The study of cultural objects and their materiality has moved to the center of cultural sociology. This review synthesizes the work of this third wave of cultural sociology, demonstrating how insights from the study of cultural objects and their mechanisms of meaning-making deepen our theories of culture in action, culture and cognition, and the production and reception of culture. After placing this third wave in the historical context of cultural sociology, this review clarifies three concepts: cultural objects, material culture, and materiality. This review then makes a series of interventions around meaning-making and action based on insights from scholarship on cultural objects and materiality. First, it advocates attention to qualities in addition to symbols. Then it examines how object affordances constrain and enable meaning and use and how objects have material agency. Then the role of cultural objects in stabilizing and destabilizing meaning and social arrangements is discussed. Finally, cultural power—whether and how cultural objects shape belief and behavior—is considered through the orienting concepts of figure and ground.

One cannot account for the effects of culture without understanding cultural objects. Griswold (1986, p. 5) defines cultural objects as “shared significance embodied in form,” meaningful expressions that are materially perceptible by others. This includes what we usually think of as material objects (e.g., artifacts in the world like books, tables, or cars) and people's bodily expressions (e.g., a whispered phrase, a hand gesture, or a wink). As these are all perceptible, they are material. As externalized manifestations of ideas, cultural objects make it possible to share meaning and therefore culture. I take cultural sociology's task as explaining the creation and influence of shared meaning and how those meanings shape action. Unless humans develop telepathic powers, people cannot share meaning without assigning meaning to cultural objects, making new objects, and circulating them.

Despite this foundational importance of objects, there is a humility to things that leads us to miss their influence (Miller 2005). Sociological accounts of culture and action are impoverished without accounting for the role of objects in our explanations (Latour 1992). We off-load work onto objects to replace human effort and then forget how those objects have come to shape behavior. We ignore cultural objects’ centrality to action until they break down or misbehave. By taking objects for granted, we treat them as static constants in our analysis. Instead, if we view objects as partners or collaborators in action, we can see how objects bring dynamism to our explanations. People collaborate with objects; objects are our imperfect but essential partners in action that require work from us so that objects can work with us. I call objects imperfect partners because they require a great deal of stabilization to act predictably. Just as no representation perfectly captures or communicates an idea (Becker 2007), cultural objects can hold meaning for only so long, until they require repair and stabilization—else their meaning changes (McDonnell 2010) or they cease being a cultural object altogether when they degrade beyond recognition (Domínguez Rubio 2016).

Arguments for the importance of studying objects abound (see Benzecry & Domínguez Rubio 2018, Hodder 2012, McDonnell 2010, Mukerji 1994a, Preda 1999, Woodward 2007), and the case for material agency is well established (Barad 2003, Cerulo 2009, Gell 1998, Latour 2005, Pickering 2010). This review bridges this work on objects, materiality, and material culture with work in cultural sociology, to develop a framework that accounts for the role of cultural objects in sociological explanations of action. Scholars of materiality and cultural sociologists need each other. Cultural sociologists who rely on people-side explanations can learn much of the contingencies of matter from scholars of materiality and material culture. Attention to materiality moves us away from treating objects as static carriers of symbols and inert sites of people's projections to viewing objects as contingent participants in meaning-making and action (Jerolmack & Tavory 2014). Theorists of material agency and object-side explanations for action often gloss over how meaning and interpretation operate as mechanisms of action. A more complete theory of culture in action requires synthesizing the insights from cultural sociology and scholarship on objects and materiality.

Tracing how objects and materiality shape meaning-making can offer more robust accounts of action. I propose the following path, which structures this review: A focus on object qualities orients us to potential meanings and lines of action afforded by those objects. Interactions among object qualities and people's embodied cognitive capacities shape and change agentic possibility. Objects, then, have cultural power both by stabilizing meaning-making and social arrangements and by the inverse—destabilizing routines and opening up new lines of action. Objects have power through various direct and indirect mechanisms, which I discuss through the lenses of figure and ground. By centering these insights from the study of cultural objects and mechanisms of meaning-making, we deepen theories of culture in action, culture and cognition, and the production and reception of culture. Throughout, I discuss condoms and guns as cases to illuminate these insights.1 Before boldly charging down this path, let me briefly review where we have been.


Objects have been central to the development of cultural sociology. The study of culture in American sociology coalesced when objects, especially art objects, became the central focus of study. Seeking to distinguish between humanities and social scientific approaches, sociologists’ analyses of objects emphasized social dimensions through the production and reception of culture: how institutional logics and processes shaped the production and circulation of objects (Becker 1982, Peterson 1997) or how belonging to particular groups constrains how people interpret objects (Griswold 1987, Halle 1993, Radway 1991). Despite this focusing effect of art as a case, sociologists of culture were inhibited in their analysis of objects themselves (Wolff 1992). Much of this early work studied art objects because they gave access to the human systems of production and audience interpretations. The objects themselves were often an afterthought except in some exemplary cases where object qualities came to the fore (Becker 1982, Berezin 1994, Cerulo 1995, Griswold 2000, Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz 1991). This focus on the production and reception of objects dominated sociological research on culture for the better part of two decades. Thus, this first wave of cultural sociology relied on objects, but object-centered explanations were rarely foregrounded. Objects primarily served as access points to explain institutionalized systems of cultural production or group interpretation and reception patterns.

Starting in the late 1980s, the second wave of cultural sociology increasingly directed attention to internalized cognitive schemas, practices, and cultural structures (Alexander 2003, Bourdieu 1977, DiMaggio 1997, Lizardo & Strand 2010, Patterson 2014, Swidler 1986, Vaisey 2009) in an effort to explain meaning and action. However, within sociology, the shift toward cognition and internalized meaning systems relegated objects as subordinate to the study of ideas (Domínguez Rubio 2014). For much of this second-wave sociology of culture work, cultural objects were carriers of cultural structures or markers of cognitive outcomes, not actors in their own right. Cultural objects were treated as data—evidence of cultural structures and cognitive processes—but not as things with causal power. The culture in action tradition emphasized how internalized culture (in the head/body) shapes people's choice of action, both in the sense of what interpretive schemas and actions a person has at their disposal and how people select among these to act. Swidler's intervention into theories of action was to argue that culture influences action not by articulating ends but by giving people capacities for action: “Culture equips persons for action both by shaping their internal capacities and by helping them bring those capacities to bear in particular situations” (Swidler 2001, p. 72). Cognitive approaches have improved sociological accounts of action by emphasizing how schemas and embodied skills shape these capacities (Boutyline & Soter 2021, DiMaggio 1997, Ignatow 2007, Wood et al. 2018). However, cultural sociology has yet to sufficiently grapple with how objects make possible and shape people's capacities for action. The time has come to bring objects into the explanation.

We need an approach that synthesizes the theoretical advances on objects outside of sociology with the excellent work on cultural objects within the discipline. Rich accounts of objects and action have flourished in adjacent fields, including anthropological and archeological studies of material culture (Appadurai 1986, Gell 1998, Ingold 2007, Miller 2005), ecological psychology's theory of object affordances (Gibson 1979), and debates about the agency of objects among scholars of science and technology studies (Latour 2009, Pickering 2010, Pinch & Bijker 1984). While some pioneering cultural sociologists incorporated these groundbreaking insights from other fields back into their sociological work, breathing new life into the study of material objects as important sites of culture (Mukerji 1994a, DeNora 2000, Molotch 2003), only recently has the cultural sociology of objects, materiality, and material culture flourished. This third wave of cultural sociology takes seriously the importance of explaining how objects and their material qualities shape meaning and action, productively bridging work on material agency with the study of meaning.


In this section, I clarify conceptual ambiguities in the study of cultural objects, materiality, and material culture.

What Is a Cultural Object?

Let us begin with one of cultural sociology's touchstone concepts, the cultural object. Griswold's (1986, p. 5) definition of a cultural object as “shared significance embodied in form” has stood the test of time and anchored generations of sociologists’ work. Implicit in this definition is the idea that cultural objects are dual and relational. By dual, I suggest that cultural objects are simultaneously cognitive (i.e., significance—ideas embodied schematically) and material (i.e., form—ideas embodied in a medium). These cognitive and material instantiations of cultural objects are then relational in that they are deeply intertwined and contingent upon each other, and meanings converge in the relations among people and shared experience with objects in the world.

What Is Meant by Shared Significance?

What is shared significance? For Griswold, significance refers to symbols that denote or connote meaning for people. More than just significance, a cultural object is significant if it enrolls people into an “extended set of meanings” (Griswold 1986). To be cultural, such meanings must be shared—not just personally significant. There are degrees of sharedness and significance. People may recognize or name an object but not understand its meaning (McDonnell et al. 2017b). This line between personal and cultural significance is complicated by Lizardo's (2017) recent distinction between personal and public culture. Personal significance of an object may still be cultural in the sense that people's personal culture is shaped by shared interactions with a world of objects and people. When are meanings that emerge from personal culture individual versus shared? A child's toy rabbit may become personally meaningful because of the unique personal experiences shared with that rabbit and the imaginative work done to bring it to life. Another person would not have intuited just by looking at the rabbit that his name is Snickerdoodle or that the child imagines that he is a farmer. Lizardo's argument makes room for understanding idiosyncratic interpretations of objects as cultural because personal culture is a product of enculturation. Even if someone cannot guess the name or imagined backstory by simply looking at the toy rabbit, they can recognize the acts of naming and imaginative play as familiar cultural forms. The source of meaning (i.e., content and/or form) and degree of sharedness (i.e., how much overlap is there between people in the meanings and comprehensibility of the object) are important to consider. Personal significance can be analyzed as cultural, but the analyst needs to be clear what is not cultural. In this case, the form is cultural, but those meanings that are not intuitive givens to our cultural peers are personal. If a child's interpretation of a toy rabbit is that it is great tinder for a fire, while technically comprehensible, this is probably beyond what people might reasonably interpret or expect in most situations.

Form: Cultural Objects as Materially Perceptible

For culture to be shared, it must be externalized in forms both perceivable and comprehensible to others. Importantly, Griswold's idea of “embodied in form” extends beyond what material culture scholars refer to as “artifacts” and the distinction between material and nonmaterial objects. Auslander (2012), for instance, limits material culture to those objects one can touch or taste, emphasizing tangibility over visuality or aurality. In so doing, Auslander distinguishes between violins and concertos, viewing concertos as abstract and untouchable. While an emphasis on artifacts has been productive for material culture scholars—especially approaches to material culture grounded in archeology—such distinctions are too narrow for cultural sociologists. Griswold's definition treats speech as a cultural object, allowing us to assess how the same idea communicates and circulates meaning differently through speech versus printed text. Given that philosophy lectures, Netflix's algorithmic TV recommendations, and a mime performance can all be sensed and communicate meaning, the question then becomes how the qualities of similar objects shape meaning and action in patterned ways. Griswold's (1987, p. 1079) emphasis on the “perceptual apparatus of those who experience the object” suggests that spoken folktales or a performance of a play count as objects even as they are not artifacts. The crucial point is that a cultural object must be materially perceptible to the senses (McDonnell 2010)—cultural ideas made manifest in external form.

Types and Tokens: Cultural Objects as Cognitive and Material

Cultural objects are dual—both cognitively internalized shared significance and externalized in material form. How should we make sense of this in practical terms? When we study cultural objects, we should analyze them both as types and tokens (Peirce 1992) and be cognizant of the dynamic relation between them (Taylor et al. 2019). Types are internalized cognitive, embodied, schematic categories based on prior experience with a wide array of objects—the category of “gun.” Tokens are unique material instantiations of objects in the world—my father's Secret Service–issued revolver. The type “gun” may have many diverse tokens in the world: AR-19s, hunting rifles, nerf guns, clay pigeon shotguns, sniper rifles, guns in a video game, toy guns with red tips, or 3D-printed guns. Each new token we confront in the world requires us to reflect on and refine our fuzzy understanding of what counts as “gun” as type. This suggests a couple of things. First, cultural objects as types are rarely perfectly stable—new tokens with slight variations force us to restabilize or revise the type. Second, the sharedness of the cognitive type imperfectly overlaps with cultural peers because people experience different sets of tokens. Cultural objects are always, then, relations between types, tokens, and the interactions (among people, objects, and groups) that hone, converge, or diverge our understandings of them. Cultural objects as types presuppose conventions that are either adhered to or challenged in the production of tokens (Becker 1982). Encountering new tokens in the world leads people to maintain or revise types, meaning materiality serves as a mechanism for stability and cultural change (Taylor et al. 2019). Types and tokens are mutually constitutive of cultural objects and inherently relational and dynamic. To have robust theories of action, we need to take this seriously and synthesize research on cognition and material objects.

Material Culture and Materiality

With all this talk of material, what is the distinction between material culture and materiality? As a shorthand, material culture research examines what people do with objects, and studies of materiality examine what objects do with or for people. Studies of material culture tend to examine the systems of meaning that stabilize around specific categories of objects, usually artifacts such as vinyl records (Bartmanski & Woodward 2015) or blue jeans (Miller & Woodward 2012). Resembling work on fan cultures, subcultures, and consumption, material culture scholarship emphasizes audiences coming to shared meanings and using objects as sites of expression (Douglas & Isherwood 1979, Hebdige 1988) and contestation (DeSoucey 2016). This research interrogates how people engage in attachment and valuation (Miller 2009), distinguish insiders and outsiders through boundary work (Wohl 2015), and creatively “poach” and repurpose objects (Jenkins 1992), or the identity work made possible through collecting or preserving objects' traditions (Hebdige 1983, Jordan 2015). A material culture approach to guns might examine gun culture—how pockets of social life focally organize around guns, from militias to gun clubs, to paintball and rifle hunting, to gun politics and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Conversely, studies of materiality (Domínguez Rubio 2014, 2020; Greenland 2016; Griswold et al. 2013; Mangione 2016; McDonnell 2010; Miller 2005; Mukerji 1994a; Zubrzycki 2013) focus on the material qualities of objects and the contingent ways those qualities shape the meaning and use of those objects. In this sense, meanings are not overdetermined by the social constructions of group culture. Instead, a focus on materiality attends to how objects are enrolled in lines of action, sometimes in subversive ways. A focus on the materiality of guns would examine how the qualities of guns shape their use: how gun size permits concealed carry, how the gun's bullet capacity and rate of fire permit mass casualties, how its weight and recoil may make it difficult to fire accurately, how 3D-printed guns may evade security systems, etc. I discuss the move to focus on object qualities at length below.


Historically, cultural sociology has treated objects merely as symbol carriers (for a critique, see Domínguez Rubio 2014), without attending to how other material attributes of the object might shape that symbol's capacity to communicate intended meanings (Keane 2003, McDonnell 2010). Treating objects as symbols can lead analysts to narrowly presume that an object's symbolic content is the only source of meaning, obscuring the multiple pathways to meaning and the fact that objects can mean multiple things at the same time. There is another danger in treating objects only as passive symbol carriers, rather than emergent in interaction: Objects “cannot merely be seen as ‘outcomes’ or ‘effects’ of a prior set of social relations, or as the material ‘vehicles’ of meaning, for this view tends to ignore their capacity to affect people and to create new social bonds, practices, and meanings” (Domínguez Rubio 2014, p. 620). Without an account of objects as more than just symbol carriers, explanations for polyvocality, creativity, misinterpretation, or reappropriation must resort to variations in audiences. Certainly, audiences matter, but a fuller accounting of these phenomena demands that we “treat cultural objects as objects” to theorize object-side mechanisms for meaning-variation (McDonnell 2010, p. 1848).

Studies of materiality beyond cultural sociology decenter the privileged position of language and symbols (Barad 2003) and instead treat cultural objects as bundles of qualities (Keane 2003; see also Martin 2011 on qualities). Considering qualities permits a move away from Saussure's semiotics—where meaning is abstract and established in conceptual difference—preferring instead Peirce's relational semiotics, where signs develop “meaning in the context of a continuing process of interpretation” (Rochberg-Halton 1982, p. 458). Rather than just treating objects as self-evident representations, people interpret them by attending to different qualities in different moments. For example, Mechai Viravaidya, a Thai politician nicknamed Mr. Condom, sought to normalize condoms by encouraging their multiple uses beyond the prophylactic ends condoms were designed for—as an inflatable balloon for school kids, as a way to protect phones from typhoons. The shift to a Peircean semiotics grounded in process, relations, and qualities better “bring[s] theories of the sign into a full, robust articulation with accounts of human actions” (Keane 2003, p. 410). Instead of identifying an object's symbolic meaning in a web of meanings, the move to Peirce orients scholars to ask how people enroll objects into action (Latour 2005). For example, treating objects as bundles of qualities (i.e., the condom's latex material makes it waterproof and stretchable enough to inflate) draws attention to the contingent ways in which they are picked up as people pursue lines of action, rather than predetermined by an abstract system of codes.

Thinking of objects in terms of qualities rather than symbols does not negate the symbolic and representative work they do. My argument is that we need “both and,” not “either or.” This move broadens the semiotic possibilities analysts can now observe. We can see how, treated as material instantiations in the world, the physical qualities of ink or paint cause symbols to change, altering their capacity to represent and signify: whether a vanishing self-portrait of da Vinci (Domínguez Rubio 2016), the degraded paint on classical marble sculptures leaving only the now-iconic white representations (Greenland 2016), or the fading red ink of a red AIDS awareness ribbon into a pink breast cancer ribbon over time (McDonnell 2010). When we analyze objects through the lens of qualities, more than just symbols, the capacities for objects are inherently more open. An object quality may symbolize, but it may also interact with physical environments, degrade, permit or deny circulation, and more.

Once we privilege attention to qualities, we can now ask how those qualities afford particular meanings and uses in relation to specific people. The concept of affordances first emerges from ecological psychologist J.J. Gibson (1979), who sought to understand how people perceive and interact with their environments. For Gibson, affordances are opportunities for action made possible by the environment. Afforded actions are always relational: constituted by the physical qualities of objects and the environment and the embodied cognitive capacities of people interacting with that environment. The qualities of a rock may afford particular uses: Depending on its shape, it could serve as a place to sit; depending on its texture, it could be used to grind meal. Crucially, qualities may exclude affordances for some people. A 50-lb. rock may be liftable for an adult, affording throwing or stacking, but that weight may exclude such affordances for toddlers. Extending this insight, the affordances of cultural objects similarly constrain and enable action and do so differently for people with different capacities.

From a cultural sociology perspective, affordances offer a “relational approach that values the material and symbolic qualities of objects in conjunction with the cognitive and bodily capacities of people in settings” (McDonnell 2016, p. 27). The concept does this by moving “beyond the image of audiences as readers who elucidate the symbolic meanings already embedded in an object ... objects are no longer the static, passive side of meaning-making but an active, dynamic contributor to the meaning-making process” (McDonnell 2016, p. 27). Scholars of affordances (DeNora 2000, Gibson 1979, Norman 1988; see Davis 2020 for an excellent review) focus on the interaction between object qualities and people's capacities. Through this interaction, analysts can assess how particular constellations of meanings and uses emerge in practice.

DeNora (2000, p. 22) was the first to bring the affordance approach to cultural sociology to show how meanings are “brought to life in and through the interplay of forms and interpretation.” In this, meaning dynamically emerges from how objects afford uses that people incorporate into everyday life. DeNora makes this distinction in her contrast of musicological and affordance approaches. Musicological analyses identify meaning in the arrangement of elements—looking at how meaning is inscribed implies that the meaning is stable and settled based on a song's symbolic content. By examining musical affordances as a site for “work, or meaning and lifeworld making,” DeNora (2000, p. 40) instead considers “music's interpretive flexibility, the way in which music's affordances—moods messages, energy levels, situations are constituted from the circumstances of use” (pp. 43–44). DeNora points us to how the qualities of a song make particular affordances possible that in turn shape, but do not determine, how we use music: dancing at the club, staying motivated on a run, studying in the library, etc. A cultural sociology grounded in affordances makes visible the relationality and reflexivity in interactions between objects and people and brings dynamism into our accounts of how objects are incorporated into action and projects.2

An affordances approach acknowledges that objects afford many potential multiple meanings and uses for people. Material affordances may be thought of as “potential energy,” or possible meanings and actions that are available to people but not yet enacted, distinct from whether that object's potential is made “kinetic”—recognized by people and then incorporated into action (McDonnell 2016, p. 31). People engage in imaginative work identifying many possible affordances, including actions whose potentiality exists but is not enacted (Nagy & Neff 2015). Given different situations or arrangements of people, objects, and settings (McDonnell 2016), different qualities may become salient in opening alternative lines of action. Attention to affordances, therefore, makes possible richer accounts of the polyvocality of objects, moving beyond audience-only explanations dominating reception theory that identify stable interpretations produced by groups.

Benediktsson (2022, p. 5) makes an important distinction between affordances and programming, which is “the act of embedding affordances in an object or place,” and distinguishes between objects’ material, symbolic, and institutional programming. Material programming may be physically coercive over behavior, symbolic programming relies on signs or labels to cheaply reinforce or modify intended patterns of use, and institutional programming establishes what is expected of object-interactions by assigning specific uses through laws or norms. From a design perspective, well-crafted objects are designed such that the qualities of the object tell us how we are supposed to use them (Norman 1988), and thus their meanings and uses appear natural and stable. This is programming par excellence—the affordances stabilize the meaning and use of objects.

For objects that communicate their afforded meanings and uses less clearly, we require conventions (Becker 1982), habit (Bourdieu 1977), and ritual (Durkheim 1995) to hold meaning together. Not knowing the conventional use of red ribbons to symbolize AIDS awareness, Ghanaians interpreted the ribbons as red bows for funereal decoration (McDonnell 2016). Carefully crafted programs are subject to disruption, meaning analysts need to trace how people receive the affordances of objects and enroll them into action. Sometimes this happens through processes of “enunciation” (de Certeau 1984, McDonnell 2010) when people harness the qualities of objects to put to alternative uses: cooking pots and spoons are used as drums in pot-banging protests, glitter is turned to glitter bombs to shame anti-LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) public figures (Gold 2022), and thousands of pennies are used to simultaneously pay a fine and object to it (Stoltz & Taylor 2017). This “purposeful enunciation” (Stoltz & Taylor 2017) sometimes stabilizes as a new cultural repertoire (Gold 2022).

Recently, Davis has advocated for treating affordances as mechanisms, such that our analyses should examine how objects “request, demand, allow, encourage, discourage, and refuse” (Davis 2020, p. 11). By orienting us to patterns in objects’ cultural and institutional legitimacy and the person's perceptual capacities and dexterity, Davis pushes us to identify generalizable ways objects afford and are enrolled into programs of action. This approach has important implications for cultural sociology's use of affordances. How do cultural objects afford mechanisms like resonance or iconicity? How do object qualities afford an openness to enunciation and creativity? A mechanisms approach to affordances orients us to theorize distinct pathways through which cultural objects are enrolled in and essential to action.

Affordances, Perception, and Experience

The affordances of objects depend upon the human capacities (cognitive, physical, linguistic, skills) of the people interacting with the object. Work on the sociology of the senses makes clear how people's perceptual capacities and embodied cognition shape meaning-making (Cerulo 2018, Friedman 2011, Greenland 2016, Klett 2014, Lembo 2020, Mangione 2016, Simmel 1997, Winchester 2016). Research has productively synthesized the literature on materiality and cognition to explore how affordances vary by sense perception, ability, experience, and setting. Scholars productively decenter vision by exploring how smell (Cerulo 2018), sound (Klett 2014, Schwarz 2015), touch (Mangione 2016), and taste (Jordan 2015, Leschziner & Green 2013) shape meaning-making. Attention to how material qualities of objects activate the senses offers an approach to meaning-making grounded in aesthetic experience rather than abstract symbols (Dewey 1934). This work productively moves past theories of meaning built on a structuralist foundation of symbolic binaries to examine experience, especially how qualities are potentials actualized in experience (Lembo & Martin 2022). Using a condom is just such an aesthetic experience. Condoms are publicly codified and symbolically linked to moral orders (Tavory & Swidler 2009); however, the aesthetic experience is not strongly codified in advance because public talk about personal sensory experiences with condoms is rare. Sensory experiences with condoms’ materiality have shared character, which leads to shared meaning and behavior: the sensory-motor challenges of unrolling a male condom for the first time, the experience of tightness or looseness, the “plastic” smell, or the feel or taste of lubricant. Condom's unpredictable corporeal-material dimensions shape that experience as well, as when one discovers they have a broken condom or a latex allergy.

Inquiring into people's aesthetic experiences with objects makes accessible how people's sensory experience of the material qualities of objects mediate how they can imagine the set of possible affordances. To understand an unfamiliar object, people use their bodies to examine its material qualities—they touch it, pick it up, work with it, explore it, test how it could be used, imagine possibilities and purposes, and rule out alternatives until they come to an understanding of what it means and how it could be used (Boehme 2014). The same happens when engaging a familiar object but creatively imagining how it could be put to alternative uses. Through embodied simulation, people cognitively compare the present sensory experience with an object with past experiences they've had with analogous objects with similar qualities (Cerulo 2018). Such “simulations represent predictions”—imagined expectations of how that object can be interpreted or used, serving as a basis for action (Barsalou 2009, p. 1284; see also Ignatow 2007).

These insights constitute the beginnings of a corporeal-material approach to meaning-making and action that presents a viable alternative to theories built on abstract symbols. Such an approach asks how materiality, sense perception, and cognitive processes shape what lines of action people can imagine and how people choose to make potential affordances kinetic in action. Analyzing condoms through a corporeal-material approach would attend to how the meanings of condoms are multiple and changing, emerging from aesthetic experiences over time. Some people develop embodied skill and comfort with condoms. Some experience condoms as arousing because they permit sexual freedom through safe sex—their qualities prevent pregnancy and HIV transmission. Others find condoms clumsy and unsexy because of the ways the material mediates or interrupts sexual sensory experiences. A corporeal-material framework opens fruitful new ways to emphasize the interplay between perception, cognition, object affordances, and creativity, which have direct implications for theories of action.


Cultural objects are not neutral social constructions, but their material and symbolic qualities influence action. They constrain and enable the set of possible actions through affordances, but also through their absences. Objects are agentic in that they permit people to do things they could not do otherwise (or at the same scale). Objects distribute people's personhood over time and space. Objects can lead us to reflect, reconsider, and redirect our action. They point us to previously unconsidered possibilities. They call upon us to work with and around them in specific ways. Cultural objects are agentic.

What does this mean? Broadly, proponents of material agency advocate for treating objects and other nonhumans as actors in our accounts of action. Such accounts decenter people in theories of agency. As an idea, material agency covers a range of propositions, some more palatable to sociologists than others. The easiest-to-swallow argument for sociologists is that objects have agency by standing in for humans, acting on our behalf as secondary agents and enacting our will over time and space (Gell 1998). In such accounts, people imbue objects with the intention to affect or influence others’ behavior. People fire guns intending to harm people from greater distances than their bodies alone allow, or as Gell notes, soldiers who place antipersonnel mines have their intentions manifested long after they were deployed. We create technologies like speed bumps and door closers to work and act in the world replacing human labor—instead of a police officer with a “slow” sign or a doorman, we have these objects doing that work instead (Latour 1992).

A more provocative claim is that objects have agency independent of human intention, and it is difficult to isolate human agency from the agency of objects (Latour 2005, 2009). To continue the gun example, “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you” (Latour 2009, p. 179). Advocates for material agency argue agency does not reside exclusively in humans, but in the relation between human and object—add or remove the gun and the set of possibles are reconfigured. Holding a gun fundamentally changes your possible paths of action, the extent of possible harm, how people interpret your intentions, and how people act around you. Sociologists resist the idea of material agency because human intention is so central to sociological accounts of agency—people pick up the gun, imbuing it with intention, otherwise it would be dormant. Latour points to the NRA slogan “Guns don't kill people, people kill people” to caricature the distinction between materialist and sociological accounts of agency. The NRA's explicitly sociological account that people kill people treats a gun as “a neutral carrier of will that adds nothing to the action” (Latour 2009, p. 177, emphasis in original)—all that matters is human intention. Certainly, human intention matters. The point here is that objects matter too.

As a cultural sociologist, I am more interested in the pragmatist- and interactionist-inflected accounts of material agency that are linked with human creativity and imagination where agency is temporally emergent (Jerolmack & Tavory 2014). Humans and objects engage in a deeply entwined dance of agency where paths of action emerge over time through interaction (Pickering 2010). Pickering shows how the process of science is a dialectical interaction between material agency in the world and how we capture that agency, interpret its meaning, and enroll it into the project of science. Accounts of material agency from science studies are excellent but often sneak semiotics and meaning-making in the back door. I find this collaborative vision persuasive, but what is missing from most accounts of material agency are sophisticated accounts of the mechanisms of meaning-making that make actions possible.

When observers interpret a person with gun, assessing the possible affordances directly impacts how they respond. Can that person with that gun shoot me if I hide here? How many people could they harm before they would be subdued? Symbolic interactionist and cultural-cognitive accounts can help us tease out whether a person with a gun is anticipated—like a uniformed officer patrolling Congress—or schematically read as “matter out of place” and therefore threatening, as when someone appears with an automatic weapon at a park or school (Douglas 1996). People read intention into the material configurations of people, gun, location, dress, posture, and more. The chains of meaning and action that proceed from these interpretations shape whether and how other actants are enrolled into action: What objects in the environment have the affordances of shield or hiding place? Can this rock or tree limb serve as a viable weapon? How quickly can authorities be called to the scene?

If affordances are potential meanings and uses of objects, agency is in how that potential gets enacted. Agency emerges in interactions between objects and people, through the availability of objects, through the recognition of affordances, and in imagining and selecting lines of action (both those intended by object designers and those creatively enunciated). Below, I examine each of these aspects to show how cultural sociology becomes essential to the work of bridging material and human agency. I advocate for a synthesis of cultural sociology and theories of material agency that takes seriously objects’ influence on action and that places meaning at the center of that approach. I illustrate this through an account of how Ghanaian women turned female condoms into bangle bracelets.

Objects need to be available to enroll them into action—objects ready at hand are more likely to affect action than objects that are far away (Schudson 1989). Production of culture and diffusion of innovations research offer robust explanations for the distribution and institutional availability of cultural objects, which prefigure objects’ influence and use (Becker 1982, Peterson 1997, Rogers 2003). Female condoms became available because health nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) wanted to encourage a female-controlled prophylactic that could prevent HIV. Condoms afford counting through sales—something that NGOs wanted to track as evidence of successful intervention. Public health organizations subsidized their cost to encourage their diffusion and accessibility. But distribution was limited, through clinics and peer education (rather than advertising or retail markets), because female condoms require training so that women can recognize the affordances of the object.

People cannot enroll objects into lines of action unless they can recognize their affordances (Benediktsson 2022, McDonnell et al. 2017b). Recognition is fundamentally an act of meaning-making. Understanding how cultural objects and their material affordances become recognizable requires the tools of reception theory. Recent research seeking to understand how people converge on meanings has revealed a variety of cultural mechanisms, from dispositions to qualities of objects to interaction (Jerolmack & Tavory 2014, McDonnell 2010, Rawlings & Childress 2021). To make the agentic capacities of female condoms legible, peer educators trained women how to interact with their material qualities to use the condoms as intended (e.g., how to pinch the ring for insertion and fit it over the cervix, how to twist the condom to safely remove it) and promoted female condoms as symbols of empowerment. Ideally, women's dispositions, their material interactions with the condom, and the persuasiveness of the peer education would motivate them to use the condoms with their sexual partner.

Affordances structure the set of possible meanings and actions but do not determine which lines of action are ultimately selected. A fully elaborated vision of agency must attend to how people imagine and weigh how they might enroll objects as they solve problems along with the possible consequences of those choices (Jerolmack & Tavory 2014, Nagy & Neff 2015). Peer education is an act of embodied simulation where participants imagine future actions this object affords. Material agency is thus projective (Emirbayer & Mische 1998), grounded in imagining potential lines of action through an object's material and symbolic affordances. Material agency is also emergent in interaction—it can be difficult to predict how a material object will transform relations, destabilizing intended meanings and uses, thereby making room for new ones. For example, how women imagine using female condoms in the peer education setting may clash with their experience later using them with partners. The aesthetic experience interacting with the object's qualities (e.g., how it feels, smells, sounds; whether it encourages or diminishes pleasure; how clumsy it to work with) and with their partner's responses (e.g., his sensory experience, or how the condom signifies a lack of trust) may lead them to decide against using female condoms in the future. Frustrated by the mismatch of their expectations and experience, these women may imagine alternative affordances for the condom.

Creativity is a cultural-cognitive process through which people imagine how affordances can be taken up into novel action (Brett 2022, Leschziner & Green 2013, Taylor et al. 2019). Left with a box of condoms and coming from a material culture that prizes reusing objects, Ghanaian women creatively enunciated new purposes for female condoms (McDonnell 2010). Thinking analogically, the size, shape, and substance of the condoms’ rubber rings resemble jelly bracelets. The material of the female condoms affords physical change, including resizing by making them malleable in boiling water and dyeing to look more attractive. The agency of creatively enunciating new uses emerges interactively between the person and the material qualities of the condoms, and the way the material qualities suggest alternative uses. The failure of the condom's programmed purpose made it possible to enroll them in an alternative project (Mische 2009), as I doubt jewelry entrepreneurs were looking for raw materials in condoms. The material qualities of the female condom, women's creativity, and subsidized costs reconfigured the condom from a prophylactic to a new jewelry business.


Having established objects as agentic, sociologists are increasingly interested in understanding how objects both reproduce and transform social structure by stabilizing and destabilizing social arrangements. By stabilize, I mean that consistent meanings and actions adhere to objects such that objects make social relations appear patterned and predictable. Objects are essential to many habits, routines, and rituals, stabilizing the definition of the situation while also reinscribing that object's typical meaning and use. The more we use an object in specific, programmed ways, the harder it can become to imagine other affordances. Stabilization, then, is a process of closure—the disappearance of problems and the emergence of a settled, uncontroversial consensus of the object's meanings and uses (Pinch & Bijker 1984). When stable, people's actions with such cultural objects are expected and predictable. We internalize the meanings and uses of objects through a process of enculturation resulting from our experiences engaging the world of cultural objects. So long as the material qualities of the object do not give way, then repeated, routine interactions can hold in place the typical meanings and uses of an object.

Certainly, human action helps to stabilize the meanings of objects, but so too do objects stabilize. Cultural objects’ concrete material enables events to coalesce and take shape (Wagner-Pacifici 2017) and provides an infrastructure for classification systems (Bowker & Star 2000). Systems of classification powerfully structure action (Douglas 1996) but require objects to make such classifications manifest and relevant (here again, material tokens are essential to cognitive types). Objects are essential to making categorical distinctions by marking and exacerbating the distance between categories through their qualities (Nippert-Eng 1995, Zerubavel 1991). We cannot keep everything in our head (D'Andrade 1995), so objects help stabilize and structure our routines, cognition, and action.

People rely on the world of objects to scaffold cognition and action (Lizardo & Strand 2010). We off-load memory and cognitive work into objects—pen and paper to-do lists are more reliable than memorization, so long as the ink does not get wet and run. Regularities of objects in the environment cue our behavior and facilitate action, such as condom dispensers at dance clubs. Cognition and reasoning are distributed across people and objects (Hutchins 1996, Mukerji 2009), operating as an “extended mind” (Clark & Chalmers 1998). Having condoms readily available allows people to make the decision to have sex with strangers and scaffolds the practice of safe sex. When a condom breaks during intercourse, it disrupts routine patterns of sex, leading people to enroll additional objects into decision making. People feel increased anxiety, wondering “Am I pregnant?” or “Might I have contracted HIV?” This invites opportunities for meaning-making, such as assessing the partner's risk of spreading an STD or whether this is someone to partner with in raising a child. To process and make decisions, people bring in other objects by, for example, buying a pregnancy or HIV test (or three!), or RU-486, or securing a prescription for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs. One's pregnancy or HIV status may then reconfigure and reorient future sexual activity, lead to new family responsibilities, or affect health routines.

The example of a broken condom makes clear the ways objects can destabilize social arrangements—they create situations and problems that need to be worked over by enrolling new objects and people into the situation. When objects stop behaving as intended or expected, they disrupt routines and act back on us. If social orders require objects to operate smoothly, objects then require maintenance, which calls people and objects into action to ensure the stability of social arrangements. Cultural objects vary in their docility—their ability to hold in place the meanings we have come to attach to things without much effort (Domínguez Rubio 2014). Unruly objects threaten categories (Domínguez Rubio 2014), often requiring a great deal of maintenance and repair to stabilize meaning, action, and value (Domínguez Rubio 2016). As cultural objects like a Van Gogh painting degrade, they threaten to destabilize social arrangements, undermining the meanings and actions we conventionally attach to them. Are these the same colors Van Gogh intended, or have they faded? When does a painting stop doing the work it was venerated for? Is the goal to restore (which requires imagining artist intention) or just prevent further degradation? Taking an ecological approach, Domínguez Rubio (2020) uncovers all the care work institutions like art museums engage in to preserve the category of art, enrolling environmental control technologies, art preservationists, complicated storage systems, and more to preserve a painting's social function as a cultural object and not just a thing.

Guns are similarly unruly. The tragedy on the Rust film set—where actor Alec Baldwin accidentally killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins—makes clear all the work it takes to maintain the category of a “cold gun.” Guns are made safe for use on set because they require constant maintenance to ensure they do not have live ammunition, using dummy rounds or blanks instead. The gun must be under constant surveillance in controlled settings and repeatedly checked, and protocols have been developed around shouting “cold gun!” before it enters the scene. Such moments make visible all the human labor it takes to tame a gun (e.g., training, protocols, storage systems, security) and how destabilizing an unruly object can be. This event has destabilized taken-for-granted social arrangements and meaning-making—whose responsibility is it to ensure a gun is safe? How does one know the round is safe, and how do the qualities of rounds make it difficult to tell a dummy round from a live one (Romano 2023)? The film industry is rethinking protocols for how to make guns safe, even moving away from having blanks or dummy rounds on set by adding muzzle flashes in postproduction (Guardian 2023). What Domínguez Rubio's ecological approach reveals is how this work of (re)stabilization is distributed across a range of objects and people and how one unruly object can unsettle well-established arrangements.

Recent scholarship has shown a variety of ways in which the material qualities of cultural objects are involved in processes of stabilization and destabilization of categories and classification systems. Standards that enable entire industries to operate smoothly often depend upon the tightly controlled maintenance of the physical world. For instance, to ensure standard shoe sizes, footwear companies must build an elaborate infrastructure to hold the shape of their benchmarking model's foot so that it remains immutable over time (Benzecry 2022). At other times, a cultural object's interpretive flexibility is essential to stabilization. By sitting at the borders between communities of practice, boundary objects can facilitate coordination and collaboration across domains because their qualities are interpreted and valued differently by different groups (Star & Griesemer 1989). Using the case of animal specimens, Star & Griesemer (1989, p. 393) argue scientific work is made possible because specimens are “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites.” In this way, groups with distinct commitments, such as amateur animal trappers, zoologists, and museum collectors, can coordinate their action while maintaining commitments to their ways of seeing the world.

Another way objects destabilize is through diffusing into new situations, which can sometimes lead to social change (Rogers 2003, Rossman 2012), as exposure to new objects, or old objects in new situations, can reshape how people see the world. The introduction of condoms into new settings has played a role in changing sexual practice and mores. Research on the global flow of objects through cultural circuits suggests that this process is contingent and fraught (Appadurai 1996, Hannerz 1992, Kopytoff 1986). Local cultures mediate the meaning and use of objects (Jijon 2019, Kay 2022, Kuipers 2015, Wherry 2008). Given the circulation of cultural objects across situations, the meanings of cultural objects are always at risk, and we should view cultural objects and the cognitive and interactional structures they scaffold as an ongoing accomplishment (Taylor et al. 2019). In using objects in typical ways, we reinforce their conventions, but when confronting new pairings of objects and contexts, we are forced to extend and revise our cognitive types to make sense of them and how to put them to use.

New and unfamiliar cultural objects or objects that are out of place trigger deliberative cognition and are open to interpretation (DiMaggio 1997, Taylor et al. 2019). In such situations, conventions have not settled, and meaning and action are not yet stable. When the stabilization of meaning occurs, it usually results from a great deal of work. The interpretive flexibility of objects may lead to contestation in meaning, reinterpretation, revision, or redesign of cultural objects, ultimately leading to closure, consensus, and stability (Pinch & Bijker 1984). Treating objects as part of a complex of production makes visible the collaborative work of stabilization (Griswold 2000). For instance, by tracing a single novel, Childress (2017) models how to trace the stabilization and destabilization of an object's meaning as it moves through drafting, literary agents, editors, rejection, revision, blurbing, cover design, publication, reviewers, and audiences. The meanings brought to the novel Jarrettsville at every stage are consequential, contested, and momentarily stabilized—directly shaping action and interpretation.


Objects vary in their cultural power—their capacity to shape our beliefs and behavior (Griswold 1987, McDonnell 2016, Schudson 1989). How do we make sense of these varying influences? I argue that how objects shape belief and behavior depends on whether their cultural power manifests in direct or indirect ways, what I refer to as objects acting as figure and ground, respectively.

Cultural objects sometimes shape us in direct ways when they are the focus of attention, often operating through emotion and deliberative cognition. Interactions with some objects as figure can feel powerful, arousing emotion and directing action through mechanisms of resonance, iconicity, and attachment. These objects affect social life by taking center stage—by being the focus of our attention. When I ask my students for examples of powerful objects, they often mention the American flag and talk about how flags motivate soldiers on the battlefield or shore up national identity on Independence Day. But the power of iconic objects like American flags varies across situations—people rarely salute or say the Pledge of Allegiance to flags flying outside of Burger King.

Other times, objects influence social life indirectly through their taken-for-grantedness. As ground, cultural objects have power by being incorporated into institutions and practice, constituting the built environment, and establishing situational context. Such objects are more consistent in their effects, even if we do not think of them as powerful because they do not move us emotionally. Institutionalized objects like stop signs almost always compel us to stop even if we do not feel inspired by them. By not calling attention to themselves, objects can reinforce or impose moral order and systems of domination in ways that may be less obvious but no less powerful.

As figure, cultural objects command our attention, arousing emotions and pushing us to think in new ways. How do cultural objects move us? How do objects shape our action directly as we give ourselves over to their influence? These questions of figure emerge in the study of engaging objects and the hold they have over us when we give them our attention.

Scholarship has emerged around three distinct mechanisms of cultural power: resonance, iconicity, and attachments. In this section, I consider each in turn.


We have all heard someone say “that [insert cultural object] really resonated with me.” Resonance is a feeling or experience that energizes us. This idea of resonance has long been taken up as a central mechanism of cultural explanation (Bail 2012, Beisel 1993, Binder 1993, Schudson 1989). Recent refinement has improved the operationalization of the concept, treating resonance as an experience that emerges when interacting with objects produces an “aha!” moment of new cognitive connections being made (McDonnell et al. 2017a). Resonance, then, occurs when a cultural object offers novel (yet comprehensible) meanings and ways of thinking that help people solve problems (McDonnell 2014, McDonnell et al. 2017a). The emotional charge resulting from resonance can motivate people's action and innovation, often along new directions, therefore serving as a mechanism of social and cultural change. Resonance is happening when you read a new theory article that makes sense of your data or hear a speech that articulates your feelings of injustice in new ways that motivate you to fight back. Such moments energize people, driving them to act in ways that align with these novel ways of seeing the world. Empirical tests of resonance confirm the curvilinear relationship between novelty and resonance (Zhou 2022), the mediating effects of emotions (Bail 2012, Zhou 2022), and the field of other objects (Bail 2016).

More work needs to be done to identify the conditions under which the experience of resonance is sustained in action, rather than fizzling out. Continuing with the condom example, peer-educators report that women initially experience female condoms as a resonant solution to the problem of women's limited control over HIV prevention—they no longer have to rely on men to put on a condom. Despite coming away from peer education meetings motivated to try this female-controlled contraception, during their next sexual encounter their commitment to action may be disrupted. Maybe their partner views the condom as indicating a lack of trust, or women find the mechanics difficult to use, or both partners complain about material properties—the plastic wrap sound during sex or too-lubricated feel. The experience of resonance may appear problem solving in an abstract discussion among other women, but it may aggravate or generate new problems in material and contextual practice with their partners (Park et al. 2021).


Cultural objects can also shore up commitments and energize action through the aesthetic experience of iconicity. Research on iconic objects highlights how images convey the meaning of a subject, often instantaneously, and symbolically condense stories, narratives, and imaginaries (Sonnevend 2020). Iconic images—like portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevarra, or Dorothea Lange's Migrant Woman—appear to have power over us because of how the aesthetic experience of images captures the feeling of beauty, revolution, or stoicism. Recently, sociologists have revived interest in aesthetics, iconicity, and iconic power (Alexander 2008; Bartmanski 2015; Bartmanski & Alexander 2012; Bonnell 1999; Solaroli 2015; Zubrzycki 2013). Unlike Durkheim's theorization of totemic objects in which the group meanings projected on the object are arbitrary and symbolic, materiality matters for iconic objects because icons share sensory qualities with the subject depicted (Peirce 1992). The aesthetic experience of interacting with the object is the meaning (Alexander 2008). Such work takes the material and visual affordances of iconicity as explanatory (Bartmanski 2015). In this way, aesthetic experience is more than just what an icon conventionally represents; it is a felt sensory experience. “Mere convention on its own could hardly ever generate identification and effervescence often occasioned by and necessary for iconic effects” (Bartmanski 2015, p. 27), suggesting the scale of social solidarity that icons manifest extends beyond what custom could explain.

Iconic movie characters like James Bond, Dirty Harry, or Rambo are often inseparable from their iconic guns—the Walther PPK, Smith & Wesson 0.44 Magnum, and AK-47, respectively.3 Even as someone who is not wrapped up in gun culture, I somehow know from memory the names of these weapons—they are metonymic for these characters. The material qualities of these guns communicate different masculinities. The sleek contours of the Walther are the suave, effortless cool of Bond; its small size affords concealment, keeping his identity and propensity for violence secret. If Dirty Harry is one man against the world, all he needs is one 0.44 caliber bullet to strike fear in street punks. Like Rambo, the AK-47 is an oversized agent of chaos. Iconic images travel, shaping public imagination and action. For instance, Marvel's gun-wielding character the Punisher—along with the rage-fueled masculinity he encapsulates—appears to have offered a model for many who invaded on the January 6th, 2021, invasion of the US Capitol Building (Jackson 2021).

More work needs to be done to operationalize and empirically test the iconic power of cultural objects and nail down how objects afford iconicity, especially through materiality. Recent work on contestation around iconic symbols and monuments points toward a productive direction by showing how iconicity reinforces commitments but can also lead to social change. Zubrzycki (2013, p. 428) develops the idea of “aesthetic revolt” to examine how people publicly “contest and rework symbols” materially altering them to repurpose them to new transformational ends. Similarly, Simko et al. (2022) have shown how the relocation and material modification of Confederate monuments recontextualize them, shaping political debates and ultimately leading to cultural and mnemonic change.


Our emotional attachments to cultural objects also operate as mechanisms through which objects exercise cultural power. People collect objects, craft objects, care for objects, and give themselves over to objects, which carry attachments and emotional commitments. This passion for objects is an end in itself (Gomart & Hennion 1999). Giving oneself over to being seized by objects can have powerful effects; objects from lost loved ones can take on intense emotional connections, as when a widow wears her husband's shirt for weeks after his death (Gibson 2008). Mundane objects become charged with new meaning and put to important cultural work of mourning and memory, and those objects require new routines of care and memorialization (Gibson 2008). Emotional realignments and moods permit people to see objects in new ways and engage them in specific activities. Only when a woodworker “‘feels’ the right mood that he is able to ‘see’ the wood in his garage as more than just a pile of boards” is he able to imagine how they can be transformed (Lynch 2009, p. 94). Some objects have passionate fans—e.g., football jerseys—and when they become disrupted, fans’ deep emotional attachments lead them to find ways to re-enchant those objects so as to maintain attachments (Benzecry 2015). Similarly, people who have “book love” experience passionate emotional attachments that emerge through experiences of materiality and iconicity, leading to deep commitments to reading, collecting, and reluctance to give away books (Olave 2020).

People collect guns, display them, show them off, and attend gun shows to mingle with other enthusiasts. Charlton Heston popularized the sentiment that ‘‘I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” indicating just how linked people's guns are to their selves. Essential to the formation of the self and collective identities, objects operate as “plot devices” (Winchester 2017) in the formation of identity, often “summoning” people into being (Tavory 2016). The Marine Corps's Rifle Creed,4 taught to new recruits, seeks to teach attachment, making clear that the rifle is an extension of the self that requires care and protection:

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life ... I will ever guard it against the ravages of weather and damage as I will ever guard my legs, my arms, my eyes and my heart against damage. I will keep my rifle clean and ready. We will become part of each other...

More than static accounts of sacred and profane, these works on attachment suggest just how essential objects are in identity processes and how identities emerge through material care and preservation of cultural objects. Emblematic of this work on objects, identity, and passion is Greenland's (2021) account of Italian tombaroli—amateur tomb robbers who feel a thrill and a deep attachment to Italian history through the excavation of Etruscan vases from the soil, which they view as acts of preservation. They engage in such heritage-connecting practices at the risk of arrest and stigma. Greenland deftly engages the interplay between cultural power as both figure and ground. The emotional power of their attachments to these artifacts simultaneously motivates tombarolis’ risk of arrest while also affirming and making manifest the power of the state to claim these vases as culturally protected.

As the ground of social life, objects shape cognition and behavior in more subtle and less direct ways. Rather than passively treating objects as mere background, I advocate for a dynamic vision of ground that views objects in our environment as foundational, setting the terms for action (see Pinch 2008, Wagner-Pacifici 2017). Objects as ground constitute social life. Cultural objects in our environment structure meaning, practices, and interaction (Blumer 1969)—actively producing context. Cultural objects force us to mold ourselves to identity categories, losing control of how we are seen—as when Orthodox Jews whose wearing of the yarmulke was habitual and forgotten are called upon as Jews by non-Jewish community members (Jerolmack & Tavory 2014). Regularities of objects in our environment support and anchor our embodied, enculturated routines of behavior and understanding (Bourdieu 1977, Lizardo & Strand 2010). Objects’ power to shape social life can come from their role in social reproduction (i.e., reinforcing patterns of action through routine engagement with objects) and by establishing the grounds for action (i.e., cueing the definition of the situation, enabling some actions while suppressing others). In this way, objects are powerful political and moral actors, often enrolled in systems of domination.

Institutionalized objects.

Many of the objects that act as ground are institutionalized, meaning their use is routine and prescribed, where sanctions appear if we disregard or misuse them. We often take for granted institutionalized objects, such that they appear as part of the background to social life. Institutionally retained cultural objects—like stop signs—tend to have powerful social support and sanctions (e.g., tickets) but they often also have power due to their automaticity when incorporated into routine (Schudson 1989; see also Swidler 1995). Most Americans tacitly accept stopping at a stop sign without actively deliberating or considering the probability of receiving a ticket if they do not stop. Objects are powerful when operating as ground precisely because their use and value are backed by well-established social conventions, embedded in both formal and informal social institutions, and their exercise in this way is not often the focus of deliberative consideration. This quiet power of objects has recently become more the focus of attention as research underscores how even the routine presence of police with guns can profoundly shape whether or not interactions are escalated toward violence.

Cultural objects influence the world by representing specific interests and valuing some actions over others in their design, production, and use (Akrich 1992). The more it is institutionalized, the more this programming becomes a powerful form of social control (Benediktsson 2022). Consequently, “artifacts have politics” (Winner 1980), as objects are powerfully enrolled in systematic exclusion. Overpasses and bridges on Long Island were intentionally designed with only nine feet of clearance to discourage access by those who rely on buses (Winner 1980). The material design of subway station benches with vertical armrests between seats discourages the homeless from sleeping on them (Benediktsson 2018). Thus, the cultural objects that surround us communicate: they convey that some people are more valued than others, they make interactions (im)possible among different people, and they shape patterns of cultural exchange.

Efforts to institutionalize condoms to prevent HIV required a great deal of work: condom production and distribution efforts, subsidies, media campaigns openly talking about condoms and sex, peer education, changing sexual mores, etc. Organizational efforts sought to make condoms expected in some contexts, encouraging sanctions (e.g., “if it's not on it's not in”). Condoms are accepted and expected in some communities and controversial in others—despite all this work, institutionalization is not inevitable. In Ghana, condoms and their marketing are political because they communicate and promote Western logics: that sex and health behavior are individual choices, that family planning is a value, or that women should have power over their bodies with female condoms. Public health organizations had to do more than just persuade people to use condoms—condoms had to become routinely available. Getting condoms in the moment after pharmacies closed was a challenge, so a campaign recruited local purveyors of late-night pastries working outside of bars to distribute condoms, marking the carts with Champion condom–branded stickers and umbrellas. People came to expect they could easily procure condoms. Ultimately this system broke down—pastry sellers would share their umbrella with another vendor who did not distribute condoms but needed to block the sun. The confusion that ensued from this repurposed materiality weakened confidence in the instant availability of condoms. Institutionalization requires both material and cultural upkeep.

Distributional availability.

The distribution and availability of objects reflect and reinforce broader inequalities. Underrepresentation in novels, TV, and film establishes a norm of whose stories are told and valued. Objects are biased in how they depict the world. We have recently seen how artificial intelligence systems learn from the available cultural objects: “‘naturally occurring’ datasets that are rife with racial (and economic and gendered) biases, the raw data that robots are using to learn and make decisions about the world reflect deeply ingrained cultural prejudices and structural hierarchies” (Benjamin 2019, p. 59). Wired magazine (Johnson 2022) reported in an article about the Dall-E 2 AI image generator that “eight out of eight attempts to generate images with words like ‘a man sitting in a prison cell’ or ‘a photo of an angry man’ returned images of men of color.” People are no less susceptible to the distributional effects of cultural objects, which has implications for literatures on cultural schema– (Boutyline & Soter 2021, Wood et al. 2018) and canon-formation (Lena 2019). Once established, the ground of objects tacitly conveys what is normal, expected, and valued.

Changes to the ground of objects can have profound effects on meaning systems. For a time, the condoms available in Ghana were all basic, yellow, latex condoms regardless of the brand. When the dominant public health organization distributing condoms lost their funding, they decided to sell a “performance-enhancing” condom, hoping to find a profitable market. The organization altered the qualities of the condom. They responded to complaints about the basic condoms by producing the Aganzi condom with black latex to match African skin tones, upgraded the condom by making it ribbed, and added a chemical retardant to help men last longer. Aganzi condoms became the most expensive and most popular on the market. Moreover, the change in the material affordances of the condom led some men to believe that they would be seen as cheap or uninterested in their partner's pleasure if they used other condoms. Men reported that they would rather forego condoms if they could not secure an Aganzi, undermining the organization's public health goals to prevent HIV.

Material environments.

In addition to the powerful effects of the distributional availability of objects, material environments can both reproduce and dynamically alter social orders (Gieryn 2002). A city's material amenities can afford cultural support for artistic or religious practice and community, which in turn reconfigures neighborhoods (Lloyd 2006, Dugandzic 2022). Spaces are also arranged to persuade people to lines of thinking, as in the work of house stagers selling homes (Vercel 2021) or the Creation Museum's walk through the scientific evidence for the veracity of Bible's account of creation (Oberlin 2020). Bartram's (2021) work on city inspectors suggests how a building's affordances enable inspectors to read intentions into buildings’ material conditions, such as developer greed or “defensible disrepair” in African American and low-income neighborhoods. In these ways, the built environment does more than structure—it also makes space for reinterpretation, persuasion, creativity, and change.

Transforming the spatial arrangement of objects can reconfigure social relations (Mukerji 2009). Across her many projects—articulating the Gardens of Versailles as a “laboratory of power” or chronicling how peasants’ tacit material knowledge of classical hydraulics made the Canal du Midi possible—Mukerji (1994b, 2009) documents how actively reshaping the material environment and its meaning is essential to statecraft and the accumulation of power. Attention to how states accumulate power through material infrastructural control and how people experience nation through material culture has become an important thread of research within sociology. As Zubrzycki (2011, p. 22) notes, “the material omnipresence of national mythologies ... make[s] them especially resilient” (see also Greenland 2021, Surak 2013, Zubrzycki 2017).

Moral orders.

Cultural objects also scaffold and communicate morality as societies enroll objects to off-load moral action and externalize moral training. Speed bumps and self-buckling seat belts impose and structure moral order without individuals needing to internalize a reflective moral commitment to action (Latour 1992). Other objects may complicate moral adjudication: As technology firms develop self-driving cars, who does the car decide to protect—the car's passengers or the pedestrians in its path? As we off-load increasing work onto objects, the extent of their moralizing can have unintended consequences and require interrogation. More than just imposing and reinforcing an existing moral ground, Bargheer (2018) flips the causal arrow by demonstrating how practical commitments to cultural objects shape emergent moral orders and commitments. The practice of “collecting birds” through birdwatching and photography kindled emotional attachments that later engendered moral obligation and conservation efforts. Angelo (2021) similarly examines how our moral commitments to nature were not inevitable. The “greening” of cities was not always a good. Angelo (2021, p. 2) finds that transformations in the material environment were necessary to make “greening legible as a form of moral action.” The world of objects motivates new moral orders.

The concept of the cultural object made possible new avenues of sociological inquiry into meaning-making. Cultural sociologists advocating for a material turn in the study of objects have revealed the dynamism and independent effects of objects in meaning-making processes. This third wave points to the complex and contingent ways that material qualities and symbols interact to stimulate, reinforce, or upend meanings and uses of cultural objects. While cultural objects may appear consistent in their meanings and use, their capacity to destabilize is always inherent in the objects themselves. When people interpret and use objects in consistent ways, this as an accomplishment. Meaning is always at risk, and people, objects, and environments coordinate to hold it together.

I have argued that cultural objects, materiality, and meaning are central to the sociological study of action. Scholars have impoverished cultural accounts of action by emphasizing culture in people without examining culture in objects in equal measure. Cultural explanations for action would benefit from theorizing mechanisms through which objects shape meaning and agency and thereby exercise cultural power. Objects’ qualities constrain and enable their meaning and use through what they afford for people. People deploy cultural objects with the intention to channel behavior, but even objects imbued with intentionality can also be creatively enunciated for resistance and play. Aesthetic experiences of resonance, iconicity, and attachments trigger our emotions and propel us to see the world anew. Objects constitute the grounds for action, often operating with their own politics and morality. Scholarship should deepen our understanding of how meaning directs action through more rigorous empirical tests of mechanisms of meaning-making (Rawlings & Childress 2019, 2021; Zhou 2022) and better operationalize our cultural measurements of objects (Mohr et al. 2020).

This third wave of cultural sociology is primed to put cultural objects and cognition into productive dialogue. The rise of cognitive sociology powerfully shaped understanding of culture in action but thus far has typically sidelined objects. This is puzzling, given the role of objects in off-loading memory and information, scaffolding meaning and action, stabilizing classification, and distributing cognition. Research that synthesizes insights on objects with our knowledge of enculturation, embodied cognition, and sense-perception offers an incredibly promising direction for future work—how do different somatic and sensory experiences shape meaning-making processes and schema-formation? The question of whether people's beliefs can change is fundamentally a matter of how cultural objects engage automatic or deliberative cognitive processes. This space is primed for innovative scholarship.

Renewed attention to objects productively bridges production and reception work with explanatory accounts of culture in action. Taking up this charge requires us to think ecologically (Domínguez Rubio 2016, 2020). Cultural objects exist in a “system of action,” operating through chains of “agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation” (Gell 1998, p. 6). By tracing the “social life” of objects (Appadurai 1986, Kopytoff 1986), across their creation, production, circulation, and reception (Benzecry 2022; Childress 2017; Griswold 1986, 2000; McDonnell 2016), cultural sociologists can evince the complex interactions of people, objects, and institutional settings that uphold or shake up social life.

The author is not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.

Thanks to those who generously offered me feedback on this manuscript: David Gibson, Fiona Greenland, Wendy Griswold, Erin Metz McDonnell, Ann Mische, Kelcie Vercel, and the Culture Workshop at the University of Notre Dame. This article has been informed by numerous conversations. Many thanks to my interlocutors: Dominik Bartmanski, Mike Owen Benediktsson, Fernando Domínguez Rubio, Joe Klett, Omar Lizardo, Gemma Mangione, and Iddo Tavory. Finally, thanks to my research assistant, Taylor Hartson, who helped build the bibliography. Any errors are entirely my own.