Analysis of “Essays in Material Culture”

Haltman Analysis

Audience: scholars and students

Prownian Analysis (by Jules Prown)

*This process is used for the study of history to help students become aware of the historical evidence in their environment. It allows for articulation of historical significance and its “production” (1). Ask: who made this? Why? How is it used? How was it used? What does it say about its culture?

*”All objects signify”, so we must ask “what does the object signify?,” “How expressively does the object signify?,” and ” what polarities does this object deal with?” What they say is just as important as how they say it (2). We must analyze the materials used to represent or enforce historical beliefs or practices. This allows us to develop “fruitful” questions and teaches us how to ask them. 

The Process

  1. Description—document details but remember to keep an eye on the big picture (ask: what do these details do for the big pictures?). It is best to write with “the flow of narrative” (3). A good description is rich with “nuanced vocabulary” written with an active voice (4). Ask: What is the object’s visual and physical effect in words?
  2. Deduction—Evaluate your emotional response in a similar fashion. Describe the reason you picked this piece and how its details make you feel. Ask: what about the object evokes these feelings? The point is to recognize the ways in which the object create its effect.
  3. Speculation— Entertain hypotheses about what your object signifies. Ask: what does it accomplish? What polarities does it represent and why?
  4. Research— Start asking questions and answer them using secondary research (primary would be your object). Document your journey and be creative with your research. Create an annotated bibliography.
  5. Interpretive Analysis
  • The process is subjective; No two individuals will interpret a given object in the same way. The point is to create an original interpretation- No one else should have been able to write this paper.
  • Do not forget to keep returning to the object.

“While only some of culture takes material form, the part that does records the shape and imprint of otherwise more abstract, conceptual, or even metaphysical aspects of that culture that they quite literally embody” (1)

Paraphrase: Objects are a physical analysis or representation of abstract or conceptual aspects of a culture, like a corset representing the importance of women having a thin waist at the time. Beauty over comfort.

“Select the object on which they wish to work, the thought being that some sort of significant sympathetic vibration may occur signaling the potential for that particular individual to uncover some significant meaning in that particular object” (2)

Paraphrase: The motivation the historian has to pick the object they pick in itself is a bias/analysis of the objects significant meaning and unique perception

“Material culture begins with a world of objects but takes place in a world of words” and “The medium in which we work as a cultural historian is language” (4)

Paraphrase: The only way we can describe an object is through words. The way we use words to describe the object invites bias and perception and our analysis relies on this unique perception.

-This language “effectively determines the bounds of possible interpretation.”  The language limits and explores interpretation, making the choice of words extremely important (4).




Prown, Jules David, and Kenneth Haltman. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000


Also see:

Prownian Analysis

What is a “thick description”?


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