The Planners Guide to Visual Thinking #3


Written By: Matt Baker

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Getting more insight from Material Culture

Welcome to the 3rd instalment of the Planners’ Guide to Visual Thinking. In this issue we introduce ways in which planners can utilise Anthropological theories of Material Culture.

Developing fresh thinking and insight for creative development is a responsibility the whole agency shares. Yet the buck stops with planners. There are many stones that planners can look under to help uncover new thinking around different target consumers. Historically, this has tended to come from psychology, i.e. how we think – our needs, motivations and desires and how those can be met by different products, brands and communications.

Whilst this is vital, it can represent a fairly narrow way of understanding people. If we are not careful it can lead us to treat people as isolated ‘brains in vats’, where all the important stuff goes on inside our heads. In the process, we risk missing not only the social relations and cultural meanings that define the way we think, but the way those relationships are expressed in the world around us. We use the world around us to give us clues as to what we should be doing in certain situations, and we use objects both to remind us and help us to be ourselves.

Material culture, a subset of anthropology, comes from the perspective that the stuff that surrounds us is important to take into account. The power of material culture can be summed up by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who said “the mind is a metaphor of the world of objects.” From his point of view, most of our ideas and the meanings that inform them exist ‘out there’ in the material world rather than in the ‘in here’ of our minds. Quite a radical idea, but an interesting one to work with, as it opens up some avenues for a different way of thinking about things.

Exterior of Modern Home Garage and Cars

Now of course, once you start throwing French philosophers into the mix it can all start to feel be a bit intangible. Theory is great but it’s often hard to know how it can be used on a day-to-day level. To help you think more practically, we’ve suggested 4 ways in which Material Culture can be utilised within consumer research and insight generation.

1. Symbolic representation

In a research project, you could ask the participants to show you one of their material possessions that represents a specific area of interest. That could be a more general topic, e.g. their past, present or future, or it could be more specific, e.g. something that symbolises their relationship with money, cleanliness, weight loss, sport motivation… anything.  Then ask them to tell that object’s story and its deeper connections with their ownership. You’ll find you can get to a more personal place if there’s something more meaningful to talk through. It will open people up and help provide a more fertile ground for insight generation.

2. Object hunting

Rather than consumers offering specific objects, you can be the one doing the hunting and thinking. If you have access to someone’s material world, use the opportunity to hunt for material culture that you feel connects to the subject matter at hand. For example, we recently carried out work for Coca-Cola, looking into the nature and drivers of performance amongst young athletes. We spent a day with each respondent, photographing their lives, where they live, where they hang out with friends and where they train and participate in sport. We photographed anything and everything that related to performance along the way, before collating it all together across all respondents to look for themes across the whole set. It helped provide a deeper understanding of how immediate environments can impact upon athletes’ motivation levels.

3. Curated spaces

We curate belongings in certain environments to tell desired stories about ourselves. And these spaces can be decoded if you know what you’re looking for. You can start by asking people to tell a story of the room they’re in; taking a wide photograph will then allow you to deconstruct the space at a later date.

The image below shows an example in action. It’s from a recent BAMM project for HSBC; a photograph of a woman’s flat in Paris, through which she could reveal her past. A literal story emerged, running clockwise around her living room. It helped describe her childhood through old books and musical scores; through to her life as a student and the paintings she purchased; and on to her life-changing trip to Africa (where she met her future husband), represented by the poster right in the middle of the room. It ends and at the cabinet in the far right-hand corner of the room where the objects from her current life and the pictures of her children reside. There is so much that is being both deliberately and unconsciously told through the objects she has on display.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 17.52.33

4. Objects in the wild

To gather a broader read on where we’re at culturally, it’s often useful to cast the net out in the broadest way. For example, on a research project on ideals around body weight and size, we could hit the streets to photograph the media, how shops sell certain products, and how the role of fashion is influenced by current societal trends. The idea is to get a broad cultural sweep of imagery surrounding the topic. From there we can start to sift through the imagery, to look for interesting clues that can support or stimulate our thinking.

This is a start point. We really hope you find it useful. Below is a useful bibliography to keep the material culture fires burning. If you want to find out more about BAMM’s take on how we use the theory, drop us a note to

1. Understanding Material Culture – Ian Woodward

2. Stuff –  Danny Miller

3. Outline of a Theory of Practice – Pierre Bourdieu

4. Aramis, or the Love of Technology – Bruno Latour

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