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2020/21 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

MODL3600 Material Cultures and Cultures of Consumption

20 creditsClass Size: 30

Module manager: Dr Alessio Baldini

Taught: Semester 1 (Sep to Jan) View Timetable

Year running 2020/21

Pre-requisite qualifications


This module is approved as a discovery module

Module summary

This module explores material cultures — the arrays of things that make up people’s lives — in all their diversity across the globe, from past and present. We will examine critically the interactions between objects and people, and the background cultures that frame these interactions. We will focus on how consumer cultures differ from earlier cultures of consumption, and on how modern societies across the world have been affected by and have responded to the emergence and spread of consumerism. For we need to understand the long global history that led us here, if we want to imagine an environmentally and socially sustainable future.


This module aims at introducing students to a variety of approaches to the study of material culture and cultures of consumption. It will give students the opportunity to explore material cultures and cultures of consumption in all their diversity across time and space and help them understand how societies and social groups across the globe have been affected by and have responded to the rise of consumer culture.

Learning outcomes
On completion of this module, students should be able to:
1. Engage critically with a variety of approaches to the study of material culture
2. Assess the arguments brought forward by those who embrace and those who criticise consumer culture
3. Reflect critically on consumer culture from a historical and comparative perspective
4. Find, evaluate, and analyse a wide range of primary and secondary sources
5. Conduct independent research on a case study and communicate the research results effectively in written form


In the past few decades, globalisation has brought the market economy and consumer culture to countries that had been previously out of their reach. Today, nearly the entire world population lives in consumer societies or is being affected by their environmental, economic, and cultural impact. For most of us buying and consuming stuff to sustain one’s own livelihood and wellbeing feels natural. And yet, we understand very little of how consumer culture functions, and we know even less about how it emerged and spread across the globe.

This module will introduce students to a variety of cultures of consumption and material cultures. Our approach will be historical and comparative. The first section of the module will give students the historical backdrop against which to understand the rise of modern consumer societies. In this section, we will be looking at cultures of consumption from premodern civilizations, and at how objects circulated and what meaning they had for the people who acquired and used them.

In the second section of the module, we will examine critically the various ways in which peoples and countries across the world have responded to the transition to consumerism. We will explore and evaluate how different societies or social groups have been changed by, have resisted or adopted consumer culture. We will see how some people yearned for and embraced consumerism as a way to break with their past, whereas others criticised consumerism, or moulded consumer culture to preserve and project into the future their local histories, cultural values, and social norms. We will see how the result of this uneven process, which is rife with conflicts and contradictions, has resulted in the world’s many consumer cultures.

Throughout the module, we will be looking at case studies from different historical periods and places, from antiquity to the present, from Western as well as non-Western countries. We understand now that consumer societies face serious environmental and social challenges, from global warming to the rise of inequality. And we need to understand the long global history that led us here, if we want to envision a sustainable and more equitable future.

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours180.00
Total Contact hours20.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

Students will need to do the preparatory readings for lectures and seminars and prepare to participate actively in class discussion.
Under the guidance of their project tutor, they will need to identify the case study for their independent project, conduct research on primary and secondary sources, design, and write their independent project report.
Students will also need to read, take notes, and revise for the exam.
Preparation for class: 3 hours x 20 = 60
Researching and working on the independent project: 72 hours
Exam revision: 48 hours

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Students will receive formative feedback regularly in lectures and seminars. Student progress will be monitored by their contribution to class discussion; in this respect, seminars will play a crucial role. Personalised formative feedback will be provided by project tutors during 2 consultations (30 minutes each) to be set in Week 2 and Week 6. Under the guidance of the module leader, students will choose their project tutor among the members of staff teaching on the module. Consultations with project tutors will be devoted to the design of the independent project. This student opportunity is critical to the structure of the module, as it will allow students to work in depth on one topic of their choice — maximising flexibility and inclusivity —, while being able to contextualise their case study thanks to the wider and longer view on the subject provided by the module as a whole.
Guidance on exam preparation will be given throughout the module. In the last week of teaching (Week 11), a particular emphasis will be given to exam preparation

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Report3000-word independent project report70.00
Literature Review1000-word Literature Review30.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Normally resits will be assessed by the same methodology as the first attempt, unless otherwise stated

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 10/08/2020 08:42:52


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