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Material things are all around us. We wear them, sit and sleep on them, and write, read, talk, and travel in, on, with, and about them (amongst much else). Material things may be purchased, gifted, stolen, recycled, repurposed, or simply thrown away. Some quickly disappear, others take lifetimes to decompose. Indeed, our creation, use, desire, and disgust for certain material objects are a central component of what makes us human. Importantly, material things are more than simply collections of molecules. Humans imbue material objects with metaphysical significance, that is, material things also work symbolically to signal status, identity, (dis)connection, aspiration, desire, success, failure, and much, much more.


In this assignment you will carefully examine the physical and symbolic aspects of a material object in relation to at least one of the core themes of this course. The object you select may be new or old, spectacular or mundane, big or small, mobile or stable, or something that you use everyday or only on the most special of occasions. The point is to pick someTHING you have direct experience with and access to so that you may study and write about it ethnographically.


Then you will research (and detail the following in your write up). Plan to write about a page for each section detailed below:


  • Explore the life history of your object (Where and how is it manufactured? Exchanged? Used? Stored or thrown away?) This may require some online or library research, be sure to track and cite your sources.


  • Examine your own experience with this object through participant observation (How, when, why do you use or not use it? Has your use of it changed over time? What might your use, possession, or discard of this object signify to yourself, to others?) Consult the instructions for your first Mini-Ethnography and your textbook for a refresher on participant observation as needed.


  • Consider the life history of your object and insights from your own participation in relation to one of the core themes of this course, and cultural anthropology more broadly. (For example: What might wearing a leather jacket made in Italy to class or a party tell us about sexuality? What might a Macbook made in China from Congolese minerals used in West Lafayette to research where and with what materials Macbooks are made tell us about power and the global economy? What might drinking a bottle of kombucha or taking dose of Sudafed tell us about health and healing?)

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