I really dislike postcolonial theory and postcolonial archaeology, so I was not thrilled to see that the current issue of World Archaeology is devoted to this topic. Issue editor Peter van Dommelen (2011) contributes an introduction to the papers. Now perhaps postcolonial perspectives contribute something to understanding the current and recent context of archaeological research in some parts of the world; I say “perhaps” because I am not convinced one way or the other. But postcolonial theory, in my humble opinion, contributes nothing to our understanding of past societies through archaeological evidence.
I have three main objections to postcolonial theory.
(1) Postcolonial theory is anti-scientific. It is an example of what sociologist/philosopher of social science Lars Mjøset calls “constructivist” theory (Mjøset 2001), or theory with a “social-philosophical attitude” (Mjøset 2009). It does not try to explain the past, but rather to interpret the past through a political lens. In contrast, scientific approaches within the social sciences investigate causal mechanisms and empirical generalizations in order to build a body of empirical and theoretical knowledge about society; see Hedström (2005), or other sources that I cite on middle-range theory in Smith (2011).
(2) Postcolonial theory is anti-materialist. The primary focus is on representation and discourse (Van Dommelen 2011:2), a theoretical approach that Benita Parry (2004) calls “textual idealism” (see also Robinette 2006). In the words of Ilan Kapoor (2002:661), “Postcolonialism’s emphasis on cultural and representational issues leads it to ignore important material concerns (.e.g., poverty, health, etc.).” Yet these material concerns should be among the primary targets of archaeological investigation, in my view.
(3) Postcolonial scholars distort the history of scholarship in order to bolster their arguments. For example, postcolonialists are particularly concerned to attack the “essentialism” of prior scholarship. In Chris Gosden’s (2001:242) words, “At the core of postcolonial theory is an attack on any view of essentialism in culture.” Yet many anthropologists object to the characterization of prior work as essentialist. Jonathan Friedman (2002:32), for example, notes that, “Sahlins suggests that the essentialism targeted by post-colonial anthropologists is their own contemporary construction” (he cites Sahlins 1999). See also Lewis (1998), or Friedman (2009).
But these arguments are not going to convince postmodernists, postcolonialists, poststructuralists, or other post scholars to abandon their endeavor. I just get fed up with these approaches, whose view of the nature of history and society, and the nature and purpose of scholarship, are radically different from my own. Some colleagues insist these are fringe views, not worth worrying about. But then why does World Archaeology devote a whole issue to “postcolonial archaeologies”? If you are not familiar with postcolonial archaeology, don’t take my word for it; read the original works (e.g., Gosden 2001; Leone 2009; Meskell 2002; Van Dommelen 2006, 2011; Webster and Cooper 1996), and see what you think.
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