material culture’s project

Our lives do not have their meanings without objects. If we remove objects from photos and memories, it seems we are living in another space. From the beginning till the end of a day, we encounter many objects that accompany us in different works. Some of them are necessary (for example; mobile phone, credit card, key) and the other represent in special rituals. So, because of this continuous encounter, we have forgotten how important role the objects make in the changing cultural process. In an evolutionary line, “homo habilis” with two million years’ precedent, overtake “homo symbolicus” with only 150 thousand years.

Objects range from discrete things such as a pencil to complex ones like air planes. In authors believe, home is one of the critical contexts that we can explore objects in it as a unique setting for people-object relations. This tendency springs from two sources; first, home is a place where most people live in it physically and emotionally, and also, it is seen as a substantial monetary investment. Home is the most central and social area in a society. Second, home represents social and individual values.

Sociologists and political economist have historically concerned with the material culture and consumption broadly (Goffman, 1951; Marx, 1867; Simmel, 1904; Sombart, 1913; Veblen, 1899). The recent interest in material objects of consumption is due to modern consumerism because consumption processes are essential in material basis and cultural meaning of objects (Appadurai, 1986; Douglas and Isherwood, 1979; Miller, 1987; Riggins, 1994). However, post-structuralism theory, and especially Michel Foucault makes us notice the objects (guillotine, uniform) that try to control people and show social power.  Domestic anthropology is associated object’s life history with family and culture. The field of material culture studies incorporates a range of scholarly inquiry into the uses and meaning of objects.

Material culture’s matter

Cultural, social, political and economic changes during the current century in Iran, is the main reason to conduct this research. Iranians experienced broad shifts in the last century in different ways that had profound effects on their lifestyle. At the beginning of the century, the population was 12 million in which 60 percent lived in countries and less than 15 percent habited in cities. Tehran as a capital of Iran only had a population about 200 thousand. Life expectancy was 30 years, and infant mortality rate was 500 (deaths/ 1000 lives birth). However,100 years later, the population of the country grew up to around 80 million in which 74 percent lives in cities and Tehran became a metropolitan with more than 8 million residents. Life expectancy raised to 70 years, and infant mortality rate decreased to 28 (per 1000) (Table 1).

Table 1

Year Population (million) Urban Rural nomadic
۱۹۱۲ ۱۲ ۱۵ ۶۰ ۲۵
۲۰۱۵ ۸۰ ۷۴ ۲۳ ۳

At the start of 20th century, total roads in the whole country were less than 340 kilometers. Only the king had a motor vehicle and the people transported with horses and mules. There was no electricity or gas piping. However, at the end of the century, almost all of the cities all around the country, had electricity, there were refrigerator and television in the most of the houses. There were more than 94 thousand kilometers roads and 3 million cars travel in the country.

At the earliest century, five percent was literate, but at the end, this rate became 84 percent. While historically education had been forbidden for women, but at the moment more than half of the students in high education are girls. All the factors mentioned above changed the residences at the one side. At the other side in 1950s, houses had a big yard, and the rooms were around the yard that extended family lived in them. Kitchen and restroom were still at the corner of the yard and was far from the rooms. Increasing the value of urban land made the houses smaller and inevitably changed their shapes to rectangular form. The lands in urban areas became very expensive because of immigration phenomena toward the major cities, and yards became smaller than before which was the most important and functional part of the home. From the beginning of the 1970s, young families habited in units and apartments, and so a new lifestyle was created. Now, kitchen and rest room are completely inside the houses. As long as, core family was replaced with extended one, all the equipment and furniture should be exactly provided before marriage day.

The forms of social panics changed too. At the beginning of the century, people frightened brigandage, starvation, wild animals, plague and different kind of maladies. At the end of it, people are worried about unemployment, insurance, and entrance to the universities, housing, and air pollution and so on.   Is Simmel argue, we have faced with “cultural tragedy” because the material culture changed faster than subjective culture, like open kitchens, balcony toward the street and rest room and bath room in the same place, that all of them are unfamiliar for Iranian cultures.

Besides changing the house skeleton, furniture experienced fundamental transformations either. According to the foreign tourist’s view, prominent Iranian houses were private places to live, but after the economic changes and massive national revenue from oil export and mass import products in the 1960s, different objects entered to homes and filled the houses with luxury furniture. The objects were introduced to the Iranian lifestyle was only show off of social status function. For example, although, the sofa was located in the corner of the meeting room, everybody sat on the floor and rested in front of the backrest (Poshty in Persian word) (photo 1). Another example is the dining table which was placed in the corner, but family members spread a tablecloth (Sofreh in persian word) on the floor for eating meals .

Moreover, at this time the value of a house is not reasonable for low-income people and buying their own home is almost impossible for middle classes. So, at the moment most of the families are a tenant and have to change their homes every year and sometimes less than it. There are not any special houses for low-class families in Iran like European countries, and the Iranian government has no surveillances on rents. The rental contract is for one year and the price of rent is more than basic salary. As a result, relocation for all these furniture annually makes many costs, and it would be worst when there is no elevator to carry cargo in the apartments. This situation is suffering, and it also has severe health effects for workers. Iranian houses are not furnished and everything transport with family. In an Iranian saying: “The total damage of two relocations is equal a whole fire”.

In the past, if women spend their times at home with family, nowadays after increasing their social and cultural capital, from one hand the home does not satisfy their needs, and on the contrary, there are not enough job positions for them. Social sphere with legal (like forced hijab) and cultural (not to be outside at late night) limitation, could not make up the lacks at homes. As a result, we are faced the families who try hard to have a home, but they are unsatisfied.

We have loosed multifunctional space and Multi-Purpose Furniture (Alaeddin in Persian word) (e.g. lamp which warmed home, had light and cooked on it, photo 3) and now we have Specialization of space and unique purpose furniture. For instance, in cooling and warming system, changing material culture made us consumerism (deprive circulation the air make necessity the use of cooler). Different reports show high energy consumption in Iranian lifestyle these days compare to other countries. However, they ignore changing the material culture which leads this Thanksgiving culture to high consume.

There is no plan in National Media about material culture. TV series do not show a variety of house form, and different design to less energy consumption when they narrate a story. This field is not concerned any institute even social scientists. There are a few inquiries related material culture. There isn’t any connection between furniture producers, families and material culture researchers.


Dowry (Jahizieh in Persian word) means fundamental (durable and non-durable) things which are needed to start an ordinary life, and most of the time it is on the bride. Sometimes the wife family make a list of these things and the older relatives sign it (Sourat Jahizieh or Pashenameh in Persian word). It calls “Dowry list”, and it is a good document to start this project. By reference to the old dowry list, we can see the objects were functional and limited. There was nothing just with aesthetic function and if aesthetic items were about the cover things with needlework that showed women’s art. Today the objects in dowry are broadly innumerable, without regarding economic situation of bride family and the skills of a young lady.

These objects show social, cultural and economic capital and the family believe: “full dowry prepare respect and confidence for bride”. So, the family try to show off the economic capital and even the parents have to borrow some money to buy them. Dowry is a good point to start this project because it reflects social situations where a man and a woman started their ordinary life. For example, during the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988), the dowry was very different and lack of the energy made family to used old-fashioned things. We considered urban middle-class family who experienced different changes in material culture.

This tradition had a long history in Iranian culture and changed over the time. This is important for parents because they started saving money and gold for their daughters when she is only a child and buy some objects and store them till her marriage. There is a women ceremony (it calls Patakhty) after marriage that the other families bring the presents for the bride and see her dowry (it calls Jahazbiny). In fact, this is a panopticon for spending bride family and have much marginalisation. Dowry is a performance of economic and symbolic capital. Considering the high rate of divorce in recent decades which occur even under one-year marriage, dowry takes back to bride family, and it lost its value, and most of the time there is no place to keep it.

Take a look at different virtual networks (e.g. Telegram) there are types of dowry photos in performance. There is some department store which uses this item for advertising: “Buy all of the dowries from here” (even in contrast the reality). At the beginning of the century, take all of the objects was not bride duty. For example, the groom was responsible for making bed sets, but now sometimes woman have some objects that do not know its function (coffee maker, fruit dryer, etc).

Economic changings after first Pahlavi (1925-1941) and trading with other countries, add some objects to Iranian culture (like a sofa). The cities growing up and most of the families became core family who needs more objects at the beginning.

Some milestones change the objects. For instance, birth, a child has some new objects, or buying own house is another condition to change furniture. When the kids grow up, especially the daughters, for keeping the honors, the visible furniture should be modified.

In a team work[1] with our social science students, we are interviewing with women whose marriage was in 60 years ago. Deep interview and narrative analysis help us to understand five basic aspects of one object: full definition, its functions, its place at home, the ways to keep, clean and safe it and finally its destiny. We also use photos from private collections, paintings and advertisements in this research. Which objects in dowry do not have a function? Moreover, why they stay in dowry? What is their status? Answering such questions could reveal apparent and latent values in the society. This research will show us an accurate image of home (fixes-feature space in Edward Hall’s word) and its relation with furniture (semi fixed-feature space).

We are going to analysis changes material culture and consumption in urban families from women’s point of view. Exploring how lifestyle has changed that there are so many difficulties in a broad range, from energy consumption to family and neighborhood relationships. Finally this research has several goals such as aware media to have correct notices according to current family needs, which have different cultures and economic levels. By using workshop programs, make the women social action in this field that they could reflect their views in NGO’s which related to material culture. It seems to narrate cultural transformations that causes economic problems in families and postponed marriages, aware us to have an emic and etic perspective to our culture.

[۱] My colleague Zahra Ghaznavian, master degree of anthropology, domestic space


Ian Woodward, 2007, Understanding Material Culture, Sage Publication

Abrahamian, Ervand, 2008, History of Modern Iran, Ney Publication


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