I am revising my textbook, The Aztecs, for a third edition. In the previous editions (1996 and 2003), I used the phrase “social archaeology” as a contrast with “monumental archaeology” to illustrate the dominant approaches to the archaeology of ancient civilizations. But now I am having trouble deciding whether to continue to use the phrase in this sense, because it was hijacked by the postmodernists to refer to something very different from the kind of archaeology that I do. For me, work under the banner of “social archaeology” has changed from a good thing to a bad thing.
“Social archaeology” was first used as a label for research on social topics by processual archaeologists. The phrase was used as the title of Colin Renfrew’s Inaugural Lecture at the University of Southampton in 1973, and then in titles of books in the 1970s and 1980s (Redman 1978; Renfrew 1984). In my own case, I cited Renfrew as exemplifying the kind of social archaeology that I do and that I advocated in my textbook and elsewhere.
In the late 1980s, “social archaeology” was taken up by the postprocessualists initially as a way to describe what was wrong with processualist thinking. Chapter 2 of Shanks and Tilley (1987), titled “Social Archaeology,” was a critique of Renfrew and other processualist thinkers. But Shanks and Tilley go on to outline their program of postprocessual theory, which they called “critical social archaeology” (p.60). At about the same time, Barrett (1988) called for “reconstituting a social archaeology” with an emphasis on discourse and the practice theory of Giddens. Soon after, Blackwell initiated a book series called “Social Archaeology” with Ian Hodder as the editor.
Through the 1990s some archaeologists continued to use the phrase “social archaeology” in Renfrew’s sense (Patterson 1994; Smith 1996:5; Webster 1996). By the turn of the millennium, however, it was spreading fast as a new name for postprocessual archaeology. The Journal of Social Archaeology began publishing in 2001, and the Blackwell Companion to Social Archaeology appeared in 2004 (Preucel and Meskell 2004).
As an old-fashioned materialist with a scientific epistemology, I have little use for the “new social archaeology,” or postprocessual archaeology, or whatever you want to call it. I still find the concepts “social archaeology” and “monumental archaeology” useful in lectures to the public to explain how archaeologists approach the study of ancient states and empires. But can I continue to use this dichotomy in a new edition of my textbook (with caveats, or course)? Or should I just give up and accept the victory of the postprocessualists in hijacking the phrase social archaeology?
This kind of thing is one reason why I often feel out of synch with much contemporary thought in archaeology and anthropology. In an upcoming book on social science methods, political scientist John Gerring (2011) suggests that the interpretivist orientation of modern cultural anthropology puts it outside of the main methodological and theoretical currents in the social sciences. And I find myself increasingly drawn to theory and concepts in sociology, political science, geography, and other fields in place of what passes for theory in archaeology and anthropology (Smith 2011). I’m sad to see social archaeology disappear as a concept that I can relate to.
Barrett, John C.
1988 Fields of Discourse: Reconstituting a Social Archaeology. Critique of Anthropology 7(3):5-16.
2011 Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Patterson, Thomas C.
1994 Social Archaeology in Latin America: An Appreciation. American Antiquity 59(3):531-537.
Preucel, Robert W. and Lynn Meskell (editors)
2004 Blackwell Companion to Social Archaeology. Blackwell, Oxford.
Redman, Charles L. (editor)
1978 Social Archaeology: Beyond Subsistence and Dating. Academic Press, New York.
1984 Approaches to Social Archaeology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley
1987 Social Theory and Archaeology. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Smith, Michael E.
1996 The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).
Webster, Gary S.
1996 Social Archaeology and the Irrational. Current Anthropology 37(4):609-627.