Where Stuff Comes From

Review: Harvey Molotch (2003), Where stuff comes from – how toasters, toilets, cars, computers and many other things come to be as they are. London: Taylor and Francis
Elizabeth Shove and Matt Waton teach at the Department of Sociology, University of Lancaster
‘Where Stuff Comes From’ does an excellent job of opening up debate about product design and of asking new questions about the hardware with which we live our lives. What is it that gives shape and form to the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us? In dipping into the world of design, Harvey Molotch deals with questions of fun, functionality and fashion, also taking note of the structuring of supply chains and the organisation of production. In focusing on design in this way, his book sits squarely between typically generic arguments about consumers’ pursuit of novelty and more technologically oriented theories of innovation.
This is interesting and surprisingly unpopulated territory. On the other hand, and despite the promise of the first chapter, Molotch does not go on to analyse objects in use or to develop the theoretical resources required to take such a project forward. Instead, he follows products to the market, commenting on the relation between material and cultural dynamics at a relatively abstract level, but stopping short of looking at how ‘stuff’ is appropriated in practice. As the title suggests, the focus is on where stuff comes from, not on where it goes to, or what happens next.
Questions about how stuff is appropriated, transformed and embedded are all central topics for those who write about ‘material culture’. But the funny thing is that such authors only rarely ask themselves where does this stuff come from? How is it that there is such a divide between social studies of stuff up to the point where it is sold, and social analyses of what goes on beyond that point? Artefacts cross this boundary with ease, but it remains an important stumbling block in academic scholarship.

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3 Responses to Where Stuff Comes From

  1. Daniel Miller - Anthropology. UCL October 25, 2006 at 4:59 am #

    Reflecting as much upon the reviewer’s comments as upon the original book, I would think the one area where academics are committed to connecting up `where things have come from’ to `where they have ended up’ is in the study of commodity chains. I found Robert Foster’s recent piece in the Handbook of Material Culture (Ed. C. Tilley et. al.) to be a really excellant contribution to the theorising of such commodity chains in terms of value.
    I also wonder how many people outside of Geography know about a series of substantive studies that appeared in a book called Geographies of Commodity Chains that was published by Routledge in 2004 Edited A. Hughes and S. Reimer. Unfortunately this is only available in hardback at £80, but I would recommend it for libraries.

  2. Harvey Molotch October 31, 2006 at 4:20 pm #

    Thanks to Elizabeth and Matt for their generous commentary and, yes, I don’t do much with “where it goes to” — but of course there is some rich literature on that, and some of it was my inspiration — although trying to escape Frankfurt-style dystopic gloss.
    Just as an update, I am now working with a PhD student, Noah McClain, on the NYC subway as an integrated system of hardware, individual, and “society.” It is an analysis of consumption more than production, but COLLECTIVE consumption of an arsenal of artifacts created by people who are not themselves end-users. It is also stuff that has accumulated layer-by-layer in a quite funky kind of way with interesting distributional impacts.
    We are getting some first papers together, but have nothing yet ready for circulation.
    My biggest problem with the STUFF book has been trying to get across the “take away” message in my home territory of sociology. I think anthropology has an ongoing imaginary of ethnographic materiality. But for My People, less goes without saying.

  3. Richard Wilk, Indiana University November 5, 2006 at 12:46 pm #

    I also enjoyed this book for its attention to design; I don’t think its as much a neglected topic as a topic which has fallen victim to a typical form of academic balkanization. The many stages of the lives of objects weave in and out of so many academic disciplines, it takes a heroic effort of reading and research to make the necessary connections. One stage which very few historians and social scientists have connected to is the way material cultures are imagined as futures, circulated as unfulfilled needs, and visualized as combinations of functions, long before they are designed and materialized. Science (and other) fiction has played a major role in this process since the 19th century novels of H.G. Wells. One non-scholarly but thoughtful book worth reading on this topic is Thomas Diasch (an outstanding SF writer himself), The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, 1998.

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