Saturday, March 5, 2011

Postcolonial archaeology takes over the World (Archaeology)

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.


Friedman, Jonathan
2002    From Roots to Routes: Tropes for Trippers. Anthropological Theory 2:21-36.

2009    Occidentalism and the Categories of Hegemonic Rule. Theory Culture Society 26:85-102.

Gosden, Chris
2001    Postcolonial Archaeology: Issues of Culture, Identity, and Knowledge. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by Ian Hodder, pp. 241-261. Polity Press, Oxford.

Hedström, Peter
2005    Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Kapoor, Ilan
2002    Capitalism, Culture, Agency: Dependency Versus Postcolonial Theory. Third World Quarterly 23:647-664.

Leone, Mark P.
2009    Making Historical Archaeology Postcolonial. In International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, edited by Teresita Majewski and David Gaimster, pp. 159-168. Springer, New York.

Lewis, Herbert S.
1998    The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and its Consequences. American Anthropologist 100:716-731.

Meskell, Lynn
2002    The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:279-301.

Mjøset, Lars
2001    Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

2009    The Contextualist Approach to Social Science Methodology. In The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods, edited by David Byrne and Charles C. Ragin, pp. 39-68. Sage, London.

Parry, Benita
2004    Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique. Routledge, New York.

Robinette, Nick
2006    Review of Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique, by Parry. Cultural Critique 62:207-209.

Sahlins, Marshall
1999    Two or Three Things That I Know About Culture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5:399-421.

Van Dommelen, Peter
2006    Colonial Matters: Material Culture and Postcolonial Theory in Colonial Situations. In Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, Susanne Kuechler-Fogden, Michael Rowlands, and Patricia Spyer, pp. 104-124. Sage, London.

2011    Postcolonial Archaeologies Between Discourse and Practice. World Archaeology 43(1):1-6.

Webster, Jane and N. Cooper (editors)
1996    Roman Imperialism: Post-Colonial Perspectives. School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester, Leicester.


haecceities said...

All constructivist/constructionist approaches are part of the "linguistic turn" in social science. Their critique of "essentialism" leads ultimately to a "social essentialism" where the "social" constructs something but it is never clear of what is constructed and what the construction material consists of. Fortunately, there is a "new" movement towards realism and materialism in the social sciences. Anything labeled "post" will be passe in a few years.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, I hope you are right! I have been heartened by work on realism and materialism in sociology, but less so in cultural anthropology.

Marcus said...

I don't buy this stuff either. There is some work on 'other perspectives', though, that warrants further thinking. Especially relevant here is the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. A good sample of his thought is to be found in his 'anthropology AND science':

Apparently this Brazilian approach has now also passed on to Mexican anthropologists:

Even if one does not agree with this, it is surely more stimulating to consider than the sophistry in Western academia. I also note the interesting resonance of this with the WEIRD study by Henrich et al. 2010:

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand why some feel there is not enough room in archaeology for many perspectives. I do think that saying postcolonial theory does not contribute to understanding past societies is too general. I understand what you mean, but, in the very least, challenging some assumptions of history, change, and development that were born from colonialism does help us understand past societies. Furthermore, there is both good and bad postcolonial theory. There is useful and productive postcolonial theory and there is complete deconstructivist tendencies in others. I prefer the postcolonial theory that stress historical political economy, which helps understand past society in two ways: 1) It offers general analyses of the distribution of wealth and power; and 2) it stresses long term, continually unfolding connections.


Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus- I was not familiar with Viveiros de Castro, whose work looks very interesting - I will take a look. And I have talked about the WEIRD study previously in this blog - it is quite important.

@Anonymous- I have 2 reactions to your comments. First, I agree that many theoretical approaches, including some that I disagree with strongly, do have some useful points to contribute to scholarship, things that would probably benefit my own work. But on the other hand, as a committed scientist and materialist, I just don't see approaches like postcolonialism or poststructurallism advancing our understanding of the past in a significant way. I see them as putting up smokescreens that obscure and inhibit empirical scholarship on past human social dynamics.

If you compare a poststructuralist account of commoner agency in the past with a rational choice account, I think the differences are clear. In my opinion the poststructuralist account does not explain empirical patterns and argues by assertion, whereas the rational choice account IS explanatory. But these differences are rooted at the epistemological and ontological levels, so logical argument will not resolve them. Idealist humanities-oriented scholars will reject my views out of hand.

Anonymous said...

I just think you are lumping together way too many scholars works under the rubric of post-colonial theory. There is strongly materialist, post-colonial theory, which you are totally ignoring. The work of Asad, Nash, Harvey, etc. They are all materialist perspectives of the inequalities of production and consumption. They are also historical and can be considered post-colonial. I understand your critique of post-structural theory, but I do not think all post-colonial theory is guilty of your charges. I myself am a rabid materialist, and increasingly so. In my view, there is no reason why the perspectives that emanate from post-colonial theory cannot be targeted from a scientific perspective. Post-colonial theory does not mean post-modern theory. The latter tends to slash the achilles tendon of archaeology's ability to speak truth to power, thereby reinforcing the power structures postmodern theory seeks to criticize...

Michael E. Smith said...

@anonymous - This is one reason why I don't like social theory. I'm an empirical kind of guy who gets lost among these fine distinctions in theoretical perspectives. Maybe I phrased my comments too broadly. What I tried to critique are archaeological applications of postcolonial theory. I have read the examples in my bibliography, and my critique applies to them. Perhaps there are other kinds of postcolonial archaeology that are free from the defects I list.

But I'm not sure exactly what postcolonial theory might contribute to an understanding of, say, ancient imperialism, that the standard materialist social science approaches lack (hence my earlier comment about commoner agency). So maybe there are materialist postcolonial theorists out there, beyond archaeology, and perhaps their work could be adapted to contribute to an archaeological understanding of the past. I'd like to think that I have an open mind about such things, but my gut reaction is, "why bother?"

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I have to say that I am so sick of poststructural theory and practice theory. Just utterly tired of it. I am not necessarily sick of the work of the folks who get cited or the broader intellectual genealogy, but I can't take reading the same old "I will now apply practice theory to..." (now cite Ortner, Bourdieu, maybe De Certeu, and Giddens...despite the fact that Giddens never talked about practice...). There was a really interesting looking article in AA on Oaxaca that I had to just put down before I could even get through the abstract as it claimed to understand something via the application of poststructural theory. I consider myself fairly well-read, but it is just getting so incredibly superficial. Not helping to understand the past is less relevant than the damned superficiality of intellectual band-waggoning. Drives me nuts. There is no sense of larger problems or connections in ideas...just consume, consume, consume. The mediocre is becoming the status quo. I like to joke that everytime some writes "I will apply practice" (insert typical citations), that an angel loses its wings. That aside, what does happen is that the collective intellect of academia dies a little...

Anonymous said...

I dont know if this is good or bad, but I have noticed that if I talk Post-structural style, I always have rich conversations with cultural anthropologists. If I talk nuts and bolts and catchments and estimates, I am treated like an intellectual gorilla...

Michael E. Smith said...

I guess it depends on what kind of cultural anthropologists one is talking to. I don't have any postmodernists or poststructuralists in my department, and colleagues would probably think I was nuts if I started talking that way (and I'd have to rehearse heavily). Topics of conversation around here are more along the lines of social networks, inequality, or the evolution of cooperation.

Anonymous said...

@ anon: Keep in mind, there are more @#$holes in academia than nice folks...

Al West said...

I've just been diving into your blog archives and enjoying some of these well-written rant-ish episodes. I have found exactly the same issues with exactly the same material. And unlike your optimistic commenter, haecceities, I don't think this situation will change any time soon. I expect it will get worse, actually. There are strong economic incentives encouraging anthropologists and archaeologists towards obscurantism and nonsense, and lots of people seem to have a problem with genuine scientific approaches, as opposed to approaches that merely adopt a veneer of scientific enterprise.

I can't say I agree that there should be any room for "many perspectives", either. Biology doesn't really allow for "many perspectives" about major theoretical points, and I don't think empirical problems in the human sciences are different in principle to those in biology.

Victoria Clayton said...

There seem to be as many different archaeologies as there are archaeologists. Whatever one thinks one is doing with archaeology, whatever one believes the archaeological record is able to reveal, appears to me to dictate the approach one takes. So if you have a scientific question about how people lived in the past (eg. 'do these bones come from domesticated sheep' ie. did these people farm?') clearly you are going to have to use scientific methods. But if you want to know why that sheep bone was carved into a human image, you are going to have to ask different questions of the archaeological record and potentially use different kinds of methods to unearth the answers (pardon the pun). If you don't believe such answers are possible, then archaeology remains a science. But surely archaeology is different to natural science? Doesn't the fact that the archaeological record was created by those complex creatures, people, necessitate that it is?

Michael E. Smith said...

Victoria - I view archaeology as a social science, so it shares some traits with the natural sciences and some traits with the humanities.