Investigating Form and Function

How many stories can an object tell?

In this activity, learn about five disciplinary lenses and how they can be applied to explore how form relates to function.

To you, your phone is your lifeline for communication. Someone could read a history of your friendship through text messages. To a parent, it is one of many bills they consider when they make different purchases. To the person who made it, this product is their income, one of thousands they see in a day. To the person who designed it, it is a work of art with every detail carefully thought out. Objects in history are no different, they all tell many stories. 

Watch the video below to learn about the many stories one object can tell.

As you watch the video, consider the following questions:

  • How many stories can one object tell? 
  • How do social scientists find out what they know about objects? 
  • Why are there so many fields in social science? 
  • How do they fit together? 
  • Where do they diverge?

Throughout the rest of the activities in this resource kit, we will be exploring objects through five different perspectives. Individuals in different disciplines take varying approaches in the sorts of questions they ask, and the interpretations they make about historical and archaeological sources. Exploring and understanding these lenses will help you form nuanced ideas about the objects you observe. 

The five disciplinary lenses you will use in this activity are as follows:

  • Economists study the production, consumption and transfer of goods and services within and across social systems.
  • An art historian studies the past through art and artifacts from specific periods and geographical regions.
  • A historian is someone who studies the past periods, geographical regions, or social phenomenons, usually using written records.
  • Anthropologists study humankind, in particular, the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development.
  • Geographers study the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these.

Use these descriptions and other things you know about these disciplines and jot down some questions you think individuals in these disciplines might ask when they observe an object.

These ceramic shards were found at an excavation site from Neolithic China.

A geographer might ask:

  • Where was this made?
  • What natural resources were used to make this?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What patterns exist with similar objects across places and spaces?
  • How did people use this object to interact with their natural environment?

An anthropologist might ask:

  • How was this object used?
  • How does it compare to objects from other cultures?
  • How did humans interact when using this artifact?
  • What human concern does this object answer?
  •  What cultural value does this object have?

A historian might ask:

  • How does this compare to objects from other times?
  • What did people at the time write about this object?
  • Who used this object?
  • What were their lives like?
  • What impact did this object have on society/daily lives?

An art historian might ask:

  • What is represented in this object?
  • Are there symbols? Representations?
  • Graphics of any kind?
  • What is this object made from?
  • How was it made?
  • Did the creators need any particular skills to make this object?
  • Why was this created?
  • How does its design fit into its function?
  • What elements are meant for design?
  • What for function?
  • What objects are similar in design/function?
  • How does the design of this object relate to other objects of the time? 

An economist might ask:

  • What materials is this made of?
  • Where did the materials come from?
  • What was the exchange value of this object?
  • How was this used?
  • What other objects are related to this object?
  • What role did this object have in exchange?
  • How/where/by whom was it traded?
  • What was the demand for this object?
  • What role did rulers or leaders play in the production, consumption, or transfer of this object?