their own. Emphasize that it consists of human-made objects, as well as religious beliefs, shared values and political ideology. Culture includes everything from routine ways of raising children or celebrating holidays to favorite foods, popular TV shows, architecture, and languages spoken.
2. Show the students an assortment of objects found in many American homes: a frying pan, potholder, lipstick, toothbrush, television clicker, sponge, toy, shoe, computer mouse, fork, etc. The more varied the assortment the better. Also bring in one “mystery item” that students might not recognize, such as a specialized tool, cooking utensil, or an unusual toy. Try to find something that will be difficult for students to identify.
3. Place the objects in the front of the room. Hold them up one at a time and ask:
What is this object?
How is it used?
In what room of a house is it most likely to be found ?
4. Ask students how they know what each is and where it might be found. Explain that each is an element of American material culture. Material culture is made up of everything that can be seen, handled, and used. The nonmaterial culture of a society consists of its ideas, beliefs, and practices. Every culture has both a material and nonmaterial culture. In the United States, superhighways, shopping malls, and fast-food restaurants are parts of American material culture that also reflect nonmaterial beliefs about transportation, consumerism, and time.
5. Display the mystery item. Have students guess what it might be. Ask students why it is more difficult to decide what this item is. (Students lack context clues and do not know where and how it is used.) Point out that archeologists gain an understanding of life in the distant past by studying artifacts that are part of a group’s material culture. Clothing, jewelry, weapons, pots, and tools can all help us understand how people lived long ago. Cultural geographers, anthropologists, and others who study living cultures do the same. Point out that many of the Material World objects students will see in each photograph will have greater meaning for them as they learn about the way of life of the people who use them.
6. Conclude by asking students to suggest ways each of these factors might influence the kinds of objects found in homes around the world: climate, natural resources, level of technology, economic activities and trade.
Go For It: Tell students they have been chosen to assemble artifacts for the new American Family Home Museum. Visitors to the museum will be expecting to see a “typical American household.” Ask students if there is such a thing. Working in groups have students list the objects they would choose for this museum. Have each group decide how many rooms the museum will have and make a blueprint showing what will go in each room.