Materiality and poverty

Taylor Erin (Canela Consulting)
Daniel Miller (University College, London)
Erin B. Taylor
Daniel Miller
Session slots:

Short abstract:

If materiality is integral to poverty, can poor people have positive relationships with materiality? This workshop critically explores the possibilities and limitations of material forms as vehicles for self-creation and social transformation among the poorest sectors of societies.

Long abstract:

A problem with ethnographies of poverty is that they may reduce the relationship of low income people with material culture largely to the expression of inequality as seen in their lack of income and possessions. Inadvertently this only serves to impoverish them further as we pay less attention to their cultural engagement with the material world than we would for less impoverished populations. But just like everyone else, 'poor' people use material forms to creatively construct their social identities and communities, and transform their socioeconomic situations. Indeed their relationship to homes, clothes and other material goods may be more complex and nuanced precisely because the range is more constrained. This workshop recognizes the stratifying effects of materiality, while rethinking how poverty and the poor are defined and encouraging new ways of viewing poverty and materiality. We suggest that a more balanced view can achieve three things: 1) illustrate the actual relationships that poor people have with material forms on their own terms, not just in relation to poverty; 2) demonstrate some of the capacities that material forms provide to poor people to combat their social stratification; 3) taking these capacities into account, illuminate the limits that poverty places on the use of material forms for sociocultural production. Taking both capacities and limitations into account, we explore the possibility that materiality may have a heightened importance for poor people because, in possession of fewer resources, they may value them more highly, and depend upon them more heavily, than wealthier social groups.