Sunday, May 15, 2011

Archaeology, Anthropology, and Multi-sited Ethnography

A couple of weeks ago I attended a brown bag lecture given by Barbara Voss (Stanford) titled Sexual Effects: Postcolonial and Queer Perspectives on the Archaeology of Sexuality. It was an excellent overview of her research on China Camp in San Jose, California, a community that was overwhelmingly male. In her talk she discussed what the materiality of homosociality looks like as well as how we can think about gender and sexuality in the past. Barbara Voss is a prominent voice in the field of archaeology, and her work is interdisciplinary to the core. The talk was well attended, but I didn't recognize any socio-cultural anthropologists in the audience. This was a fairly typical occurrence, sadly. Even at our more formal gatherings, the Monday evening 290 lectures, the socio-cultural professors and students are completely absent at talks that feature archaeologists.

There are a number of ways one could react to this, and I think I've run the gamut at this point. Do They (the capitalization as the beginning of an anti-fraternal sentiment) think that the past (Us) is irrelevant? Do they just not understand archaeology? Do they not feel like we have anything to offer them? Or are they just bowing underneath the substantial burden of both a widening of anthropological purview and a narrowing of in-field specialization? In their introduction to the 2009 Annual Review of Anthropology, Don Brenneis and Peter Ellison succinctly address this point, stating that "The expanding universe of knowledge increases the distance between disciplines of inquiry as the techniques and theories that are developed at the advancing edges of fields become ever more remote from their common roots." The study of human experience has become so broad that the specializations necessary to make meaningful contributions to research, to carve out your own niche, leave no time for holism.

I still don't think that lets Them (or Us, for that matter) off the hook entirely. While I am certainly on the more eclectic side of archaeology, I find resources in geology, geography, science and technology studies, architecture, new media studies, information studies, material sciences--I've stuck my nose into most corners of academia and have come away inspired, refreshed, and excited to use my changed perspective to think about archaeology. Truly, I think most of what I think of as "The Big Kids," the prominent scholars in any field, do the same--they are broadly familiar with the academic terrain surrounding their interests. I walked into Lawrence Cohen's class to co-lecture on Virtual Anthropology and he was familiar with my work, and the excellent ethnographic work of Tom Boellstorff in Second Life. Being broadly conversant in your colleagues' work is only a start--if you don't think that their research is in some way relevant to your own, then you aren't being creative enough. If you don't think that the study of materiality and human lifeways in the past is relevant to understanding current populations, then I'm not sure there's much I can write to make you think differently.

Finally, for a mild, anthropological example, back to Barb Voss' talk. During the post-lecture discussion one of our professors asked if Voss had done any comparative work in the small town in China where most of the residents of China Camp were born and raised and kept families. Alas, she said, no. "Archaeologists aren't very good at multi-sited ethnographies." This comment struck me during the lecture, and later I realized that I thought she was completely wrong on this point. I refreshed my knowledge of the anthropological literature (and controversy) surrounding multi-sited ethnographies and came to the conclusion that archaeologists are the ultimate multi-sited (material) ethnographers. It's just that often times our study sites are piled on top of one another. Many of us multiply the difficulty by studying and comparing many sites of various ages. Our material, temporal perspective literally grounds your research, even if the many peoples that have lived in your study region before had vastly different lives and perspectives throughout the ages.

While holism may not be first in your mind as you conduct your research, holism will lend depth to your research, and maybe get you a half-step closer to being one of the "Big Kids." At the very least, before you do "an archaeology" of something, look us up first. You might learn something, if only the location of the good bar in town.

Colleen Morgan

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