Category Archives: Uncategorized

Best of Material World: Digital Media

Since the Material World Blog began, the digital media landscape changed dramatically. In social media terms, we have moved from Friendster, MySpace and Orkut to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, with a range of other digital, mobile and social media becoming embedded within many people’s everyday lives around the world. These transformations resulted in an increasing number of posts that explored the changing relationships with digital media and made visible the materiality of the digital worlds. In my review of the best of digital media on Material World Blog, five key themes emerged.

(1) The first theme clusters around questions of place and materiality with the growth in digital media. These include Jean-François Blanchette’s wonderful post analysing bits and the software history  as well as Toby Wilkenson’s examination of the consequences of google earth for our relationship to place in a time of google earth. Graham H. Roberts’ discussion of the transition from alcohol branding on bottles to branding on websites and social media in Russia and Lane DeNicola’s post on online shopping and retail also inspire readers to consider the ways in which the online retail experience may be changing our relationships to objects, including objects of consumption.

(2) Research on relationships form a second wave of blog posts. We see this through Mihrini Sirisena’s discussion of dating and missed calls (ring-cut), Elad Ben Elul’s post examining the creation of photo archives among Ghanaian transnational families (including a follow up post on the design process used to connect transnational families),  Sandra Rubia Silva’s analysis of the relationships people have with their mobile phones and the discussion of these relationships on Orkut and last (but not least), Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller’s introduction to the concept of polymedia and the relationship between the desire to control the nature or content of communication via different platforms.

(3) We also had a fair number of publications focused upon young people and digital media which collectively worked to complicate a series of assumptions about the relationship between young people and technology. This comes out quite explicitly in Tylor Bickford’s analysis of earbud sharing children using mp3 players, Christo Sims discussion of young people’s media practices and identity work, as well as Matt Voight’s post on the trend towards technology deprivation strategies in US summer camps.

(4) A fourth strand of research emerged around the nature and form of online communities. This includes Patricia Lange’s work on video bloggers relationship to place, Larissa Hjorth’s discussion of social media gamers and online communities based on research in Shanghai (with some fantastic photos to illustrate her post!), and Dan Perkel’s analysis of theft among artists who post their creations on Deviant Art.

(5) The fifth and final strand of research explored protest and digital activism. For example, David Thompson’s post examines the Occupy Rio movement and the relationship between the physical space of protests and the online arenas in which photos and videos were constantly uploaded and discussed, not only from Rio but also from Occupy protests around the world. Finally, Gabriella Coleman’s shared her work on humour and hacking in anonymous and a link to an audio recording of Coleman’s public talk at UCL earlier this year. Finally, Chief Editor Haidy Geismar’s thoughtful posts on Open Access highlighted the ways in which forms of digital activism have also impacted our own scholarship through the rise of alternative models of journals, books and other forms of scholarship.

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

Best of Material World Blog: Art

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this new series of summer posts, we, the editors look back at the past 8 or so years that Material world Blog has been going and curate a series of “best of” themed post. Here, I link to what I consider to be some of the very best postings about art on the site.

In his post Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway Christopher Pinney presents a series of his own technicolour photographs, inspired by Ed Rucha’s 1963 series.

Jonathan Patkowski and Nicole Reiner unpack Alfred Barr’s infamous artist network diagram and unpack the neoliberal logics of the avant-garde as presented in the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction“.

Ryan Schram describes the tensions and identity around the speaker of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea trying to destroy the carvings evoking customary art and identity, made upon independence to decorate the new Parliament House.

In Museums Get the Best Gifts, Marcus Moore describes several gifts from Marcel Duchamp to collections in New Zealand.

Ross Hemera reviews Damien Skinner’s The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century.

Dan Perkel writes about The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on DeviantART

Fernando Dominguez Rubio looks at the conservation of modern art as a Material Ecology of Culture

A team of scholars from Leiden University examine Photographic Traditions in South African Popular Modernities

Jennifer Deger presents her collaborative exhibition about a Yolngu Christmas: Lights, Tinsel, Presence.

William Viney writes about the work of Mark Dion

Edmund Clark presents his work on secret detentions in the UK: Control Order House

Finally, in our most popular post ever, April Strickland discusses the case of Maori tattooing, appropriation, and Mike Tyson.(in the case of the film Hangover Part Two)


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.

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.

Nike’s Not-so-Pro Tattoo…

… and the continuing legacy of Native appropriations in American fashion.

By Emily McGoldrick (Independent Scholar, New York City) 

Image 1: Nike’s “Pro Tattoo” collection of women’s exercise apparel, before its discontinuation.

Image 1: Nike’s “Pro Tattoo” collection of women’s exercise apparel, before its discontinuation.


When Nike unveiled their Pro Tattoo line of women’s workout gear this summer, a wave of protest followed. The small collection included a sports bra, exercise tights, and a bodysuit decorated with the intricate black line patterns of traditional Samoan pe’a tattoos [Image 1]. Nike launched the garments at the end of July, and quietly pulled them from shelves and online retailers three weeks later. The company issued an apology that stated, “The Nike Tattoo Tech collection was inspired by tattoo graphics. We apologize to anyone who views this design as insensitive to any specific culture. No offense was intended.”

Continue reading

PhD Scholarships (2) for Inhabiting Buildings: Embedding Sustainability into RMIT Culture

Digital Ethnography Research Centre, School of Media and Communication and the Centre for Urban Research (Beyond Behaviour Change research program), School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

The Inhabiting Buildings project adopts an innovative participatory research methodology to map and promote change in the RMIT community to improve sustainability. It focuses on everyday social practices within the built environment to understand how resources are consumed, what role buildings and technologies play in shaping these processes, and where opportunities exist for social, cultural and organisational change. 

Two PhD scholarships (projects 6 and 7) are available for humanities/social science students working under the supervision of A/Professor Tania Lewis and Dr Yolande Strengers as part of the RMIT Greener Government Buildings programme. More information can be found at Also see the project description below. Note the closing date for applications is 31 October 2013.

Continue reading

It’s (im)material: Packaging, Social Media and Iconic Brands in the New Russia

Graham H. Roberts, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense,



The aim of this contribution is to contribute to the growing literature on material culture and nostalgia in Russia and Eastern Europe.  In particular, I should like to take up the central themes of two articles published recently on Material World by Makarenko and Borgerson (2009) and Glass (2012). I wish to build on these studies in two ways, however.  First, I intend to look at alcohol, at how certain post-Soviet Russian alcohol brands use packaging to appeal to consumers’ patriotism.  Second, I wish to draw parallels between the material culture of packaging on the one hand, and the immaterial culture of social media networks on the other.

It could be argued, of course, that packaging is not ‘material culture’ in the usual sense of the word.  In some sense it is a hybrid phenomenon, neither immaterial (like the brand), nor material (like the product: see Manning 2010). Torn between the ‘semiotic’ world of brand and the ‘functional’ world of the product (Manning, private comment), it is the crucial ‘commercial interface’ between brand and consumer (Heilbrunn and Barré 2012, 10).

On the contrary, we would maintain that packaging is indeed part of material culture in the sense described by Woodward: ‘In its popular scholarly usage, the term “material culture” is generally taken to refer to any material object (e.g. shoes, cup, pen) or network of material objects (e.g. house, car, shopping mall) that people perceive, touch, use, handle, carry out social activities within, use or contemplate’ (2007: 14).  Packages are indeed objects, since they are handled, and – especially in the cases which I shall be looking at – they are aesthetic objects designed to be contemplated (see for example Borgerson and Schroeder 2008).

Packaging in Russia has almost always been ideologically and politically loaded.  In her excellent book on Russian retailing from 1880 to 1930, Marjorie Hilton (2012) mentions the fact that in the late Imperial era, many Russian companies displayed the Romanov eagle on their labels. Later, in the 1920s, Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed sweet wrappers around such themes as industrialisation or the Red Army. The politicisation of chocolate wrappers continued throughout the Soviet era with, for example, the ‘New Moscow’ range of the 1960s (examples of Soviet and post-Soviet packaging design can be found here:  The product category where the Great Russian Past is most prominently displayed is not chocolate, however, but vodka (for a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Roberts 2013).  This is perhaps to be expected.  First, for Russians, vodka is not just ‘a pervasive mediator and sign of relations of sociability of all kinds’, as in neighbouring Georgia (Manning 2012, 183); it is the national drink par excellence.  Second, Kravets (2012, 363) makes the important observation that ‘the official ban on mass advertising [of vodka in today’s Russia] makes other techniques of branding, such as naming, labelling, and packaging, a primary mode of promotion for the industry.’ Third, vodka is an alcoholic beverage which tends to be relatively uniform in colour, smell and taste. To quote Hine (1995, 4), ‘it is no accident that vodka, the most characterless of spirits, has the highest profile packages’.  With over six hundred different vodkas on the Russian market, eye-catching Russian-oriented design can help a brand both establish legitimacy and differentiate itself from the competition. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many Russian vodka brands exploit iconographic Russian images in an attempt to sell themselves.

Capture d’écran 2013-04-29 à 23.37.14

It should be pointed out that politically charged references were generally rare on vodka labels produced during the Soviet period.  In the post-Soviet era, however, there are countless examples of ideologically loaded vodka labels, bottles and boxes.  When it comes to vodka packaging design in Russia today, there are few examples more impressive than ‘Legenda Kremlya’ (‘Legend of the Kremlin’).  This vodka is marketed as a premium brand, or rather as an ‘élite’ vodka, as the label itself tells us. Its long-necked bottle comes in a hollow black and gold box designed to resemble an imposing medieval manuscript (  When one opens the ‘manuscript’, the first thing one sees is the portrait of ‘Monk Isidore’ above the date ‘1430’, written in an ancient calligraphic style. As one leafs further through the pages of the ‘manuscript’, one learns all about how Isidore stumbled across the recipe for the first Russian vodka one night working alone in his cell in the monastery that once stood on the site of the modern-day Kremlin in Moscow – the ‘legend’ to which the vodka’s name refers. There is a reproduction of an ancient map of the Kremlin, as well as a story about the bottle itself, purportedly designed by an ‘unknown craftsman’ in the late eighteenth century. Last but not least, there is a brief account of how the makers of ‘Legend of the Kremlin’ vodka ‘miraculously’ stumbled across Isidore’s centuries-old recipe, and were thus able to revive this great tradition. In sum, the story behind this brand (con)fuses the origin of vodka and the centre of Russian political power; mythologizing the brand and sacralizing the State go hand in hand in Russia.

Continue reading