Exploring Academic Values and concepts: Have Archaeologists Lost the Capacity to Talk About Inequality?

Organisers Adrian Davis (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David) and Robin Weaver (University of Birmingham)
Emails PG329@tsd.ac.ukRBW444@bham.ac.uk

Identity has become a major touch-stone for archaeologists but have we neglected the roles of class and ideology in the construction and expression of different social identities?

Many archaeologists value the multi-vocal and ‘radically open’ character of postmodernism [1]. In academia generally, Marxian grand narratives, such as class, are out; ‘negotiated identities’ are in [2]. Meanwhile, class identity and ideology appear to be important in society: a 2010 study suggests that in Britain “There is high – and growing – concern about income inequality” [3]. Furthermore, 29% of people chose class-based terms (over gendered, age-specific, ethnic and religious identities) as their first choice to describe their social identity [4]. In this session we ask:
·     What values do archaeologists hold and how are these generated, conceptualized and communicated to the public?
·     Do web technologies really aid multi-vocality and a critical awareness of the past?
·     How are class histories and conflicts portrayed by the UK heritage industry?
·     Above all, in an increasingly unequal and class-aware society, should we place less emphasis on idealistic ‘being-in-the-world’ and rather more on the material realities of living, labouring and surviving within it?
This panel explores whether we do not actually require the concepts of class and ideology to be able to deal with social identity. Therefore, we ask: has postmodernism impoverished our ability to confront real inequality?The session culminates in a round table discussion of the individual papers and the issues raised, led by Iain Matheson (Philosophy, Glasgow).

1.     E.g. Hodder 1999. The Archaeological Process. London: Blackwell.
2.     Hobsbawm 2010. How to Change the World. London: Little Brown.
3.     National Centre for Social Research. 27TH Annual Report, 2010: http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/606943/nat%20 british%20social%20attitudes%20survey%20summary%201.pdf
4.     National Centre for Social Research: British Social Attitudes Survey 2008: http://www.britsocat.com/Body.aspx?control=BritsocatMarginals&AddSuperMap=LBIdent1N&JumpCrossMarginals=yes

Have Archaeologists Lost The Capacity to Talk About Inequality? Marxian reflections on class & ideology

Speakers: Adrian Davis (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David) & Robin Weaver (University of Birmingham)
Emails: PG329@tsd.ac.uk & RBW444@bham.ac.uk

We would tend to answer the above question in the affirmative. We suggest that archaeologists find it very difficult to talk about inequality. Although for some this is no doubt a sin of omission or disinterest in the issue, for many it is a problem of theory. We argue that our current analytical and interpretive toolkit is an archaeological by-product of a Humanities-wide post-modern corrective to Marxist meta-narratives and, as such, has become unfit for the purpose of describing the sometimes harsh realities of living, labouring and surviving in past social formations, or of attending to the inequalities and ideologies that have shaped the modern world.
In this joint paper we begin by introducing the session’s four case studies, which demonstrate how archaeologists can address these core issues by questioning our values, concepts and practices with inequality in mind. We then offer a dialectical and ‘New Materialist’ corrective to the fragmentary, idealist post-modernist hegemonies in archaeology, which in our view have consistently under-valued and marginalized the concepts of class and ideology and their crucial role in understanding the social conditions under which groups and individuals in society construct, express and maintain their social identities, and assign identities to others. Our examples are drawn from philosophy and the history of the social sciences (AD), and from human geographical perspectives on landscape archaeology (RBW)

Re-approaching inequality, ideology & identity through contemporary social theory

Speakers: Stella Souvatzi (Hellenic Open University)

This paper finds problem not with the concept of inequality (or of ideology and identity) per se, but rather with the mainstream archaeological perspectives on it (and, by extension, the academic values implicit in these perspectives). Proposals and models abound in archaeology linking inequality only with political hierarchy and centralisation and with complexity; taking hierarchy as the chief mechanism driving social integration; equating economic differences with social differences; seeing all differentiation of power, ideology and identity as hierarchical; and assuming economic rationality, individualism and self-interest as the driving force of social action. Thus, archaeological constructions of the past reflect the ideal image of Western political systems and inequality seems to have become a matter of principle instead of an object of research. This objectification has the implication that people are passive or that such higher-level ‘structures’ somehow exist independent of their human components or of history.

The paper argues for a separation of these concepts and explores alternative perspectives, relating to current debates in archaeology and the social sciences that challenge the notion of inequality as differentiation solely by political or economic hierarchisation and argue that aspects of hierarchy and heterarchy and multiple overlapping hierarchies can exist in the same society (e.g. Chapman 2003, Crumley 2005, 2007; Kohring and Wynne-Jones, ed. 2007; McIntosh 1999). It suggests that although we as archaeologists have not lost the capacity to talk about inequality, for a fuller and theoretically informed understanding of it we do need to address a range of issues wider than those conventionally considered, including the concept of heterarchy (Crumley 1987; 1995) and its non-exclusionary relationship with hierarchy; the many examples of diffused or horizontally counterpoised power; theories and patterns of collective action and the contradiction of collectivity and individualism; ideologies and mechanisms promoting egalitarianism; and most of all, the diverse ways, different scales and various forms in which a society integrates numerous differentiated parts into a whole.

The Internet Delusion & Public Archaeology Online

Speaker: Lorna Richardson (University College London)
Email: l.richardson@ucl.ac.uk

It is a common assumption that web technologies have significantly equalised access to previously privileged information to anyone with an Internet connection. Within archaeology, and especially public archaeology, there is a growing awareness that the Internet can provide tools with which to involve, engage and elicit content, from non-archaeologists, through the use of social and participatory media. Harnessing social media, it is proposed, could widen public access to archaeological information, help develop public understanding of and involvement in, archaeology and wider heritage issues, and foster online community identity, situated around the topic of archaeology.

Instead, my paper will look at the use of the Internet in public and community archaeology from a Bourdieuian perspective. It will emphasise how and why archaeology on the Internet can be affected by the transference of advantage from respected institutions and elites in ‘real-life’ archaeology. The paper will discuss issues of “socio-technical capital” and index authority, with access to hardware, software and specific technical knowledge and skills limited in such a way that can maintain the balance of inequalities of production, access, voice and community in online ‘public’ archaeology.

Gnosiotopia, the heterotopy of knowledge: archaeological academic practices & the creation of a disciplinary (fantasy) topos

Speaker: Athena Hadji (Open University of Cyprus)

The concept of the archaeological academic community as a heterotopia is presented here, drawing from Michel Foucault’s classic perception of “other spaces”.  Based on the equally Foucaultian conceptual triptych knowledge-language-power, it is suggested here that archaeological knowledge and academic practices can never be “neutral” and “objective”, let alone equal. We exercise through knowledge, as it is transferred in an academic context, the power of a construct, which might be cognitive, but still can be defined and measured only via space conceptualizations; in other words, what is defined here as gnosiotopia (from Greek gnosis and topos, the heterotopy of knowledge), which, like all places, possesses its own borders, norms, contents, signifiers and signifieds, as well as consequences for all parties involved.

Conclusions are drawn by a study of archaeological academic practices in Greece, but I suspect the situation does not differ much elsewhere. A paradox emerges: whereas archaeology from its inception was deeply rooted in inequality (of knowledge, access, and privilege), in the 21st century, not only does it neglect the discussion of inequality in its practices (confining this discussion to applications of class theory in the study of past societies for the most part), but also – and, in my opinion, more important – is increasingly losing its relevance and resonance with regard to real-life inequality, which has emerged more critically than ever globally.

More current than ever is the issue of a space-and-time relationship between academic life and social reality in its entirety: how susceptible are our academic practices to a constant reshaping of contemporary (urban) cultures? How sufficient are the traditional tools and the traditional roles of teacher and disciple for the acquisition, transfer and dissemination of knowledge? In a total academic heterotopy, is there space for individual utopias? In the final analysis, is this “other space” of any relevance to anybody but its inhabitants?

Class, Heritage & the Archaeology of the Peoples’ Century

Speaker: David Sables (Trinity St. David’s)

A significant area of British heritage is being undervalued and rather than being recognised as part of our rich and diverse cultural inheritance, large sections of the recent past are seen as something that is best not talked about (Faull, Pers com.). This undervaluing is reflected in the lack of academic and archaeological investigation of industrial sites when compared to other areas (Palmer 2011). Much of this lack of interest stems from the use of industry as a core, around which the British national identity and class system has been constructed over the last two hundred years (Thompson 1976).

However, from the late 20th century this identity has come under pressure as Britain’s industries declined in the face of global competition and the population lost a connection with the production process (Hothi 2005). UK governments have sought to reconstruct the British self image and consign these industries as belonging to the nation’s past. As a consequence of this the investigation of heritage has become an industry in its own right (Connerton 2009) driven by political and economic necessities. This heritage industry is, however, selective in which aspects of history it wishes to display. There appears to be an emphasis placed on industrial innovation rather than stagnation, and class cooperation rather than class opposition. As a result, the decline of British industry is portrayed not as something to be mourned, as many of its former workers feel (Turner 2000), but as an inevitable part of a smooth upward transition from a class-ridden Victorian society to an egalitarian Britain, when in truth, this ongoing process is far more violent and contentious.

This paper will examine the part played by archaeologists in the formation of a cultural memory which not only fails to reflect many of the stresses within modern British society, but also underplays the value of significant areas of the recent past. It will also discuss my belief that archaeologists can begin to reverse this process by discussing class and politics, not only in their academic writings and discussions at events such as TAG, but also when presenting their narratives to the general public.


Connerton, P., 2009, How Modernity Forgets, Cambridge: University Press.

Hothi, N., 2005, Globalisation and Manufacturing Decline: Aspects of British Industry, Bury St. Edmunds: Arena Books.

Palmer, M., 2011, Archaeology degrees stuck in the (far distant) past, Times Higher Education, 6th October 2011, p.22.

Thompson, E, 1976, The Making of the English working Class, Aylesbury: Penguin.

Turner R., 2000, Coal Was Our Life: An Essay on Life in a Yorkshire Pit Town, London: Perspetuity Press.


Discussant: Iain Matheson (University of Glasgow)

1 Response to Exploring Academic Values and concepts: Have Archaeologists Lost the Capacity to Talk About Inequality?

  1. Robin Weaver says:

    Some suggested questions:

    • What values do archaeologists hold and how are these conceptualized and communicated to the public?
    • How do archaeologists teach their students – is it wrong to ‘politicise the lecture room’?
    • Do web technologies aid multi-vocality and a critical awareness of the past?
    • Does archaeological discourse benefit some and fail to support, or discourage, others?
    • Is it worthwhile to engage with modern druids, neo-shamans and other interpreters of the past?
    • In a period of cuts in social welfare, health and education, on what basis can archaeologists defend funding and access to the arts, culture and heritage?

    Robin and Adrian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s