Category Archives: Notes from the Field

Best of Material World Blog: Landscape and Place

Patrick Laviolette (EHI, Tallinn University, hosts of EASA2014)

In terms of providing reflections on the material dimensions of place and landscape, here are some links to what I feel have been amongst the more provocative postings on the blog over the years. Many of the authors to the links below implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly ask: how do we depict our spatial experiences through the digital medium of blogging?

In Feb 2007, Graeme Were put up a piece simply entitled ‘Footpaths‘ by Kate Cameron-Daum. It is an eye-catching post which stirred my own curiosity on methods of walking, particularly in the countryside. Similarly, Peter Oakley’s observations at Tyntesfield house in A Roof with a View, reflects upon the postmodern condition of a heritage site standing below some scaffolding.

With some contrast perhaps, Dimitris Dalakoglou’s research summary on roads in the border region of Albania and Greece talks of movement, fixity and transgressive ‘materiality’. In a stunning photo-montage, Tony Whincup’s Water on Water project equally raises politically charged issues over morality, national agendas and cross-cultural understandings.

David Sutton’s post Looking Good gives MW readers an informative review of Cristina Grasseni monograph Developing Skill, Developing Vision (Berghahn, 2009) — a book about the environment and so much more. Similarly, anthropologist and curator Claire Melhuish provides a review of the exhibition ‘Land Architecture People‘.

In keeping with the themes of design and urban space, Jo-Anne-Bichard & Gail Knight posted a ‘toiletscape’ piece that is both fun as well as seriously challenging at the same time. Aliine Lotman’s research synopsis on ‘Dumpster Diving‘, waste and disgust in Barcelona equally captures much of the essence to approaches grounded in material culture studies (i.e. those which are anthropologically informed whilst also being innovative, inter-disciplinary and ethnographically rich).

Similarly, an in-depth posting in our ‘Occasional Papers Series (no.3)’ by Sabrina Bradford & Abby Loebenberg recently sparked the possibility of rethinking the impacts of hurricane Katrina. Theirs is a multi-media reflection on ‘disaster landscapes’, a theme which resonates with my last two selections from MW blog postings.

Matt Voigts (picking up on a reoccurring public transport meme which Aaron has also identified as one of his favourites) sent a digest on memorialisation cycles. It is a telling personal account in the vein of ‘contemporary past archaeologies’. In seeing a ‘ghost-bike‘ relic, he reveals how things of mourning can create social affects upon both our historical imaginaries as well as the design possibilities for urban planning.

And at around the same time, Francisco Martinez & Larissa Vanamo offered us an astute interview from a few years back with the fascinating and controversial ‘doomsday prophet’ Pentti Linkola.



Made in Palestine

Christopher Pinney, UCL

[Please note: this  post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]

I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons.  The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.

So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.

We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes.  Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.

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Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments  around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.

In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.


A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.


Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.


As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).


Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too.  Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.


Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out.  Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom.  After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.


Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.


We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance).  But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.



Best of Material World Blog: On Making, Craft, and Unmaking

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this post, I link to the very best posts in our archive focused on making, doing and craft.

In Fixing, Things, Fixing Ourselves, Lydia Nicholas writes about Suguru, an open source material for extending the life of mass produced (or any other) artifacts.

In Plan B for a Nuclear Reactor, Paul Williams describes the transformation of a nuclear power plant into a heritage site.

Gabriella Coleman outlines her  theory of hackers, liberalism, and pleasure, which became an important part of her book, Coding Freedom.

Ian Ewart was an Anthropologist Looks at Engineering. 

Adam Drazin presents the Mechanical Postcard, an intervention into UCL Ethnography Collections by Mattijs Siljee, of Massey University, New Zealand.

And on the opposite side of making, unmaking, Helen Polson writes about how Death Bear Wants Your Unhappy Things.



Authoring King’s Cross


Who will author the future of King’s Cross? You are invited to join us for an in-person and on-location collaborative update to Wikipedia’s entry for King’s Cross Central on 21st June at The Crossing, Central Saint Martins, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA.We will consider the contents of the existing article and identify what is missing and why. Throughout the afternoon, we will update the Wikipedia entry to more fully reflect the history and contemporary dynamics of King’s Cross from a variety of perspectives. Anyone with an interest is welcome to drop by between 2.30 and 5.30pm.This event is part of the Contested Spaces forum at Central Saint Martins and will be immediately followed by a panel discussion on the theme of Gentrification and Regeneration.

Rebecca Ross & Chi Nguyen

Rethinking the Technophobia of Old Believers

Kriistina Pilvet (EHI, Tallinn Univ.)

This posting deals with the Old Believer’s congregation of Piirissaare — a little island situated in lake Peipus which makes up part of the Russian-Estonian border. The main focus of this case study is the interaction of their identity and the modern technology they use in order to perform their culture in the peripheral region of one of Europe’s more avant-garde ICT countries.

Normative discourse on Old Believers, especially in Estonia, has often presumed some insularity, un-moderness and technophobic behaviour from the representatives of the given congregation. This narrative is so embedded in the representation of Old Believer’s that it has become a ‘norm’. Several different sources starting from academic publications in anthropology (Dolitsky & Kuzmina 1986; Vorontsova 2000; Filatova ; Ziolkowska 2011) and ending with different travel agency brochures and web sites (, as well as ethnographic films (Brummend 2011) tend to associate Old Believers with traditionalism and a restrained way of life. Such sources thereby contrast this situation with what the modern audience may call “nowadays modern lifestyle” which involves several different interactions with the material world in a most contemporary manner. It has thus been assumed that technology in its digital and industrial manifestation has been prohibited in the vastness of the current field.

The boundary between traditional and modern has been clearly lined in the context of the given field. But if to look deeper into the subject, we realise that those binary oppositions are actually creations of the modern world itself which attempt (via those imageries) to contrast themselves from the Old Believers, thus expanding the gap between the rest of the world and the Old Believer congregation. These actions manage to work as constant hints for the ‘otherness’ of the community. My observations of the field in the given congregation has lead me to alternative conclusions; it is that Old Believers have always interacted with the modern world in the terms of the values and technological innovations which progress may offer. Moreover, they have never denied the usage of technology within their everyday doings.

Technology in the given congregation has become a part of their culture, since it serves as a means of reproducing their traditional actions. In the ceremonial life of the Old Believers, they have preserved many elements of an older time. However, in the modern areas of their living, some innovations in the rites of their life cycle together with the local specificity have appeared. It is that technology does not contradict the traditional in the given example because those seemingly binary opposites manage to work hand in hand by complementing each other. Technology is seen as a highlighter of the true Old Believer identity since it improves their traditional practices. Roughly speaking, technology may function as a method of becoming a ‘better’ Old Believer.

Fishing is considered by me as the most characteristic features of the complex ‘identity-set’ for the Old Believers of Piirissaare. The geographical location of the island has contributed to their everyday-life. Today, even the most ‘old school’ inhabitant of Piirissaare accompanies his fishing practices with several technological innovations such as GPS devices, motorboats, motorbikes, mobile phones (Horst & Miller 2006) and so on. It is perceived as an inherent element of their everyday-life doings since it manages to improve the practices and simultaneously reproduces the identity of Piirissaare’s Old Believers.

Peipus pier

Fig. 1 Piirissaare pier (Lake Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

The island’s overall appearance constantly alludes on their traditional practices, demonstrating its most commonly used facilities within the main landscape of the place (Fig. 1). By walking along the closely pressed houses that are traditionally lined up in the row, creating the long and narrow street, you can find numerous stakes that are covered with the fishing nets which have been put up there in order to get dry or in some cases to get fixed. The overall action usually takes place in front of the house, rarely if ever the requisite is situated behind the house.

This is the place where also the disassembled motors of the boats and old motorbikes are often ‘presented’, thereby not allowing to forget the true essence of the island (Fig. 2). The smaller technological devices used in fishing (GPS devices, mobile phones) are revealed solely in the lake, during the fishing procedure, when they are used for the initial purpose. At that same time as their usage, technology adopts its meaning. It becomes one in the case when it is used – outside of the human context it stops to function as a technology. “It is a system that contains itself a technological device and a human who uses it, maintains and repairs it” (Dusek 2006: 33). Despite the picturesque view of the technological devices in the front yard of their houses, they start to function as one only within the lake when they are used.

Peipus boats

Fig. 2 Old Believer boats (Peipus 2013, photo by the author).

GPS devices manage to designate the location of fish, whereas mobile phones serve for the designation of the fisherman themselves. One of my informants once claimed: “ I don’t even remember when there was a last time when I went fishing on the lake without the GPS device with me, it has become so normative.” Thus, usage of those devices together with the motorboats that allow them to move faster and the motorbikes that are used for transporting the heavy engines to the pier, have become normative for the Piirissaaare’s Old Believer’s due to their auxiliary factor within the system of their working habits.

Work (fishing in particular), as one of the defining elements of the Piirissaare’s Old Believer’s identity is improved by the means of modern technology. Taking this into consideration, the initial boundary that was set up between the traditional and the modern fails to work as confronting in the given case, since ‘oppositions’ are working in a reciprocal relation. Modern, in the face of technology, manages to highlight traditional (fishing) and thus reproduces the characteristic features of Old Believer identity. They do not suspend themselves from the modern world and the innovations that this world may offer. On the contrary, they manage to carry their values through life, simultaneously adapting in the modern world.


Brummund, Marc (dir). 2011 Film: Fish and Onion. Doco film.

Dolintsky, A. & L. Kuzmina. 1986. Cultural Change vs. Persistence: A Case from Old Believer Settlements. Artic. 39(3): 223-231.

Dusek,V. 2006. Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Horst, H. & D. Miller 2006. The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication.Oxford: Berg.

Vorontsova, L. & S. Filatov 2000. “Paradoxes of the Old Believer Movement”. Religion, State & Society. 28(1): 53-67.

Ziolkowska, M. 2011. “Anthroponynmy as Element Identificational Minority. The Characteristics of Polish Old Believer’s Names”. ESUKA – JEFUL. 2(1): 383-398.

Fixing our things, fixing ourselves

Lydia Nicholas, UCL Digital Anthropology, @lydnicholas

In UCL’s digital anthropology department, students are never allowed to forget that digital practices are performed by physical bodies, and that informants are embodied and situated, carrying their own culture with them as they write code, comment anonymously, or direct avatars to move through virtual environments.

I was interested in the flow of habit and meaning in the opposite direction- how experiences in digital spaces -such as familiarity with the affordances of writing code- could feed into informants’ understanding of the non-digital. The political side of this process is explored in depth by Keltys and Coleman. Yet I wanted to investigate how experiences manipulating digital objects might affect one’s expectations of the affordances of the physical world on a more prosaic level. If users carry culture into digital spaces, surely they carry new or developed knowledge, assumptions, habitus back out. Anyone who has stood frustrated in a rearranged supermarket and felt an unfulfillable urge to press ‘search’ may understand.

Sugru is a self-setting silicon rubber coloured black, white, red yellow or blue sold in 5 gram packets for £12.99. Once a packet is opened the substance is flexible enough to mould for about 30 minutes before beginning to set into its final form which is waterproof, heatproof up to 180°C, strong, slightly flexible, and capable of sticking to almost any surface- plastic, metal, glass, ceramics, wood, etc.

In late 2012 I did a small study exploring how the politics and affordances of digital culture influence physical making and mending through the use and marketing of Sugru. I interviewed and collected narrative accounts from 28 Sugru users, sampled by approaching those who tweeted or posted to Facebook publically about having bought or used Sugru, and recruiting through those respondents’ networks. I studied the company’s marketing materials and social media activity, and contacted the company to ask for interviews- due to time constraints they directed me to specific preferred interviews which were already available publicly online.


Full disclosure: I used Sugru to fix the split case of the laptop on which wrote I this article

‘Hacking’ and ‘fixing’ objects with Sugru are practices by which consumers exercise creativity and skill to exert power over products in resistance to a culture of mass-consumption. Consumers used conceptual models drawn from digital material culture and hacker culture, particularly Free/ Open Source Software (F/OSS) movements (Coleman 2012), to re-imagine technologies which had been black boxed (Bijker 1987) as open and amenable to adaptation. Whilst it is true more generally that ‘moments of socio-technical closure… are illusionary’ and that objects are always part of a continual narrative of ‘consumption, practice, and meaning’ (Shove et al. 2007) in these practices of ‘fixing’ as described by my informants, consumers were particularly conscious of this process of changing and developing the narratives of their objects by opening them- unscrewing boxes, escaping legal restrictions, and the extending the object’s functionality beyond that endowed by the original producer. Through this form of ‘craft consumption’ (Campbell 2005) consumers were able to extend the work of ‘translating products from alienable condition’ (Miller 1987) beyond the stylistic to the functional, fitting products’ material properties to the precise needs of their particular situation, thereby performing power and avoiding waste. These processes were framed as part of political projects, and ‘fixes’ were shared with others both to demonstrate the fixer’s skill and ethics, but also in the hope of gaining adherents to these projects.

Definitions of ‘hacking’ and ‘fixing’ were contested and ambiguity caused confusion amongst users with different backgrounds who came together to discuss their work. Sugru confronted this problem in its FAQ section:

Why do you talk about ‘hacking’? That word means something different to me…

There are many definitions of the word hack; for us a hack is a clever solution to an everyday problem. We feel that it captures a strong can-do attitude that we hope inspires people to take control of their stuff. (Sugru n.d.a)

The use of ‘hack’ to mean ‘to cope with’ or a person who can and will do ‘any kind of work’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2012) predates computers, but the pride many informants took in saying “I’m a hacker” made it clear that they did not conceive of ‘hacking’ as substandard workarounds. Rather, ‘hackers’ enjoyed demonstrating power over objects through exercising creativity and skill in a manner which echoed the affective experience of software development described by Coleman as “the joy that follows from the self-directed realization of skills, goals, and talents.” ‘Hacks’ were an exercise in ‘control’ because products were seen to be influenced by the intentions of their mass-producer in ways which restricted their fit into the consumer’s life. F/OSS hacker culture is scornful of legal restrictions on software and explicitly connects the right to modify with the right to free speech (Coleman 2012). This leads to the extension of the understanding of ‘brokenness’ to include objects that are capable of performing the functionality intended by their producer but are not open to adaptation to the consumer’s individual needs. This allowed the gradual (and by no means total) replacement of ‘hack’ with ‘fix’. Drawing from F/OSS culture means that this model has inherited the movement’s political concerns with resisting the wider cultural system which enables and implements restrictions and creates products which are wastefully inefficient fits to consumer needs. It is no coincidence that Sugru’s original slogan ‘hack things better’ was replaced in June 2012 with ‘the future needs fixing’ (Sugru n.d.b)

Whilst other similar  products such as Arduino and Makerbot use similar vocabularies and political messages, and are also often used to alter or improve the functionality of objects owned by the user- automating the watering of plants, replacing plastic components of broken printers, etc- they both require the use of code or digital design tools. Sugru stood out for this study as a purely physical product which demonstrated the translation between digital and physical affordances and cultural practices. The superficial similarities in material affordances between Sugru and established products aimed at craft and DIY practitioners such as epoxy resin and superglue serve as evidence that the consumptive practices associated with Sugru are not technologically determined. Campbell’s ‘craft consumer’ who creates assemblages of ‘mass-produced retail commodities’ in order to fulfil a ‘bourgeois desire for self-expression’(2005) provided a useful reference point for placing ‘fixing’ in the context of available models of consumption. In this model consumption was work, as described by Miller (1987), but Campbell’s craft consumer took this work beyond ‘merely exercise[ing] control’ over objects, and brought ‘skill, knowledge, judgement, love and passion’ to the process of translation. I built on Shove et al.’s (2007) elaboration of the particular aspect of this model which views consumers as ‘knowledgeable actors whose consumption is in some sense an expression of their capabilities and project-orientated ambitions.’ Like the DIY projects which are the focus of Shove et al.’s study, ‘fixing’ usually involved one or more mass-produced objects, and results emerged from a ‘dynamic relation between product and practise’, but the changes the original objects underwent in the course of projects were often not so radical as to result in the ‘new ‘ensemble-style products’. ‘Fixed’ products usually performed the same or similar function as they did when purchased, but the relation between user and product was changed.

Sugru was invented by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, who is co-founder and CEO of FormFormForm Ltd., the company which produces, packages, markets and sells Sugru. The material’s affordances were designed over a period of six years’ research and development by Ní Dhulchaointigh to balance ease and pleasure of use with the flexibility to be applicable to as wide a variety of fixing and hacking projects as possible.

I want to make it easy for anyone to adapt, modify, repair and improve their stuff to make it work better for them.” (Ní Dhulchaointigh 2011)

Informants unanimously agreed that Sugru was indeed easy to use. This was considered so obviously true that questions about difficulty sometimes elicited laughs.

I used my kindergarten experience with play-doh to great effect, no tutorials really except checking hardening times,


Sugru in its pre-cured state possesses affordances which feel as familiar, intuitive and safe as children’s toys. This inspired confident, creative practises of consumption such as improvisation and experimentation even in new users. In a model of distributed knowledge (Hutchins 1993) Sugru takes on the majority of the burden for knowing how to tackle the specific chemical and physical problems within users’ idea, for instance how to stick two surfaces together, support weight or absorb shock. Thus Sugru and user form a human-non-human hybrid (Latour 1993) that is immediately highly capable. Being easier to use did not lead consumers to do the same thing quicker but instead led Sugru consumers to engage in significantly different patterns of practice than do the consumers of DIY products investigated by Shove et al. (2007:63). Because the DIY products were expensive and inflexible, and skill in specific DIY activities increased through experience, the competencies gained and leftover resources of tools and materials from each project had a significant effect on the next project, propelling users along a ‘career trajectory.’ In contrast Sugru’s flexibility, low cost, and lack of skill barrier engendered openness and set a high value on creativity. Users narrated sequences of projects which wandered at the whim of inspiration:

“made feet for metal speaker stands to keep them off new wood floor, fixed a thermos, fixed a ginormous stand-up to use shoe-horn, made a grip modification for a SLR camera, made grip modification to spoon for a disabled person, made numerous hacks to exterior of my stucco walled house to make climbing vines from plants that wouldn’t normally do that.” John

Whilst the product opened these possibilities it did so in a dynamic relationship with consumers’ ability to conceive of the physical products they owned as open to fixing- both in terms of restoring original functionality and fitting products to their situational needs. This reframing of products and problems was influenced by digital start-ups and F/OSS culture and was actively promoted by FormFormForm Ltd.

The prominent position of the CEO in company messaging and the connection of use of the product with broader positive changes in users’ lives and an explicit political agenda which centres around using openness and creativity to improve efficiency is reminiscent of digital start-ups. FormFormForm’s headquarters and main factory is based in Hackney, a short walk from the glut of digital start-ups of Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’. When asked about the location, which is unusual for a factory, Ní Dhulchaointigh ‘insists that her company is not much different to the digital start-ups located down the road in the area nicknamed Silicon Roundabout.’(Moules 2011). These similarities are so core to FormFormForm that they alter the material itself. Sugru’s formulation is still continually updated in response to feedback from the community regarding desired qualities such as colour, stickiness and shelf-life. This flexible, iterative design enacted by ‘designers who are themselves immersed in an engaged community of users’ (Hill 2004:48) echoes practices recognised as typical of digital start-ups more than those of manufacturing. Showing users that their feedback contributes to the development of the product and the company is just one of the ways that Sugru Inc. creates a relationship with the consumers of their products which elevates them from purchasers into active participants in a larger project with a political dimension. Whilst FormFormForm is a mass-producer their quick responses to complaints or questions and the high value placed on user’s contributions of pictures and information showed them actively driving the development of a relationship based on the principles of ‘mutual aid, transparency, and complex codes of collaboration’ observed by Coleman (2012:4794) in F/OSS culture. Sugru’s official Twitter feed responds to most public mentions of using the product, in particular congratulating those who did not quickly receive responses from elsewhere.

@DM_Se7en</strong>: Fixed my stethoscope with @sugru #amazingstuff

@WL_5ive Hey Dwayne, will check in with the team on this but I think that might be the first sugru-ed stethoscope we’ve seen! Awesome :)

@DM_Se7en</strong>: @sugru Awesome! Glad I could make history!  (DM_Se7en, Sugru December 2012)</p>

Sugru did not retweet @DM_Se7en’s fix so this communication provided Sugru with no publicity or content. It served primarily to engage @WL_5ive, whose mention of Sugru had otherwise gone unheard. His response, which playfully accepts the call to conceive of his fix as part of Sugru’s narrative is typical of the exchanges I witnessed.

Many of my informants explicitly framed their fixes as a means of resistance to the culture of mass-consumption. Whilst the ‘yearning for singularization in complex societies’ (Kopytoff 1986) was a factor, a key difference was the desire to avoid consumption perceived as excessive. Campbell’s ‘craft consumers’ and Shove et al.’s DIY practitioners consume mass-produced products in their efforts to circumvent the homogenising effect of the mass-production system. Whilst it required the purchase of Sugru, fixing with Sugru was described as a way to avoid purchasing and wasting. Waste was referred to in visceral and emotive terms, and fixing as a potential path to escape or transcend it.

  ”It can make something last longer and avoid our disgusting human penchant for waste” Sam

“I do not believe in throwing things that are fixable away.” Sarah

“I … do not like frivolous consumption” Alex

The system of ‘belief’ which discourages ‘disgusting’ and ‘frivolous’ habits of waste is drawn from the maker movement which itself draws heavily from F/OSS culture. Ní Dhulchaointigh made this connection and its political connotations explicit by creating (through open debate in the company) ‘The Fixer’s Manifesto’ in two forms which demonstrate the combined heritage of ‘fixing’. The GitHub version of the ‘manifesto’ makes the connection between physical fixing and open source software explicit as it is not a collaborative writing platform but a leading free tool for collaborative software development. Its use is a core practise in both digital start-ups and F/OSS projects and requires knowledge of technical language. The poster version includes a pen and explicit call to edit the text, the description includes precise details about the materials, processes and brands of its component parts. This renders it open to comprehension and modification echoing in physical form the affordances of open source code. The text of the manifesto frames the act of fixing as the use of creative self-expression to resistance the wastefulness of mass-consumption.

 “Everyday practical problem solving is the most beautiful form of creativity there is… Resist trends and needless upgrades. They fuel our throwaway culture.”

This creativity relies on the ability to conceive objects as open to fixing and individuals as having the right and the responsibility to fix.

“If it’s broken, fix it!… If it’s not broken, improve it… People are infinitely diverse. Products should be too.” (Fixers Manifesto n.d.)

Products are reframed as physically alterable, with ultimate responsibility for rendering them fit for individual needs delegated to the consumer rather being controlled by the producer. This effort to unpack black boxes owes much to the work of F/OSS culture, as in the note routinely included in OSS source code:

“This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.  See the GNU General Public License for more details.”

Warranties are a part of the process which black boxes technologies (Bijker &amp; Pinch 1987). By requiring that their products be used only as specified in the warranty, or by making products which cannot be opened or modified without being damaged mass-producers retain power over objects after purchase, preventing consumers from altering products in order to fully ‘translate’ them to diverse contexts. The object retains properties and features which are not ‘fitting’ and so potentially wasteful. Resistance to this aspect of mass consumption is evident in the above note which explicitly moves the product of F/OSS developers labour outside of the mass-market, beyond the sanctions of warranties. Coleman (2012) remarks that the statement possesses “subtle irony” because “even if developers cannot legally guarantee the so-called FITNESS of software, they know that in many instances free software is often as useful as or in some cases superior to proprietary software.”

This resistance to boundaries in favour of openness is clear in the phrase “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it”, the motto of Make magazine “a central organ of the maker movement”(‘More than just digital quilting’ 2011). The motto was first published in 2006 as subheading to their “Owner’s Manifesto” which details practical ways in which mass-produced products should be made easier to open and to understand.

“Cases shall be easy to open.”

“Circuit boards shall be commented.” (Mister Jalopy, 2006)\

Informants who had a background in software development made a direct connection between their own affective experience of software development and their expectations of physical products in their possession and their ability to understand and affect the properties of those products, thereby furthering the process of translation from ‘alienable condition’ to a meaningful fit.

“I try to fix and make as much as possible… I think this is driven, in part, from my job as a Software Developer which has taught me that most things in life can be made by yourself given the right knowledge and drive. I find that it gives my life a little more meaning knowing that I’ve made/fixed something which I rely on.”

Those who didn’t have direct experience of software development still used its language to frame their practices. Physically adapting products extended the scope of consumers’ work of appropriation, the depth of meaning they ascribed to objects, and the power they believed they had over those objects, which they related to a wider system of power inherent in a culture of mass production. Speaking of products which were had long been owned and incorporated into their ‘stylistic array’ informants reported that after fixing them they felt “more attached” and that such consumptive work “feels like you take ownership of your stuff.” The pride many took in money they had saved by employing their own creativity and skill in fixes was another aspect of this resistance of waste. Whilst feeling ‘proud’ of their work was one motivation for consumers to describe fixes to friends, individual use cases could be seen as ‘a bit trivial’. More often they reported an interest in discussing their interest in fixing and the associated culture and practices.

“I’m proud of it so I do mention it to people, mostly to spread awareness of Sugru and even more so of cost cutting via make-do-and-mend mentality.” Laura

Ironically, affective experiences of digital material culture and the consumptive practices that emerged from those practices have led a growing number of consumers to become newly interested and active in exploring the materiality of the physical products that they consume, and the power they can exert over the material features and functionality of their property.


Bijker, Wiebe, E. (1987). The Social Construction of Bakelite: Towards a Theory of Invention. In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, edited by Bijker, Wiebe, E., Huges, Thomas, P. and Pinch, Trevor, J. 159-187. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Campbell, C. (2005). The Craft Consumer : Culture, craft and consumption in a postmodern society. Journal of Consumer Culture 5: 23-47.

Coleman, E.G. (2012). Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton University Press.

DM_Se7en, Sugru (2012). [twitter post] retrieved from

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Hill, D. (2004). ‘Adaptation, Personalisation and ‘Self-Centred’ Design’. In Innovation Through People-centred Design- Lessons from the USA, (ed.) N. Wakeford. London: DTI Global Watch Mission Report.

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“hack, v.1″. Oxford English Dictionary Online (December 2012). Oxford University Press. Retrieved  from

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Bradford: MIT Press.

Kopytoff, I. (1986). The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process. In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, (ed.) A. Appadurai 64–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Miller, D. (1987). Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.

‘More than just digital quilting’ (December 2011). Retrieved from

Mister Jalopy, Own Your Own (2006). Retrieved from

Moules, Jonathan. Costing The Dream: FormFormForm (December 2011). Retrieved from

Ní Dhulchaointigh, (projectsugru). (November 2011). meet sugru [Video file]. Retrieved from

Shove, E., M. Watson, M. Hand &amp; J. Ingram (2007). The Design of Everyday Life. Berg.

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Sugru (n.d.b) Our Story. Retrieved from

On Facebook, Death and Memorialisation

Over at the UCL Social Networking Sites and Social Sciences Project, Danny Miller writes about his research at a London hospice where he has been exploring the resonance of new media at the end of life:

Alongside my ethnographic research in The Glades I have now been working for over a year alongside The Hospice of St Francis. When I am in the UK I try to spend a day a week interviewing their patients who are mainly terminal cancer patients. I was delighted to hear this winter that the wonderful hospice director Dr Ros Taylor was awarded an MBE in this year’s honours list. My intention in working for the Hospice was a concern that a project of this size should also have an applied or welfare aspect where we could see the direct benefit. The initial work was simply an attempt to see how the hospice could benefit from new media. The report was published on my website, but once I was working with them I realised that in a way the hospice was the clearest example of what the whole team have endeavoured to demonstrate through this blog.

The hospice movement represents no kind of technical or medical advancement. It is entirely the product of a transformation in collective consciousness. Previously it was assumed that when people knew they were dying this was tantamount to a stage in merely their withdrawal from the world. We talk about ‘investing in our children’ as though there were long-term financial assets. The same logic would condemn the dying as of limited value. The Hospice movement was all about saying that knowing someone is terminal should be seen as an opportunity. It is no longer a medical issue, they will not be cured, instead we can concentrate on their quality of life and make this stage of life, since that is what it is, as enjoyable and fulfilling as it could be. Everything that Dr Taylor says and does demonstrates this, as does my colleague in this research Kimberley McLaughlin a senior manager of the hospice.

On reflection this is perhaps our single most important finding also as anthropologists of social media. People become fixated on the technological advances of new media. What each device can now be capable of – the latest app or smartphone or platform. These certainly feature throughout our work. But the vast majority of our blog posts are not about that. Instead they describe changes in the same collective consciousness: the social uses that people creatively imagine for these media as part of their lives.

The two issues come together in my observations of Facebook in relation to death and memorialisation. One of my early informants was a woman who felt that she wanted to use the experience of terminal cancer to help educate the wider world about her experience. A subject people tend to avoid but need to gain a better understanding of. I last saw her six days before she died and she was quite clear that using Facebook as almost a daily blog had enabled her to do just that. I am hoping (if I obtain the funding) to make a film based on her and other patients who have used Facebook in this manner.

I would be equally positive about the ways people have found to use Facebook in memorialisation and grief. Previously we have tended to use highly formal and religious institutionalised frames for dealing with death. As I argued in my book Tales From Facebook, this was out of synch with changes in our notion of the authenticity of the individual. Where once we took formal posed pictures, now we like to capture images that seem spontaneous, informal and thereby more ‘real’ to us. Similarly we needed a form of memorialisation that contained this element of personalisation and immediacy. People on Facebook can put both serious and jokey memories and do so at a time of their choosing. I find these sites poignant and effective. I don’t find other social media sites, such as Twitter or Instagram, as having the same potential, so I hope we retain this capacity of Facebook.

But the point is that the inventors of Facebook were certainly not thinking about its relationship to death or memorialisation. Rather, as in the case of the invention of the hospice movement, this reflects a change in our collective imagination in what we could potentially do in relation to death and grief. This is why we argue it is anthropology rather than more tech-driven studies of new media that are most suited to understanding what social media actually become. Most of these reports reflect not the technological potential, but the imaginative realisation of social media.




Tracing continuity between childhood and adulthood: body attachments and practices that persist in a growing self

Valentini Sampethai, Goldsmiths University

One day in the summer I turned eighteen, I was sitting on the deck of a boat with my friend Danae listening to the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”. At some point, she turned and said to me, “Isn’t it sad, we’re not teenagers anymore?”.

We both agreed that none had felt any significant difference, nor had assumed any particular air of seriousness after our symbolic entry into adulthood. Already childhood had become idealized, a focus of nostalgia, although probably none of us had had a trouble-free childhood without its dark moments of fear, pain, and anxious questions. Still, childhood has been the largest chunk of our lives so far, and for a lot of us, the foundation for who we are today. This period of time is simultaneously irretrievable and yet very near; there exist moments when one can glimpse the children we used to be, when things like Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, or our all-time favourite toys make their way into our life.

These transformations, the momentary back-and-forths, and the ways childhood experience is integrated in a body alongside the emerging adult identity constitute my focus here. This, then, is a study of people I grew up in constant contact with, and of parts of our childhood’s material culture that transcended their status as mere objects: for whatever reason, we separated them as special, and for a while they were an extension of our bodies, constantly attached to us. Like Andy in Toy Story 3, most of us are now away from home, scattered in different places, leaving our toys behind or taking them along. Our choices about what to do with them poignantly reflect our sense of identity and continuity between the past, the present, and the future. The toys, smelly, worn out and overused, serve as visual reminders encapsulating our process of becoming.


My study, based on my undergraduate dissertation, brings together explorations of the body, selfhood, and material culture; through these the themes of memory, attachment, continuity and becoming are examined in terms of the process of growing up.  My study of the continuing attachment to childhood toys in adulthood and their incorporation in the present endeavors to show how these categories are all inter-related, placing the individual body at the center of a network of relationships and stories that produce a self and a subjectivity.

Drawing from Van Wolputte I take selfhood to imply “a body-self that […] extends in space and time, in material culture, in animals, and in the bodies of others” (2004: 252). Thus, the body is treated as a place where stories, images, and memories reside (Belting 2011). As years of everyday conversations and shared experience with the girls –I played with their toys and they played with mine when we were small- made it difficult to relegate life to the level of academic discourse, I found Csordas’ viewpoint on embodiment particularly useful:

“Embodiment […]is situated on the level of lived experience and not on that of discourse; embodiment is about “understanding” or “making sense” in a prereflexive or even presymbolic, but not precultural, way (Csordas 1990, p.10).” (Van Wolputte 2004: 258).

Hence, I will be focusing on ordinary experience and preoccupations of everyday life; situations that may be paradoxical, funny, moving, ridiculous, familiar, or uncertain, general in that many of us experience them but particular in that we do so in diverse ways.  

Attachment to Soft Toys and the Creation of Bodies Invested with Life

“Like most little boys, he has had toy animals to play with, but though he loves them all, his best friend has been his Teddy Bear, called Winnie-the-Pooh, or Pooh, for short. The funny thing is that Pooh doesn’t like being called a Teddy Bear now […]. You see, what they both feel, and what I feel too, is that Pooh is really alive and does things, but a Teddy Bear is just a toy which sits about and does nothing”

A.A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Story Book (1966: v-vi)

It is probably impossible to count the instances in our childhoods in which we were exposed to some sort of story where magical objects, animals and toys talk. An obvious one of the 1990’s was Toy Story, and then there were old fairy tales, Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, where objects are companions that interact with the heroes and even are their best friends. It is not hard to imagine, then, how this belief in magic and animistic thought was something we were open to as children, taking care of our favourite toys as if they were real, saying good night to them and worrying about how they would feel if we neglected them. Since children are allowed to believe in magic, we were able to be more explicit about the importance of objects in everyday life, an apt example to Miller’s claim that “…material culture matters because objects create subjects much more than the other way around. It is the order of relationship to objects and between objects that creates people through socialization whom we then take to exemplify social categories” (2008: 287). Toys were magical because they represented a world of new possibilities, where we could create a person from our imagination, a friend that we could carry everywhere with us and on whom our shared experiences would become inscribed in the wear and tear of overuse. As Winnicott suggests,

“the thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is found to be reliable” (2005: 64).

Such objects, due to their constant attachment to children’s bodies and the love we infuse them with, come to acquire a substance and become consanguineous to us; we remain attached to them and our parents cannot decide to throw them away because they are a part of us. They become synonymous to us and to home; my granddad, when my brother and I left home for university, placed the teddy-bears we each had in their house on his library with our names written on them, the toys serving as a presence and a reminder of an absence simultaneously.

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)

Me in my grandparents’ house, playing with the toys we kept there. (Photo taken by someone in my family)


Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad's library. (Photo taken by me).

Our toys now, labeled with our names and placed in my granddad’s library. (Photo taken by me).

However, apart from the toys being infused with some of our substance, they also seemed to have a life of their own; as Winnicott describes an infant’s transitional object,

“the object is affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated. […] It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating […]. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own” (2005: 7).

Hence, that toys are important to most children is not a statement that needs further discussion; however, sometimes they are so loved and so firmly situated in a network of relationships and narratives of shared experience, that they survive adolescence and remain important in adulthood.


From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: "Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).

From the V&A Museum of Childhood. The caption reads: “Little Tommy Tittlemouse. This teddy bear was very well loved by his owner. After he gave him to the Museum, he sent birthday cards to Tommy every year until he died. Tommy’s birthday is 24 November.” (Photo taken by me).



 Introducing the girls and the toys

Eva and Georgia are twins who have been my best friends since we were babies, and to them, toys are family.

Mema and Memos, matching dog and cat backpacks, were given to them as a present when they were five. Three years later the toys got married and had children. Mema took her name from the word “Beba” (meaning “baby girl”), a term of endearment for Eva when she was small. Naming Memos with the male equivalent of Mema was Eva’s idea, a result of their being a pair, one for each twin. Since Memos was given to Georgia and Mema to Eva, each is the respective mother of her toy, but they are very attached to both.

Rebecca, their other favourite toy, is a soft doll that my mum, who is Georgia’s godmother and an old friend to the girls’ parents, bought for Georgia when she was small. She is also part of the family as she is Georgia’s daughter, and the story is that she is now grown up and studying to become a doctor. Notably, Rebecca has her own teddy bear.


Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

Memos, Mema and Rebecca. (Photo taken by me).

When I asked the girls –rhetorically- if they would ever give these toys away, Eva almost shouted “Never!” and they both outright rejected the idea. I asked if they are saving them for their children, to which Eva replied, seriously but with a hint of a smile showing she knew the situation was slightly comical, that she would not do that either because she would not entrust them to anyone, what if they ruin or lose them?

Fair enough, the girls are very careful in their handling of their toys nowadays; although in the past they slept with them now they put them aside because they are so tattered they might damage them. Mema, by far the most used and loved of all, has a ripped ear and a broken zip with a great story behind it. When, one day they were in kindergarten, the zip broke, they were so distraught in their crying that all the other children there started to cry with them. This aptly shows how clear Eva and Georgia make that these are not mere toys, but so important and loved that they should be treated as live beings. Even when they were small, that distinction was apparent: they never played with them as they – or we- played with Barbie dolls, but rather they were constantly there, like a part of the family that they would not lower to that level of playing like they did with other, generic toys. As they commented, now they actually play with them more than when they were children, but this form of play consists of creating and maintaining a network of relationships and family ties, getting everyone present to play along with them. This is seen in how family links transcend the limits of Eva and Georgia’s family, making me Mema’s godmother, a guy we know from a summer holiday Rebecca’s no-good boyfriend, and Mema’s dad a constant mystery but rumored to be Eva’s first (and ex) long-term boyfriend.

When, still with the idea of childhood nostalgia in the back of my head, I asked them the abstract, and supposed-to-lead-to-analysis question of what the toys mean to them, Eva just looked at me for a while and simply said: “We just love them very much, they are like our children”. That was the final point clarifying that these toys are not symbols or nostalgic memorabilia for an innocent and idealized past self, neither are they representative of an idea; it is the toys themselves they loved, and love, and will love as they were and will be growing up and experiencing relationships, break-ups, university, in parallel with Memos, Mema, and Rebecca.

For the past two years, the twins have been separated for more than a few days for the first time, Eva studying in North-Eastern Greece and Georgia at home in Athens. Initially Eva had taken Mema with her, but in the end they brought all of the toys to their family home in Athens so that they can be together as a family and because Memos was sad without Mema. One could expect that in separating the twins, the toys belonging to each would be separated too, but ultimately, the story about the relationships between them was too strong, and perhaps the girls did not want to increase their separation by expanding it to the toys. Anyway, Eva comes to Athens often, and Georgia and their older sister Anna visited her in the North some weeks ago and of course brought Mema along.


Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls' older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

Mema when she was ill: a photograph that Georgia and the girls’ older sister Anna sent to Eva while she was at university. (Photo taken by Anna).

What is notable is that their relationship to their toys has not changed. They remain equally important and played with, way past their conventional place in time; however, it is not that the girls perpetuate their sense of childhood selves through their holding on to their favourite toys, rather that the toys have become so essential that they are a stable point of continuity across time. Furthermore, as this is primarily a form of play that Eva, Georgia, and-to a lesser extent-Anna engage in, it is a practice of their own that enhances the strong bond of sisterhood between them.

Consequently, the girls and the toys develop alongside each other, a link constantly sustained in the narratives weaved by the girls in parallel to their own social relations and life events; the toys, when considered as live beings, are dynamic and familiar like friends that you have shared a lifetime with; as material culture they are objects of utmost value, bearing the visual marks of stories, adventures and mishaps that are safe from obsolescence because they are encapsulated in something tangible, soft, and smelling of home.

That should make it understandable why they are still so important and why the girls are indifferent that this is not what is expected of ‘mature adults’; if growing up involves learning how to love and care for someone else and if, as Miller says, “possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people” (2008: 1), then the girls, who love their toys even if they are old now, may have something to tell about building profound social relationships and also, about the fluidity of age categories, which can be shaken up by different performances, much like what Judith Butler (1990) suggests may happen with gender.

Conclusion: Playing, Cultural Experience and the Collective Imaginary

Play, an embodied state that is “always a creative experience, and […] a basic form of living” (Winnicott 2005: 67), does not necessarily involve toys or objects made for children; it may be found in any sort of “creative relation to the world” (Milner 1952 cited in Winnicott 2005: 52), practiced by adults and children alike. As a form of living and a state that, in its freedom and creativity, is thoroughly fulfilling, it is very important in the production of a self with passions and interests of one’s own pursued in play, positioned at the center of a network of relationships with objects and people. If “the body and experiences of embodiment are produced in the doings of people by social and cultural rituals that are personal and communal” (Waskul and Vannini 2006: 7), and there is a “collective imaginary” (Belting 2011: 56) of intersubjectivity connecting the girls and their toys with a shared stock of memories or images, the toys, as receptacles of all these memories still being created, are very important in defining the bond of the girls and everyone included in the network of relationships.

If  “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object) […], the same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in playing” (Winnicott 2005: 135). Thus, the girls’ toys may have been one of the first elements used in building a network of relationships involving family and their friends, loved ones, even acquaintances who made an impression; in sustaining their role in adulthood, they become yet another thing that bolsters the bonds between them and what is important in their lives.

Finally, I wish to emphasize how the twins’ attachment to their childhood toys is not a case of nostalgia and passive clinging to the past. Rather, it is a dynamic process of creating relations and narratives that weave inextricable links between the past and the present, thus allowing for a growth that holds on to what they do not want to forget or let go of. The girls have managed to incorporate something of ‘the past’ into the present by keeping it alive and loving it, thus creating a complex “aesthetic” (Miller 2009:296); and this ability to maintain a close link with the past while living in the present is an enviable art.


Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. By Linda Woolverton, Paige O’Hara, and Robby Benson. Perf. Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson. Walt Disney Pictures, 1991.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Csordas, Thomas J. “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology.” Ethos 18.1 (1990): 5-47.

McLoone, Paul, and Feargal Sharkey. Teenage Kicks. By J.J. O’Neil. The Undertones. Castle Communications, 1993.

Miller, Daniel. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

Milne, A. A. The Christopher Robin Story Book. London: Methuen and, 1966.

Milner, Marion. “Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1952): n. pag.

Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack. WaltDisney, 2010.

Turner, Terence. “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Flesh and Fetish in Contemporary Social Theory.” Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Ed. Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 1994. 27-47.

Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. “Introduction: The Body in Symbolic Interaction.” Introduction. Body/embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2006. 1-18.

Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005.

Wolputte, Steven Van. “Hang on to Your Self: Of Bodies, Embodiment, and Selves.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33.1 (2004): 251-69.

The Album People – digital photography and social research

Elad Ben Elul, UCL Digital Anthropology and the Album People, Tel Aviv

(An earlier version of this article was published in Interactions.)

Applied anthropology is becoming increasingly visible and the rise of digital anthropology means cultural research is employed for the development and marketing of technology. However, applied anthropology can also be used as an ongoing research tool for service design as an organic part of the work process. This post examines this option by looking at an enterprise called “The Album People”.


The Album People is a London-based service specializing in digital archiving and the preservation of domestic memories. The service was designed as a direct result of a Masters thesis conducted in UCL’s Digital Anthropology department  about the future of the family photo album. The ethnography looked at digital archiving practices among Ghanaian families living abroad. My partner, Alicia Weekes, and I founded it in the hope of helping people build a bridge between their pre-digital and post-digital memories. Our main objectives are to encourage centralization of memories across different platforms, optimize searchability and browsing experience, and preserve materials in sustainable formats and storage outlets according to international digital archiving standards.


Although the Album People is essentially a commercial enterprise, our main aim here is to show how services can be designed following social research, and how social research can continue while the service is being provided. By this second stage I mean how we examine the social significance each collection has to its keepers and how it reflects their ideas about family memories. I will elaborate on these two stages to illustrate the significance of social research for user experience and design as an integral force throughout the design process.

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Social Research Before Design

The role of behavioral psychology, anthropology, and social design in the development of technological products is becoming increasingly visible. Companies such as Microsoft, Intel, and Amazon hire anthropologists to understand the cultural foundations of technological use. As Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research, has explained, you cannot invent new products before you understand how people use existing ones [1]. This philosophy guided my anthropological research about the future of the family photo album conducted at the Centre for Digital Anthropology, University College London. I was eager to deconstruct how we think of digital photos and storage in hope of identifying the needs and problems around them.

One of my main concerns with previous research about the topic was the extent to which white, middle-class Western families have been observed for the study of digital family photos. For example, studies by Microsoft’s research labs were conducted with English families (mostly based in Cambridge) about memories, home archiving, and photo frames [2]. This frequent choice has to do with the notion that this group has more access to technology, reflects target markets more accurately, and, perhaps above all, represents a neutral community that can provide universal insights about digital technologies. But these notions are far from true and in fact distract us from discovering more challenging insights. That is because we are all influenced by our local culture, norms, and ideals, which differ from place to place. It is often necessary to step out of our supposedly neutral culture and look at someone “else,” in hope of revealing some new truths that can challenge our design process. The group I chose to observe for this goal was Ghanaian families who live in the U.K.

Ghanaian families in the study used digital technology on a daily basis so they can keep in touch with relatives abroad. They also have a tight relationship with photography thanks to the role it played in the British colonial days, as well as during the founding of the Ghanaian nation. By examining the history of the photos from Ghanaian families in our study and how digital tools are incorporated into an existing culture of sharing and remembering, I discovered practices that I later translated into the Album People service.

For example, Ghanaian families were often frustrated with their mass of photos and their dispersal between various digital and non-digital platforms. Photos arranged in albums or in random batches, framed pictures, mobile phones, computers, memory cards, and online archives such as Facebook all create a scattered family library that is often unwelcome. Ghanaian families also share a sense of anxiety and uncertainty regarding the “safest” form of storage. While some families might reject digital storage as a dangerous terrain and opt instead for printing photos, others embrace it as a disengagement from material hazards. Clouds have further challenged these ideas, as they allow immaterial storage but expose photos to privacy- and ownership-related threats.

During fieldwork I also noticed that while photo management software (e.g., iPhoto) overcomes issues of browsing and searchability, such tools organize only avatars of the actual files. The real digital files are usually scattered around the computer (e.g., “My Pictures” folder), do not contain textual information, and are not properly archived. This mass of digital photos makes it challenging to navigate between the materials. It was clear to me that there is a need for archiving methods that address the media files themselves.

Learning about the universal through the specific of my fieldwork notes was integral to the design of the Album People. For example, I knew right away that home visits to the clients are necessary to make sure the materials do not leave the sight of their keepers and are fully digitized within the safety of their “natural” environment.

Another issue I had to tackle was the difficulty people had locating specific photos. Using metadata and tags on the actual files, just like digital archivists do in institutional repositories, means the photo is forever linked to its textual clues and captions. Moreover, these captions are searchable on any computer search bar, which makes it much easier to find actual files.

With respect to the actual storage of materials, the Album People uses a dual storage approach that includes both the organization of data in hard drives and curation in an online gallery. The use of fully digital formats in place of DVDs is pretty new in this industry, but fieldwork has showed me that DVDs are perceived as a hybrid digital and analog object that does not solve the problems raised. Furthermore, storing photos online encourages sharing and promotes the social experience around photos, when such an experience is desired. When families express more concern about privacy and safety, high-quality USB sticks stored in cherished boxes created a safe “time capsule” or “vault” feeling for the client.

Last but not least, I felt very strongly about the consulting elements of the service and how the home visits I conducted for my ethnography should continue as part of the package itself. When arriving at a client’s home we would have casual interviews to understand the best archiving methods for his or her specific collection. In this sense, the design of personal digital family photo albums required social research not only in the development stage but also as an ongoing value in our day-to-day customer-archivist interaction.

Social Research During the Service

Perhaps the more correct term would be social research methodologies and not social research, as my proposal does not call for some sort of info-gathering of customer experience but rather an optimization of the service through a better understanding of their perceptions. How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs? These questions cannot really be answered in full in pre-development research. Instead, we must aspire to constantly engage with those questions and use our interactions with living storytellers (in the form of clients) to further improve our understanding of digital family archives.

How do we organize our digital photos? What do we keep them for? How do environmental elements such as family, location, and lifestyle change our photo-storing needs?

Great aunt’s family genealogy. One of our clients, a career woman with a busy schedule but a strong sense of responsibility toward family memories, hired us to digitize a very old collection kept by her great aunt. As all of the aunt’s family members were dispersed in the U.K., they had no access to the photographs, and since the aunt was not getting any younger, they felt it was essential to preserve in digital formats not only the photographs, but also the stories and information they carry (which were stored only in the aunt’s mind). This challenge required more than mechanical digitization; it also called for in-depth research through interviews and conversation about the individuals in the photos, the dates and locations, and the genealogical structure of the family.

Using metadata (captions and keywords embedded in the files), we managed to bridge the immaterial aural information and the material photographs. The aunt’s mass of photos was organized in folders that reflected the strongest elements of self-definition in this specific family genealogy. By dividing the family branches into folders and assigning numbers to each folder, the digital library became a type of family tree that guides you through the chronological and genealogical story of the family all the way back to the 1870s. The collection was presented online in a gallery so that family members from across the country could access it. I always find it interesting that the aunt mentioned we have digitized only the photos of the dead and that she will soon invite us to do the same for the living.

Chapters of familial life. A very different case involved digitizing a collection belonging to a much younger and smaller family. Young Western families tend to have a weaker bond with their non-immediate relatives and define themselves mainly as a nuclear unit. This influences how their photos are organized, as division by branches is not relevant and there is a need to reflect the chapters and periods of their familial life. The project was booked as a Christmas surprise by the mother (who often ends up as the curator of pre-digital family memories). Before scanning the photos, we sat down with her and sorted the photos into batches. The batches reflected historic segments as she divided them; they consisted of “wedding photos,” “pre-children photos,” “post-children photos,” and “holidays.” Again it was the use of metadata and the digital folder structure that allowed us to design an archive that reflected its keepers. But the only way to know how to design these was through an engaging dialogue with the client. The structure of remembering was incredibly different in this case because it referred to a more immediate personal biography. A simple scanner would never have been enough, and the photos would have ended up messy and disorganized (making them even more likely to be lost than when they were scattered in envelopes and shoeboxes).

Pre- and post-immigration. Families who immigrated from the U.K. or to the U.K. are a very interesting case as well. It is easier for family members who lived in one place all their lives to archive their photos and videos by specific events or years. Families who have immigrated or who regularly move countries, however, tend to sort their photos placing less importance on chronological structure and more on geographical structure. We had a client who moved with his family from Singapore to Scotland, and the archive had to reflect this dramatic change. It was clear the archive (and its memories) were often perceived in two terms: “before we arrived in the U.K.” and “after we arrived in the U.K.” The collection allowed the family to navigate between these two significant life periods and made it easier to categorize photos. Families who live abroad also place greater importance on the cloud version of their archive, for it allows sharing and exhibiting with transnational relatives. This is how digital family albums break the boundaries of time and space and encourage a dialogue around memories among various family members.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how social research takes part in the design and development of the service, as well as during the actual interaction with clients. I believe it is essential that more sociologists and anthropologists become involved in the world of innovation, as it can dramatically influence how we think of things and people. A company can use social research methodologies either with the  help of academics or simply by including a set of values in their toolkit of interactions. Interviews, observation, analysis, and above all, sensitivity to whomever it is that you are serving, can dramatically improve the satisfaction of the customer and the knowledge gathered by the service provider.

In the design of family photo albums, which are such personal and unique collections of stories and histories, the role of attentive social research is key. Although the scanners, online galleries, and metadata software are all available to create a digital collection, these have no meaning without the information provided by the curators. They will supply the flesh and blood (dates, locations, names, relations) to the skeleton (folders, tags, hard drives); it was our role to connect them into a meaningful archive.

Of course, the world of digital photographs is constantly changing and requires many more solutions. It seems as if people are not sure today which memories to document using cameras and which are not worth capturing at all. Some of our customers expressed difficulty during the consultation stage because it was hard to categorize random photos into collective folders. Highly formalized documentation practices (weddings, births, graduations) are shifting into a more spontaneous and random approach. Mobile phone cameras took this even further and we now document ourselves in any situation, even while eating. How do we go about organizing such photos? Such questions should be asked while keeping a tight dialogue with users of various groups. This dialogue is important because domestic archives contain meanings that go beyond personal sentimental values. By counteracting institutionalized and governmental archives, domestic archives are vital to the preservation of identities and histories in the intimate, free  space we call home.


1. Bell, G.‘U are happy life’: Telling the future’s stories. Proc. of the 19th ACM International Conference of Multimedia. ACM Press, New York, 2011, 585–586.

2. Kirk, D.S. and Sellen, A. On human remains: Values and practice in the home archiving of cherished objects. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 17, 3 (July 2010), Article 10.


Elad Ben Elul ( is a digital anthropologist and the co-founder of the Album People, a London-based service that consults with families about the storage of their memories in digital formats. With a background in print and online journalism and a master’s in digital anthropology from UCL, he is a great believer in the application of ethnography and social research outside academia.




On High School Homecomings

 Matt Voigts, UCL Digital Anthropology Alum

The village youth elect their royalty, dance for the elders, and engage the nearby villages’ champions in combat. Gridiron combat, that is – high school football, American style, and the biggest game of the year is Homecoming (unless the team makes the state tournament).

Homecoming is a football game followed by a chaperoned dance, preceded by pep rallies, parade, and week of festivities. It is most common (if not exclusive to) the U.S and Canada, formed with the countries’ globally-atypical unity between schools and sport leagues. After attending my high school alma mater’s 2013 Homecoming rally, I decided to produce a primer, comparing it to the two other most prominent events of the American high school year: Commencement and the spring formal dance of Prom. In all three, a close-knit community of students use humor to personalize their turn at enacting rituals familiar through mass culture, older siblings, and the school system. Homecoming embraces absurdity the most blatantly, being rooted in the colorful iconography of high school sports.

Homecoming: Background

A formal history of Homecoming has not been written (if you know of one, please let me know!), making tracing the specific origins of traditions difficult and beyond the scope of a short blog post. Despite its ubiquity, Homecoming is infrequently discussed in academic literature, much like summer camp, the American childhood rite on which I wrote my MSc dissertation and a Material World post. For contemporary examples of what it has grown into – however – Youtube remains a bottomless font of video documentation).

Broadly speaking, Homecoming grew up with 20th century American education and sport culture. The origins of a large, school-sponsored party around a football game date to late 1800s and early 1900s, with the increasing popularity of inter-mural rivalry games at both colleges and high schools. The University of Missouri makes a strong if disputable claim to being the first place at which the general format (“a spirit rally, a parade and more than 9,000 fans packed into Rollins Field“) became a regular annual event following its introduction at a 1911 game against the University of Kansas. The neighboring states and their universities had been rivals dating back to the 1850s pre-Civil War Missouri Compromise that saw Missouri enter the Union as a slave state, and subsequent Bleeding Kansas conflict and land grabs designed to tilt Kansas toward either Slave or Free for its impending national incorporation. It was natural the rivalry would translate into sporting events, arguably its primary manifestation today. The Homecoming format itself grew as school districts, colleges and their sporting events expanded throughout the 20th century.

Reduced to its broad outline, the Homecoming of today sounds like an anthropological archetype, awash in iconographic displays, suffused with a strong current of absurdity. Students elect a Homecoming “king” and “queen” (criteria: popularity) whose primary duties will be to share a dance at the school-sponsored party after the evening game, and return the following year to pass their baton and scepter to the new court. The main event day is preceded by a “Spirit Week,” during which students are encouraged to come to otherwise-normal classes dressed for theme days, such as “Pick a Decade Day,” “Pajama Day,” and “School Spirit Day.” And, of course, the schools’ football teams are marked by totemic nicknames: cowboys, lynx, cadets, and broncos, to name a few from my school’s conference.

 Homecoming 2000 - opp-gender day

 For universities, Homecoming is a time when alumni are invited to return – to see old friends, celebrate the campus experience, watch the game, participate in a variety of events, and remember to make a donation when the alumni office calls. In high school, local pride may be at stake; in college, sports play an important role in fundraising and public relations. This is part of a broad program of “cultivating lifelong institutional loyalty,” which Magolda (2003) described as “eclips[ing] all other ceremonial aims” at Commencement. Publically-funded high schools have few incentives – financial or otherwise – to encourage loyalty from graduates. Most attendees to the parade, coronation, and game are parents and classmates of the players; recent graduates; and/or other local residents who are likely to have complicated feelings about the place and their own role in it.

Pep rally crowd

For high school students, Homecoming is an autumn counterpart to the springtime Prom, the centerpiece of which is a chaperoned formal dance, preceded by the presentation of the students to the community during the Grand March (the promenade from which it gets its name). “The prom symbolizes one of the few spaces authorized by adults in which kids practice being adults, though in class-scripted ways,” writes Best (p.151), describing the dance as a space in which students (usually in their last two years of secondary school) enact an idealized version of middle-class responsibility, respectability, maturity, and success, while still under adults’ expectations to adhere to a sanitized vision of childhood and refrain from other mature behaviors: “Proms were historically tied to a schooling project used to govern the uncontrollable (youth). By enlisting youth to participate in middle-class rituals like the prom, schools were able to advance a program that reigned in students’ emerging and increasingly public sexualities,” writes Best (p.10).

As Best describes, Prom’s institutionalized nature – both as a pop cultural touchstone and school-sponsored event – engenders both adherence and resistance, as the young adults involved subvert the sophistication of the event such as by informalizing their formal dress, sneaking off with their significant others for private time, boozing (illegal until age 21 in America), and otherwise enacting their own visions of unencumbered maturity. For a personal favorite depiction, listen to The Hold Steady’s “Massive Nights,” which gleefully-yet-world-wearily indulges the adult-ungoverned aspects of a high school dance.

For students, the myth and visuals of Prom are romantic: everyone looking their best and dancing with their dates.  As Best describes with Prom – participation, adherence, and resistance is likely to be coded by students’ comfort with the institutional goals of the events. In my experience, many adults see uninvolved students’ lack of participation as a symptom more than cause of social marginality. Prom involves romance and play at being middle-class high society for a night.  Homecoming aligns itself with extra-curricular participation. It’s a common stereotype that the Homecoming king is on the football team, the queen a cheerleader. At my high school, participating in extra-curriculars is not a requirement for attending the student dance, though involvement in the coronation pep rally emphasizes autumn activities: football (of course), volleyball, dance team, cross-country running, and pep band – the latter two of which I participated in as a student.

For examples, see this Youtube video from another school: court candidates identify themselves based on their extra-curricular involvement, and argue for their worthiness by demonstrating a sense of humor. This video dispsenses with the extra-curriculars, focusing on their joke-telling ability.

Carnivalesque elements suffuse Homecoming; the dress-up days and royalty election directly recall European carnival traditions dating back to the Middle Ages. Yet while carnival suggests a temporarily topsy-turvy world, despite the added humor, little about the functionality of school actually changes during Homecoming week: students attend class in costume but otherwise continue about their work; the football game itself proceeds much like any other football game, except with a bit larger crowd and a more elaborate halftime; and the school dance could be one of a handful that happens throughout the year.

Carnival, Cologne 2013

Carnival, Cologne 2013

Students’ actual investment in the festivities (and adults’ expectations thereabout), however humorously they take them to be, may vary. “We [teachers] pay Homecoming lip service, but I doubt many teachers care much, two-thirds of students don’t care much either, and identical people get elected every single year,” suggested a friend of mine who teaches in a small Kansas town. Her assessment seems consistent with my own high school memories: despite all the supposed hoopla around the event, and even though I would consider my school a supportive place, as a slow cross-country runner with little interest in sports who was bad at finding dates, my (and my friends’) own investment felt somewhat tempered.

What strikes me about the image I somehow got in my head of Homecoming before I attended it (likely through popular media) is its reverence, especially toward the election. While humor may be a requirement for the position of King or Queen, the election itself is treated rather un-ironically. The news stories I most readily found from fall 2013 applaud the progressiveness of electing a transgender Queen , a same-sex couple , a King with autism, a King and Queen with Down’s syndrome, a King who gave his crown to a friend with a neurological disorder . Attempts to find jokes about Homecoming returned this trickster narrative about “a free spirit with few friends,[who] was named to the homecoming court as a joke by her classmates,” who proceeded to turn ironic support into an anti-bullying campaign via a Facebook campaign. All these displays of inclusiveness emphasize the deliberate performativity and symbolic power of the Homecoming election. They also demonstrate the extent to which the popular image of Homecoming emphasize the formal, peer validation aspects that will honor only a small number of participants.

Bypassed in the formal image are the ample lighter elements that come in the enactment process: the skits, parades, the temporal stakes in electing royalty, the inside jokes displayed for the slightly-larger audience of parents and community – and the ways in which these bridge the tension that comes with peers taking their turns to enact the fun-but-storied ritual. If we take the typical outline– the election, the game, the dance – at face value, the humor seems to arise almost outside the ritual, to challenge its piety.

The event

My north-central Iowa hometown has a population of around 3,000, and its high school’s four grade levels total between 250-300 students any given year. Most who attend (with the notable exceptions of some Latino migrants and foreign exchange students) have grown up together since elementary school, and play sports with a handful of similarly-sized schools within an hour’s radial drive. I write as a one-time participant, current observer, with the assumption that the basics I describe are common to many American high schools.

ParadeThe students arrive via parade. The King and the Queen: five candidates of each, chosen from the Seniors (4th and final year of high school) by the student body, arrive via classic car. Other high school athletes, cheerleaders, and musicians, arrive via hayracks, semi-trucks, and fire engines – all staples of regional parades, large, visually-impressive vehicles than can easily carry an entire team or civic club.


Candidates with toilet paper

They travel past houses with trees strewn with toilet paper. While norms may differ and be debated, locally, “t.p.’ing’” is (more often than not) considered a visually expressive act of harmless vandalism, often performed on public property and the homes of well-liked students or teachers. Not-so-well liked folks get egged, and the eggers get more aggressive visits from law enforcement.


cheoreographed dance

The parade leads to the pep rally, several choreographed dances, and the coronation: all held on the asphalt track that encircles the field. The dance team dances; the dance team girls dance with the football boys; the teachers dance; and the seniors’ parents dance. Some parents have apparently chosen to participate for the amusement of their kids, some to their mortification. Again, YouTube offers some examples (Gangnam Style, Backstreet’s Back and Call Me Maybe?). At my old school, the teachers dance to Randy Newman’s “Short People Got No Reason to Live” – a reference to the opposing team’s rather atypically non-aggressive mascot, The Midget. One by one, the teachers attack a doll-midget in effigy – tackling it, pile-driving it, throwing it about. Then the cheerleaders get the crowd worked up with some routines, encouraging the crowd to stomp and yell to well-known beats. During my years there, a local performer acted as the school’s “oldest cheerleader” at the event well into her 90s.

attacking the midget

The backdrop to this is the uniformed football team, varsity and junior varsity, who remain just outside the track, inside the field. Some seem comfortable standing before the crowd, others bored. The only participants who remain determinedly detached are the coaches, who look on with benign if stony-faced authority. The overall tone is amusing, lighthearted, a well-liked teacher announcing events and names via the loudspeaker, joking with the people who’ve offered themselves up for display.



The pep rally culminates in a parody of both democracy and monarchy: the election of royalty. The candidates stand on the field in pairs, are described with half-joking biographies (almost all seniors are quite excited to be first in line for lunch their final year). The former queen crowns the current king with a fairy wand-like scepter; the outgoing king gives the queen a tiara – one of the few practical duties attached to the honor. These tokens are of symbolic value, but plastic and of little monetary value, likely less so than the bouquets presented with them. Usually, the outgoing royalty pace back and forth a few times for suspense, or offer the crown to a member of the crowd, as the emcee cracks a few more jokes.


After these conscripted and volunteered performed displays, and after the game, the kids retire to ‘their’ dance under the watchful eye of chaperones.


Homecoming has a sense of importance granted by tradition: the iconic outline of election and competition, from still photos in Yearbooks and the pop-culture of yesteryear that remain ever-present in the American school experience. The cultural prominence tends to emphasize the more formal elements (the game and coronation), lending the humor of the pep rally and Spirit Week an air of subverting Homecoming’s place in culture.

Best never notes the ways in which  the schools themselves rein in Prom’s pomp, though from experience I can say that my hometown’s Grand March emcee often has a similar (if more subdued) joking tone in announcing the couples. Magolda (2003) says of Commencement, the greatest disconnect between practice and articulated institutional goals is an undercurrent of perfunctory weariness: “Mechanically and technically, the performers excelled; yet only a few performers conveyed the feeling that they believed in the performance. Yet he also writes of the hallowed event: “Although intellectualism is an espoused institutional core value, the commencement performance vacillated between a comedy club routine and a collegiate pep rally.” These tensions, I would argue, are not from ritual enacted imperfectly, but rather institution, students, and audience articulating a semi-conscious acknowledgement of the differences among depictions, expectations, and practice, of communal familiarity concretizing an oft-recited cultural script.


Best, A., 2002. Prom night: youth, schools, and popular culture. Routledge: New York. Accessed through Taylor and Francis e-library edition.

Magolda, P.M, 2003. Saying good-bye: an anthropological examination of a commencement ritual. Journal of College Student Development. 44 (6), pp. 779-96. HTML version accessed.