Objects serve to comfort us

August 23rd, 2010 by | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Anthropological field work is not always about digging up dirt and studying objects from thousands of years ago.  The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller takes the reader on a journey to examining objects of today’s world from homes of people in London.  As I read this non-fiction literature, I felt as if I was part of the field work, thinking about the objects that Miller studied.  Miller’s insight of the objects provides me a new perspective of how I should study objects.  McDonald’s Happy Meal toys ensures Marina, a resident on Stuart Street, a street in London where Miller did his field work, has quality time with her children and is the key to developing her kids’ imagination.  Malcolm, another resident on Stuart Street, calls his laptop his home:

“The nearest thing to a real home for Malcolm is found in a rather unexpected place.  It is his laptop.  This is the place within which he leaves himself and finds himself, creates order, tidies up, furnishes, dusts and returns to for comfort.”

Food is more than just an object to eat, but can also give a message of love.  Jorge, a Brazilian, receives panettone, an Italian dish, from his mother in Brazil every year during Christmas and Miller states:

“…to be honest, it doesn’t quite taste and smell as a freshly baked panettone.  But it certainly tastes of a mother’s love, and it is still very gratefully received by Jorge.”

I always thought McDonald’s Happy Meal toys were just pieces of junk; however, after reading about how they’re not merely plastic toys, I reminisce my childhood time when my dad took his time out of his busy work schedule to take me to McDonald’s where we enjoyed our father-daughter moments.  After reading the passage about how laptop can be considered a ‘home,’ I realize that because my laptop comes with me wherever I travel, I’m always at ‘home’ because everyone in my family and my friends can contact me easily via e-mail, Skype, or Facebook. While my mother is not the best cook in the world, coming home to eat her home cooked meal is always wonderful because I can feel her love.

On top of learning about the relationship between the objects and humans, I was provided with a cultural insight of residents of London.  Like in many other major cities, many residents are transplants who have their own unique lifestyle.



September 12, 2010 at 7:13 am

To be honest anthropological fieldwork is NEVER about “digging up dirt and studying objects from thousands of years ago” – what you are referring to is called archaeology…


September 12, 2010 at 10:48 am

Jenny –

I respectfully disagree. There are some anthropologists who do ‘dig up dirt.’ When anthropologists examine objects they find from the ground, they study the cultural, social, and material aspects of human beings. Archaeologists study the history of the artifacts. In fact, there are many highly regarded universities who offer degrees in anthropology and archaeology combined because these two subjects do integrate.


September 13, 2010 at 9:32 am


Yes there are some anthropologists who ‘dig up dirt’ (though not really literally) – such as those studying the cultural life of garbage. But these are only a handful of anthropologists specialising in such topics.

Anthropology as a discipline is in no way inherently about, and is not defined by “digging up dirt”. This is what you suggested when you wrote that “Anthropological field work is not always about digging up dirt and studying objects from thousands of years ago. ” The use of ‘is not always’ implies that MOST anthropology is indeed about digging up dirt & studying ancient objects. Which is not true at all.

In your response you didn’t address my point that anthropology is NEVER about “studying objects from thousands of years ago”. That really is the purview of archaeology which studies such ancient material remains in order to understand PAST human cultures.

When socio-cultural anthropology and archaeology do overlap it is when anthropologists study things like garbage. But again, this does not constitute archaeology because these are contemporary objects. But this is still a very small part of the discipline of anthropology, most of which is much like Daniel Miller’s work in this book which is not, as you are trying to suggest, an anomaly in anthropology.
One big difference between anthropology and archaeology is fieldwork, the defining methodology of anthropology, which is NEVER about studying ancient objects and very rarely about digging anything up..

The joint study of anthropology and archaeology in some universities does not proove that both disciplines are one and the same. They are studied together because both look at issues of human culture, but again in very very different ways. There are also many joint degrees of anthropology and sociology or anthropology and linguistics; but this does not suggest that anthropology and sociology/linguistics are the same – they are just other disciplines also studying humans.


September 13, 2010 at 11:47 am

Jenny –

Thank you for your comment. I didn’t intentionally mean to state that anthropology is ‘ALWAYS’ about ‘digging up dirt and studying objects from thousands of years ago.’ Perhaps I should have worded my first sentence better; however, that was not the point of my post. The point of my post is to acknowledge the readers that reading “Comfort of Things” gave me a greater understanding of how to study the cultural and social aspects of the contemporary objects.

I do acknowledge that anthropology is a broad subject that includes many sub-categories such as Biological Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Social Anthropology, and Digital Anthropology and that studying cultural and social aspects of the objects from the past is only a small part of anthropology.

Jenny, would you please mind telling me your background? Are you a professor or an anthropologist?

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