ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future

6th-9th April 2009, University of Bristol, UK


Social anthropology has always had an uneasy relationship with archaeology, and it might be argued that the founding of the Association was at least in part an attempt to define the discipline in contradistinction to many of the pre-occupations of archaeology at that time. Rather than an open discussion, however, the two disciplines by and large quietly separated. This eventually gave rise to the paradoxical situation that, even though four-field anthropology still survived in some respects (for instance in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s intellectual charter, in the British Association for the Advancement of Science Section H, or in the occasional combined course or loose institutional link), the relationship between social anthropology and archaeology was never quite discussed in a public forum, and it has never been the subject of one of the ASA’s official conferences.

We believe that the time has come to reconsider this reticence. Archaeology has transformed itself repeatedly throughout the twentieth century, drawing extensively on the ideas of social anthropology as it does so. Today, there is a growing number of practising archaeologists who regard themselves as fluent, or at least learned, in both disciplines. Ian Hodder, who is to give the E. H. Young lecture on 'Archaeology and Anthropology: the state of the relationship' at the conference is one of these. Social Anthropologists have been slow to repay the compliment twice over: even though there are certainly individual exceptions, social anthropologists have not routinely studied contemporary archaeology, nor worked as a matter of course with archaeologists, resulting in a marked asymmetry in the flow of intellectual knowledge and arguably stuttering communication between the two groups at the national level. Why this may be the case is difficult to pin-point exactly: it may be to do with the levels of analysis that social anthropologists usually choose for their ethnographic description; or perhaps to theoretical differences (particular with regard to questions of history and causality) or it may be simply practical, to do with different methodologies, resources and institutional arrangements, or even a form of self-censorship.

However we decide ultimately to explain these difficulties, there are a host of fascinating questions that come to mind when archaeology is considered more explicitly from the point of view of social anthropology. Historically, we may ask, how did the division of intellectual labour pan-out in the UK after social anthropology separated from archaeology? How does this experience differ from those anthropological communities (notably North America) which did not move away from the four-field model? How may our current pre-occupations change if we take into account more explicitly the remains of the past within our fieldwork? What general mutual prospects: epistemological, methodological, and theoretical would a rapprochement offer for the future as the disciplines transform and change?

We do not look for definite answers, though we do hope to stimulate debate.  We would also not wish to be prescriptive as the sort of panel that might be proposed. However, without in any way claiming that these are exhaustive, we offer the following six possible areas for further consideration:

  1. Social Anthropology and Archaeology. We would argue that the exploration of the contrasts and complementarities between the two disciplines is potentially one of the most significant tasks facing contemporary social anthropology, profoundly relevant in terms of our history, theory, methodology and practice. Amongst the questions that may be asked in more detail here, is how has social anthropology been shaped, both in the UK and abroad, by its self-consciously distancing itself from archaeology? How has it affected our understanding of the past? Has this led to a division of intellectual labour? If so, how might this be categorized in epistemological terms, particularly from the point of view of differing attitudes toward causality? 
  2. It is clear that the disciplines possess very different methodologies. In practice, how often do these differences become relevant? Is there any obvious reason why the flow between the two disciplines has been seemingly one-way: that is, archaeology affected by social anthropology, but social anthropology seemingly much less influenced by archaeology? Does the current resurgence of biological anthropology potentially change the dynamics between the two disciplines? How do these wider dynamics appear in international contexts? We will warmly welcome papers that tease out these themes, as we would also comparative perspectives, particularly in areas where the ’four-field’ model of a unified anthropology may be regarded as obtaining.
  3. Ruins, history and the past or the ethnographic exploration of multiple interactions with the past. Societies all over the world are by definition engaged in a continuous engagement or negotiation with the remains of the past that are found within their community. Yet, still comparatively rarely is such local interaction written into the ethnographic record. It is a major weakness that social anthropology, whilst it has increasingly been ready to explore local indigenous knowledge in terms of ethno-botany, or subsistence farming, has almost entirely ignored this parallel dynamic with past remains. We would be very pleased to hear from fieldworkers on their ethnographic findings in this regard.
  4. Anthropologists have been sensitive to the way that heritage may become pressed into service by nationalist movements all over the world. Yet, they have rather ignored the fact that such knowledge is produced through an interaction between foreign archaeologists and local communities that is profoundly asymmetrical yet extremely interesting. For instance, we have studied missionaries extensively but the number of archaeologists in the field far outnumbers the number of missionaries, and their impact is as great, or even potentially greater. In spite of this, the number of social anthropologists who have studied the archaeological encounter is extremely small.
  5. World systems, diffusion and the transformation of culture. Though we do not usually use the word ‘diffusion’ in social anthropology today it is increasingly clear that we need to reconsider specific models as to how very major shifts in culture take place over time at a global level. Is it possible to reincorporate the study of diffusion into social anthropology, perhaps through studying the lead that has been provided by archaeological models? Will this contrast between the two disciplines help anthropology in its need to develop comparative theory?
  6. Material culture remains the stuff of archaeology, and the study of material culture is in itself going through a renaissance in social anthropology. Yet social anthropology's techniques of recording, presenting and discussing material culture appear to be very different – certainly less stringent – than those of archaeology. Does this differing approach to material culture in turn affect the way that anthropology approaches its consideration of human societies? Does an awareness of this difference potentially lead us to a better understanding of the way that we obtain, define and decide what to use as evidence for our analysis of social phenomena within anthropology?