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Material World: A Global Family Portrait
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Material World: A Global Family Portrait

4.53  ·  Rating details ·  1,563 ratings  ·  191 reviews
In an unprecedented effort, sixteen of the world’s foremost photographers traveled to thirty nations around the globe to live for a week with families that were statistically average for that nation. At the end of each visit, photographer and family collaborated on a remarkable portrait of the family members outside their home, surrounded by all of their possessions—a few ...more
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published October 11th 1994 by Counterpoint
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Average rating 4.53  · 
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 ·  1,563 ratings  ·  191 reviews

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Nov 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: time-traveling with a book, reflection on what one owns
A travel back in time (circa 1993), yet also showing how some things have stayed unchanged. Here we visit families in 30 nations bring their house things outside the home (though some can't be included, and are listed towards the end of the book). One can remember that some things have improved since, yet some things are worse (I'm here thinking about the family in Iraq - how are they doing now?). At the book's time South Africa is still organising post-Apartheid, the recent fall of Communism me ...more
Although this book is a bit dated (from 1994), it singlehandledly explained so many concepts to my kids that it's value can't be underestimated.

There are a number of countries (30?) portrayed in this book. Each country features an average income family, many photographs of the family, explanations about their daily life, and tidbits about their income, life, and dreams.

It is a wonderful resource, and really taught all of us (me included) to appreciate what we have, to appreciate different cultur
Apr 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: social-science
I expected this to be mostly "about" the photos, but, truly, the photos And the text here are well worth careful study. This book is approaching its thirtieth birthday and I'd love to see an updated edition, but it is still fascinating and eye-opening. The disparity in material possessions among "average" families around the world is astonishing. Having moved to a new house within the last year I have a pretty good idea of what my family's stuff would look like spread out across our lawn, and, w ...more
Nov 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Being on strike means I can spend time in my spiritual home, the reading room of a legal deposit library. This is a great opportunity to read difficult-to-find books that have been on my to-read list since about 2008, such as this one. ‘Material World’ is a photography project that gives an extraordinary snapshot of the world in 1993. A team of photographers toured the globe, finding a nationally average family in 30 different countries and chronicling their daily life and possessions. Looking a ...more
Oct 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Pleasantly surprised at how thought provoking Material world is. It's a bit dated being over 20 year old now (1993) but the age doesn't diminish the realities of how people lived then and now in various counties around the world. The common factor seems to be the needs for basic things, safety, food and shelter. I thought this book would focus on the photos more so than a learning experince but the interviews were the most powerful. To see the human experince in this way really helps bring thing ...more
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Okay, yes, published in 1994, Material World is a bit dated. You can see it in the geopolitical situations referenced, the brands visible, and -- at least for the more Western countries -- the clothes and hairstyles that clearly signal that zoinks, this is the '90s!

But that's missing the point of this amazing book, which is to show *relative* material wealth among statistically average families around the world in a very visual and tangible way. And the gap between, say, first- and third-world
Aug 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Amazing book that uses beautiful photographs, meaningful statistics (how many TVs and bikes do they own instead of GDP), and minimal text to illustrate an average home and lifestyle of families from around the globe. (I will say that the uber-religious Texas family is not what I think of as the "average" American family, but I guess you have to pick someone.)

An important book to linger over and look back on when we need reminders about how blessed our lives are--and how much excess we hold in o
Feb 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was a really neat book. I first heard about it in my World History class. We were talking about the present day and my teacher pulled up a website that had a bunch of pictures from this book. It's was really shocking to see how much people eat in a week and how little some people spend.

I used this book and A Hungry Planet this past summer at my church camp were I was a consular. We all looked at some of the pictures that I had pulled out and we talked about how we could help people who didn
Nov 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
If you only flipped through this book and looked at the pictures you are missing everything. Anyone who gave this book less than a 4 star rating looked at the stuff and missed the content.
This book and "Women in the Material World" are amazing because they explore our values and viewpoint through interviews about how a person looks at the world and what they physically have.
Read these books and please DON'T flip through them.
May 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Really a fantastic to way to give you perspective. I love that the author states the purpose as being to give the reader an idea of the average life of the average Joe in other countries. It's amazing to see the disparity between the different middle-classes and be able to peek in the life of those who have outhouses, or never have enough to eat dinner (Haiti), or who live a primitive but very contented existence. Wish they would do another one... Or even an update on the families involved. ...more
Lindsay B
Jul 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ao
This was a good book. It talks about different families from all over the world. It was about the struggle of life for families, or the easy way. I personally recommend it.
Sep 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone!
I just can't get over this book! I've been meaning to get to it and in the time between when I checked it out and when I read it, my kids and husband have been leafing through the pages. I finally picked it up yesterday and in my spare time the last two days I read it all (much of the book is photographs).

It was wonderful, yet heart-wrenching to enter the homes and see the lives of people who struggle every day just to eat. It was interesting to learn what their most treasured items were. This b
Apr 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011
An incredible book! I only wish there were a more recent edition; this one was published in 1995.


A fascinating look at the material possessions of families throughout the world. These people have been determined "average" for their countries and have agreed to have photographers move the contents of their houses outside in order to create visible representations of their relative standards of living. The dirt house and few possessions of Mali residents contrast with the 4 cars,
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book is almost twenty years old, but I would expect the contrasts it illustrates to be just as stark today. (I'd actually love -- knowing that this is unrealistic -- to see the same project done today; it would be interesting to see where the greatest/fewest changes are.) The point is not exactly what each family has, but more how big the difference is between, say, the standard of living / statistical average of the family in Japan compared to the family in Mali compared to the family in I ...more
Jul 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics-history
Editor Peter Menzel explains the project best in the foreword: "Madonna, the ultimate Material Girl, came out with her Sex book... The world needed a reality check."

Indeed, the book is from 1994 and the snapshots capture 30 families and their countries in history. That it is now out-of-date is not a drawback; at worst, it is absolutely harrowing. In 1994, the Iraqi family wishes for the embargo to end. The Bosnian family wants the fighting to end. The Haitian family wants the island-wide poverty
May 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Gorgeous, poignant photographs show financially "average" families from around the globe posing in front of their dwellings with all their material possessions. The text and additional photos supply details ranging from household income, number of hours worked per week, percentage of income used for food, typical meals, and most-treasured or most-coveted items, to comparisons of various countries' televisions and toilets.

This book has haunted me since my first encounter with it years ago. Even
Sep 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
A blogger I followed had this on her book list and I immediately knew I wanted to read this book. I had already seen the project of a week a groceries around the world, ( and loved it. I wanted to have a chance seeing possession around the world. Luckily our local grocery store had donated this to the library a few years back, so I was able to borrow it right away. It was fascinating! I loved the small fact box about each family. Knowing how big their hom ...more
Feb 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the most absorbing nonfiction books I have ever read. One median family from 31 countries was chosen to remove all the contents of its home and display those contents in front of the home. Surprisingly, USA was not the home with the most contents. Saudia Arabia was, with Iceland second, money wise. Saudia Arabia's family was probably not very common since median is the middle between High and Low. A Saudi low is like a 3rd world home, but a Saudi High would be so rich that a median would ...more
Nov 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
One of my all-time favorite books: big beautiful photographs of families from all over the world, posed in front of their homes, with all of their worldly possessions on display. Families participated in Vietnam, India, China, Russia, Tibet, Japan, Finland, Cuba, Brazil... and Texas, among other places.
If you're ever feeling sorry for yourself, you slobby American, just thumb through this book for about 10 seconds.

I love the generally optimistic view of humanity in these photos: laughing famili
Elaine Meszaros
Dec 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
These photo essays are short pictorials of an average family in various countries around the world. Menzel found families willing to bring the entire contents of their houses out so he could photograph them. The images are fascinating and startling. Vignettes, like TVs around the world, keep the book from seeming too bleak. Included on the 3-4 pages on each family are stats. on the average income, life expectancy, literacy rate and birth rate for each country. Personal interviews are also includ ...more
Feb 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is a great choice for demonstrating distribution of wealth, different cultural values, and just appreciation of different styles of life around the world. A family is photographed outside their home, be it a McMansion or a reed hut, with all their possessions in the yard in front of them. Great for grades 3-8 and up for learning about different cultures.
Julie Main
Mar 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite books of all time! I pick it up whenever I start feeling ungrateful or my heart and focus in the world is on the wrong things. It puts life into perspective. The book is tremendously visual - it's a photo journal. It shows families from all over the world and the entirety of the material possessions in front of their homes. Fantastic. ...more
Lisa Vegan
May 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everybody
It misses out on 5 stars from me because no variation within countries is shown, and that's a flaw I really noticed, but it's otherwise a wonderful book that gives quite a bit of information about the economic status of the world's citizens country by country. ...more
May 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I loved this more than I thought I would. In addition to the wonderful photography, the information about each family and country was so well written. I didn't think I would read them all, but I did. I wish it wasn't so dated, I would love to see an updated version. ...more
Apr 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfic, adult, photo-book
We've had a copy of this on our the shelf at my childhood home since... yeah, about 1994. It really has played a part in shaping how I see the world.

Amazing, groundbreaking work.
Susan Olesen
Apr 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Wow. I mean, I love photo essays (such as Family of Man series) anyway, and perhaps this is slightly out of date (1993), but it was no less amazing. The authors and photographers traveled to more than 30 different countries to profile a random (usually) family and their homes and possessions, painting an intimate portrait of life in that country.

Some seem hum-drum normal to us in the US - Germany, England - and others, such as Ethiopia, where the family's wish in the coming year is a second cha
Sep 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This stunning book is the pictorial result of travel to 30 specific countries, not to see the sights and tourist attractions, but to focus time and camera lens on 30 willing families in each of those countries. The photographer captured each particular family with their household possessions in a cover photo titled "The Big Picture" and each possession pictured (they were moved to an outdoor setting with the home in the background) was listed in an accompanying indexed photo. Then, additional ph ...more
Oct 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
My kids AND I found this book absolutely fascinating! We hated having to return it...but there were holds on it so we could not renew. This might be worth finding's like a grown up/older kid version of the favorite "Children Just Like Me" DK book. MUCH more in-depth snapshots of living, more countries visited, more pictures....Families are highlighted, instead of just an individual child. It's getting a bit dated so it's depictions might be a bit dated as well...but still very effect ...more
Frederick Rhine
Oct 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful book that I recommend to everyone. The authors persuaded an "average family" in terms of income in each of 30 countries (rich, poor, and in in between) to display all of their possessions on the lawn, which the authors then photographed for the book. The authors also give demographic information for each country. Conditions in the different countries vary greatly, from affluence and comfort to grinding poverty. A fascinating and eye-opening book. ...more
Mar 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A real eye-opener.
Although this book is now more than 25 years old, its age is immaterial, if you'll pardon the pun. Candid and very graphic (in a positive, educational way) photos of families and lifestyles all over the world would still point out current social and economic gaps. I'd recommend this book for anyone of any age who is interested in people and cultures outside their own. I would point out that Canada is not represented in any way in the book.
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