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The Status of the “Material” in Theories of Culture 195
© The Executive Management Committee/Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002
© The Executive Management Committee/Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley
Road, Oxford, OX4 1JF UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 32:2
0021–8308
The Status of the“Material” in Theories of
Culture: From “Social Structure” to “Artefacts”
ANDREAS RECKWITZ
In the past several decades, social theory has been transformed largely into
cultural theory. In different theoretical branches, the social has been redefined as
the cultural: Structuralism, semiotics and poststructuralism, phenomenology and
hermeneutics, Wittgenstein’s language-game philosophy andsymbolicinteraction-
ism have, in diverse ways, furthered a perspective that understands the orderli-
ness of the social world as a result of symbolic structures. In contrast to classical
types of social theories such as naturalism, utilitarianism or the “homosociologicus”
of the norm-following actor, theories of culture can be defined as vocabularies
that understand or explain human action and social order byestablishing their
basis in symbolic codes and schemes that regulate meaning. The classical dualisms
of modern thought between “idealism” and “materialism”, between the realm of
the “ideal” and that of the “real”, between the culture of the symbolic and the
factualism of material objects (dualisms which surely are not identical) thus ap-
pear to have been resolved in favour of the formerelements in these classical
oppositions. Now it seems as if—to borrow Derrida’s terminology (1967)—within
the cultural/material distinction the material functions as the “supplément”, as
that element “added” to something already complete in itself: to culture.
However, this is the case only at first glance. Cultural theories have always
taken considerable trouble to answer the question of whereto place the material
in relation to the symbolic. What is the status of the “material” dimension and
how is it defined within the vocabularies of the theories of culture? It must be
emphasized that the idea of “materiality” does not have a common meaning
among theorists of culture, but that within these vocabularies it rather occupies
the place of the “non-cultural”, which is conceptualized invery diverse ways. We
can learn a great deal about theories of culture by seeking to reconstruct the
place where they localize these “non-cultural” elements which can be generally
described as “material”. And we can learn a great deal about the transformation
the theories of culture have experienced, and can experience, by following the
shifted place and significance the “material” adoptswithin them. I propose to
JTSB32.2C04 5/27/02, 11:46 AM
195
196 Andreas Reckwitz
© The Executive Management Committee/Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2002
distinguish among three phases in the development of theories of culture that
differ in their conceptualization of the material: 1) the sociology of knowledge
as formulated by classical sociology in the work of Mannheim, Scheler and
Durkheim; 2)“high modern” cultural theory as we find it in its different versions
in structuralism and social phenomenology (two variations of “culturalist ment-
alism”), in poststructuralist and constructivist “textualism” and in Habermas’s
“intersubjectivism”; 3) contemporary practice theory formulated in a radical
version concerning the status of “artefacts” in the work of Bruno Latour. Only in
the thirdphase does it seem that cultural theory has reached a position capable
of clarifying the relationship between the cultural and the material in a way that
is neither “culturalist” nor “materalist”. This ability is closely connected with the
development of “theories of social practices” within the culturalist camp.
My argument will pursue the following line: 1) Classical sociology of...
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