Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bad revisonist history: The postprocessualists invented household archaeology!

I was quite surprised recently to read that postprocessualists were responsible for developing the household archaeology approach. This is so wrong that I'm not sure where to start. I was reading William Fowler's introduction to a special section of the journal Ancient Mesoamerica (vol 25, no. 2, 2014, pp. 367-68). The section is called "Households make history in ancient Mesoamerica. Some of the articles are pretty good, and some are pretty bad.

After reviewing some aspects of postprocessual archaeology in an approving tone, Fowler states:
 "It should be clear by now why a true focus on households did not come into archaeology until the 1980's ushered in a concern with the individual, agency-structure, and practice. The emphasis on cultural evolution, complexity, and hierarchy in processual archaeology obscured the importance of the household and individual action." (p.368).

Problem 1: Chronology;  Household archaeology, with a "true focus on households," started before the 1980s. "Household archaeology" got its start in the 1970s. The Early Mesoamerican Village was published in 1976, describing work done in the early and mid-1970s (Flannery 1976). This was a highly empirical work, focusing on house form, household activities, and the integration of households into communities. (A personal note: this book, which I read during fieldschool at Cahokia in 1976, had the greatest influence on my research and career of anything I've ever read).  By 1980 research around the world was focusing on the house and household as units of analysis. The first major self-conscious synthesis of "household archaeology" as a distinctive approach was published in 1982 (Wilk & Rathje 1982), and by 1983 major syntheses of Mesoamerican household archaeology were appearing (e.g., Rathje 1983, Tourtellot 1983). By 1988, Mesoamerican household archaeology had arrived (Wilk & Ashmore 1988), but still with little influence from postprocessual archaeology.

Problem 2: Intellectual context of early household archaeology. These early studies in household archaeology rarely cited Hodder and cannot by any means be labelled as "postprocessualist" approaches. Postprocessualists typically offer a simplistic view of the theoretical landscape of archaeology, suggesting that strict Binfordian processualism was the only major alternative to postprocessualist thought. This seems to be Fowler's position. But the early household archaeology did not fall into either the processualist or the postprocessualist camps. The major theoretical inpetus came from the rational-choice models of households that were common in the social sciences and social history in the 1980s. The major theoretical and empirical synthesis of this approach was the volume Households: Comparative and Historical Studies of the Domestic Group (Netting, Wilk & Arnould 1984). Robert Mc. Netting's comparative and theoretical work on households was particularly influential among the early household archaeologists. He participated in a number of archaeological conferences in the late 1970s, which was one reason his approach to households was so influential in archaeology (Netting 1977, 1982). Richard Wilk was also very important, since his archaeological background helped bridge the gap between archaeology and the realm of theoretical and comparative household studies. Netting and Wilk cannot be placed into either the processual or postprocessual camp, and neither can the early household archaeology approach.

Hodder didn't publish Symbols in Action until 1982, and his major statement of postprocessual archaeology appeared in 1985. The early household archaeology was able to free itself from the constraints of processual archaeology by adopting the rational-choice theoretical approach of Netting, Wilk and others. But its practitioners had little or  nothing to do with postprocessualist archaeology.

I'm not sure just when postprocessualist household archaeology got started. The earliest clear example in my database are some papers in Samson (1990). But since I don't consider postprocessual archaeology to be rigorous or useful, it is seriously underrepresented in my Endnote file. But in the case of the origins of household archaeology, you don't have to be a rabid anti-postprocessualist / anti-poststructuralist / anti-postmodernist like me to acknowledge that household archaeology developed and grew into a major archaeological topic without any influence from those approaches.

And if you really think that processual and postprocessual are the major theoretical alternatives in archaeology (as Fowler seems to think, and as Gillespie 2013:307 argues), then please read some works by Richard Blanton, or check my urban theory paper, or just read some social science literature outside of anthropology or archaeology.


Flannery, Kent V. (editor)  (1976)  The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

Gillespie, Susan D.  (2013)  Early monumentality in North America: another comparative perspective for Africa. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48(2):301-314.

Hodder, Ian  (1982)  Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hodder, Ian  (1985)  Postprocessual Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 8:1-26.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1977)  Maya Subsistence: Mythologist, Analogies, Possibilities. In The Origins of Maya Civilization, edited by Richard E. W. Adams, pp. 299-334. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1982)  Some Home Truths on Household Size and Wealth. American Behavioral Scientist 25:641-662.

Netting, Robert McC., Richard R. Wilk and Eric J. Arnould (editors)  (1984)  Households: Comparative and Historical Studies of the Domestic Group. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Rathje, William L.  (1983)  To the Salt of the Earth: Some Comments on Household Archaeology Among the Maya. In Prehistoric Settlement Patterns: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Evon Z. Vogt and Richard M. Leventhal, pp. 23-34. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Samson, Ross (editor)  (1990)  The Social Archaeology of Houses. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Tourtellot, Gair  (1983)  An Assessment of Classic Maya Household Composition. In Prehistoric Settlement Patterns: Essays in Honor Gordon R. Willey, edited by Evon Z. Vogt and Richard M.
Leventhal, pp. 35-54. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Wilk, Richard R. and Wendy Ashmore (editors)  (1988)  Household and Community in the Mesoamerican Past. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Wilk, Richard R. and William L. Rathje (editors)  (1982)  Archaeology of the Household: Building a Prehistory of Domestic Life. Special Issue of American Behavioral Scientist vol. 25 (6).


Ric Luz said...

What a great article mate. I was searching for blogs on archaeology and came across yours. I will certainly have it in my favourites from now on. I will not be commenting on the subject Household itself yet as my knowledge on the subject is very little! Im just an undergraduate student at this stage, but keen to learn more and I think I just got to the right place, cheers from New Zealand

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Rick said...

Academia in general has a short attention span, and I think a lot of us have had this experience of collective amnesia. This is not the only article or book that ignores my earlier work which was pretty well known- look at the spate of writing about "House" societies back in the 90s inspired by a misreading of one of Levi-Strauss' many bad ideas. The description pretty much duplicated Netting's definition of smallholders. Sometimes I find it reassuring that things I have published are ignored and then reinvented (usually by someone in a more prestigious department). Science always works like this - many good ideas, like inventions, pop up in different places about the same time. On the other hand I really get steamed when it is clear that I have been selectively edited out of someone's bibliography, for unknown reasons (though again I suspect a status thing). Nice article, worthy of a broader discussion about citation and slective memory.