Boundaries and Bundles: Further Thoughts on Jigsaw Anthropology

We apologize for the delay in releasing our last November guest blog post on behalf of the AAA AD Executive Board. We had to have a last minute author change, and I am incredibly grateful that Patricia McAnany stepped up to write a second post for our series. We hope readers will see all of our posts as a chance to comment on potential ways we can further integrate archaeology and other fields of anthropology. Patricia McAnany is the Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill and is the President of the AAA Archaeology Division.

The AAA annual meetings in Minneapolis went pretty well this year. Held just a week after one of the most startling and disconcerting U.S. elections on record, the meeting sessions all seemed to refer, even if vaguely, to the specter of a brave new world under a Trump administration. With promised dismantling of the EPA and related protection of cultural resources—not to mention unbridled racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the air—anthropologists of all stripes and colors huddled together in ad hoc strategy sessions. Suddenly, we had more in common than our epistemological differences might suggest.

Randy McGuire delivered the Patty Jo Watson Distinguished Lecture at the Archeology Division (AD) Business Meeting on Thursday evening and reminded us of the many ways in which an archaeological approach to the human experience matters and can drill to the core of issues like racism, xenophobia, and even darker legacies, such as human torture during the Argentine “Dirty War” of 1976-83. Human practices leave traces and that material legacy can speak volumes (or not, if suppressed).

In my last blog, I addressed the increasing interdependence (in methodological terms) between anthropology and archaeology that comes along with the collaborative turn within archaeology. There is now greater attention to entanglements between living people and objects or places that resonate with ideas and feelings about a past. Today and at the urging of Jane Baxter, I turn to the deeper question of whether there is commensurability between the productions of knowledge within socio-cultural anthropology and within archaeology. As before, my thoughts are channeled through my recent experience as President of the AAA-AD. But I warn the reader that I do not represent the views of the AD or the AAA, the membership of which represent an extraordinarily diverse array of opinions on this topic.

In the U.S., most of us who do not practice Classical or Islamic archaeology, still buy into or at least give lip service to the four-subfields model of studying human social and cultural diversity. This model conforms to what Segal and Yanagisako (2005) refer to as the sacred bundle, the unwrapping of which may unleash potent and unforeseen forces that could endanger the legitimacy of the entire enterprise. Continuing the bundle metaphor, anthropology departments that lose a quadrant either through divorce or attrition of personnel become something less than the whole—that mythic protean phenomenon—that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rather than laboring over the sacred bundle metaphor (as much as it resonates with Maya archaeology), it might instructive to revisit the Archaeology-Anthropology relationship from the perspective of the British academy. There, the two pursuits traditionally are housed in separate departments and conceived as separate spheres of knowledge production, each with a body of methods, epistemological goals, and distinctive ways of deploying theory. These differences are cogently expressed in Archaeology & Anthropology: understanding similarity, exploring difference, a 2010 publication edited by Duncan Garrow and Thomas Yarrow, an archaeologist and a social anthropologist respectively, both of whom work within British academia. In the remaining paragraphs, I refer to several chapters of this book that provide helpful roadmaps or provocative detours around roadblocks to rapprochement.

Early chapters consider the “absent person” dilemma within archaeology and some authors demonstrate the positive side of evidence of the long-term, or evidence that may not have been massaged or structured according to a point of view (always a hazard with written sources and the ethnographic method). Parallel (but not convergent) structures are pointed out. For instance, socio-cultural anthropology has access to people, while archaeologists have access to things. In the analytical process, socio-cultural anthropologists interpret people, while archaeologists interpret things to learn about human practices. Of course, sometimes archaeologists do study humans—that is, human remains—directly so archaeology as anthropology minus humans cannot be a comprehensive generalization. Otherwise, the AD might be considered the “missing-persons bureau” of the AAA.

In their opening chapter, the editors refer to Chris Gosden’s earlier idea that archaeology is running a “trade deficit” with socio-cultural anthropology and social theory in general, since most of the importation goes only one way. But the strong emphasis on materiality within the pages of this book and within contemporary archaeology in general suggests that this historical trend may be rebalancing. Materiality is an area of immense creativity and idea generation within archaeology today and this topic is undertheorized within the social sciences, despite a few loud voices.

Temporality, like materiality, is much discussed in this book and significantly is one that takes us outside of the largely episodal frame of socio-cultural anthropology. Examination of temporalities provide unique opportunities for engagement with theory that only exist in other historical disciplines such as history itself. Not only do multiple temporalities meshed within places of archaeological investigation but when archaeologists work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples and other nonwestern constituencies, dramatically difference ontological perceptions of time converge to produce hybrid or braided forms of knowledge.

Tim Ingold, in an earlier publication, suggested that anthropology is a type of philosophy that includes people and, if so, the editors suggest that archaeology might be a kind of philosophy that includes things. But in this book, Ingold play a deconstructivist role, hoping to tear down barriers between anthropology and archaeology on the grounds that a distinction between the past and present—although foundational to the two disciplines—is no longer helpful and in fact is impeding our understanding of the human condition.

In general, the tension between archaeology and anthropology is seen as productive despite the different disciplinary commitments of the two approaches to understanding human diversity. In a concluding commentary on “boundary objects”, Marilyn Strathern (who confesses to have been an avid practitioner of archaeology as a young adult), suggests that we structure the dialogue to focus not on the shared space between the disciplines but on what she calls the boundary objects (a term borrowed from Intellectual Property debates). By this term, she refers to “the point or juncture or moment at which differences are articulated” (p. 173). Such differences are entities at the borders of discourse but do not necessarily form boundary enclosures. For instance, differing concepts and models deployed by anthropology and archaeology provide fertile ground for discussing epistemological precision (p. 176).

The embrace of difference and boundaries holds significant potential not only for a fresh rapprochement between archaeology and anthropology but also for the manner in which archaeologists engage with what David Robinson (in an earlier chapter) calls “indigenous testimony” (p. 105). As George Nicholas and Kelly Bannister have written elsewhere, the evidence upon which Americanist archaeology is greatly vested could well be considered the intellectual property of Indigenous Americans. Artifacts are the boundary objects around which collaborative research and diverse interpretations/beliefs are situated. How to deal with such differences is a question frequently asked of those who advocate for collaborative research. In fact, this question was asked in response to my last blog. To paraphrase: “What if an archaeologist comes to a conclusion that is contrary to Indigenous beliefs?” Such boundary objects do not destroy collaboration but they do represent extremely important junctures and depending on how they are handled, can deepen collaboration and quicken curiosity about different ways of knowing.

I applaud the keen attention to difference in this group of essays by archaeologists and socio-cultural anthropologists working on the other side of the pond and within a context of greater disciplinary separation. This book reminds us that probing difference is far more generative than guarding the sacred bundle.

Jane Baxter

I am a historical archaeologist with interests in the archaeology of childhood, labor, and identity as well as contemporary and community archaeologies. I am also a passionate teacher and have built my career on a teacher-scholar model. I am very interested in pedagogy. My PhD is from the University of Michigan (2000) and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at DePaul University. Follow her on Twitter at @janeevabaxter.