Rantin' and Rovin'

Theory Trends in Archaeology

I posted a while ago about how archaeological theory matters a lot. I then wrote a post about how theory is really just the tools we use to make sense of the data we have. Dissecting major theories into discreet building blocks (like LEGO bricks) and then combining them in new ways should be encouraged, because that’s what theories are.

And then a fellow blogger/historian and I started getting into a conversation about all this and he directed me to a wonderful post of his talking about some of the issues of theory in academia today (at least when it comes to archaeology and history). I highly recommend everyone read it, because it’s wonderful.

At the end of his post, he asks for our opinions on the matter. Since he and I were already engaged in a discussion on this, I figured I’d give mine, but in a blog post rather than a comment.

People like Bourdieu, Geertz, de Saussure, Levi Strauss, Boas, Whorf, Sapir, Kroeber, Mead, Benedict, Schiffer, Binford, Marx, Engels, and many, many others are seen as outdated. They were writing their theories roughly fifty or more years ago, and they’ve been somewhat disproven by later work. And many academics feel that we should therefore not use any of their theories, because they’re outdated.

Here’s the thing: None of the theories put forth by these academics were ever really disproven in their entirety. Not really. No matter who you look at, there’s something in their work that makes sense, at least for certain specific situations or types of data.

Did processualism answer every question? No. Does it work for everything? No. Is it the be all and end all of research? No.

But processualism is all about a systematic gathering and analysis of data.

Post-processualism doesn’t really do that, and any post-processualist who does should acknowledge that the data-driven part of their work is derived at least in part from the work of processualism, of Binford and Schiffer and their colleagues.

All of our use of databases and statistics wouldn’t necessarily be around without processualism, and the methods created by processualists of collecting empirical data are still generally in use today. Sure, they’ve been expanded on, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist and they aren’t still incredibly useful.

de Saussure is also often dismissed (at least in the US, I don’t know that UK archaeologists even look at de Saussure at all) as outdated due to certain conclusions he made on language. Academics often say his work is outdated and shouldn’t be studied as anything other than part of anthropological history.

But can we really argue against his idea that the specific words we use in our language are completely arbitrary? A single word, such as “sheep” (the signifier), does not in itself look like a sheep (the signified object), nor do the specific letters have any relationship to the word.  “Domba”, “oveja”, “mouton,” and “sheep” are different symbols, yet signify the same animal.  How can that not be arbitrary?

Another idea de Saussure originated in his work was that these symbols only gain meaning through their relationship to other symbols in the system. The term ‘blue’ only has meaning in relation to other terms for color, and terms for color only have meaning in relation to other words in our language. Every word is defined by other words, which automatically means it is defined by its relationship to those words.

Now, are there things that Saussure said in his lectures (as recorded by students) that are questionable? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean everything Saussure said should be disregarded, and it certainly shouldn’t be disregarded just because he wrote it in the 1950s and a few elements were found to be questionable.

Hammers (in some fashion) were one of the first tools invented. They were invented before humans were anatomically modern. And yet, we still use it. We don’t care how old it is, we use it because it works. The design has changed, because we see there are parts, elements, building blocks that can be improved. But we don’t eliminate the entire tool just because we decided it could use a handle, and we still acknowledge that our modern tool comes from the various iterations of that tool over the millennia (and more).

Treating theory any different makes very little sense to me.

Now, having completed one masters degree in the US and another in the UK, I will say that the approach to theory differs greatly between the two nations. The American school of thought knows that it is part of anthropology and that it came from and is connected to theories in the wider field of anthropology. There is a much higher emphasis on studying the history of theory in each of the subfields, which most American archaeologists must do to obtain a degree. There is also a higher emphasis on understanding that theory, using it to argue a point, and experimenting with theory. Taking it apart and putting the pieces back together to create something new, sing theory in new ways, thinking outside the box.

One essay I wrote in grad school in the US analyzed the materiality of the graduate student syllabus using Hegel’s lord/bondsman (or master/slave) dialectic and then turned around and looked at it from Latour’s ideas of fetishes and factishes. Another essay analyzed an ancestor statue from Indonesia not as an idol (since that was too easy), but from Bourdieu’s ideas concerning houses (since it was believed to house an ancestor) combined with Brown’s ideas of the relationship between person, object, and thing. I got full marks on both.

In the UK, there was almost no emphasis on theory in my archaeological degree; it was generally all data-driven, and site reports were the main source for everything. When I attempted to take other people’s data (or gather my own) and analyze it in new ways, I consistently received worse marks than when I conducted a simple literature review and repeated what others had already said.

Granted, this was just my experience, and there were some professors in the UK who certainly encouraged my experimentation. But the overwhelming majority didn’t. The opposite was true in the US: there were certain individuals who wished I would just repeat what others had said, but the overwhelming majority encouraged my experimentation.

In both countries, however, we still have a tendency to dismiss a theory because it is old or because parts of it were disproven. I see no reason why the age of a theory should matter if it still works. I also see no reason why we should throw out an entire set of ideas when only one of them was found to be flawed (unless, of course, the other ideas hinge on logical connections to the idea proven to be flawed). And I feel that the sooner we recognize this and engage with these theories, the better our discussions of the past will be.

One thought on “Theory Trends in Archaeology

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    Amen! And sorry that I come to this post so late. I suppose there is a question raised about whether bodies of theory can be dissected like this, with useful parts carried away from the structure within which they were built, or whether those structures in some sense determine the things that the idea can be used for… but the method you describe is very much how i work, all the same, so I hope you’re right!

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