Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fluid Fields: The (Unspoken) Intersections of Visual Anthropology and Archaeology

For about a decade now, whilst practicing archaeology, I have been a contributor to the visual anthropology community.  This means that I have variously acted as a dues-paying journal subscriber, chair of multiple scholarly debate sessions at academic visual anthropological events, elected representative of one of the major visual anthropology associations in North America, and many-time academic conference presenter on the subject. 

It is in the latter capacity that I have had some of my most interesting experiences, primarily because it is here that visual anthropological audiences have overtly betrayed their prejudices about archaeologists.  On repeated occasions when I have discussed problematic ethical and conceptual aspects of archaeological visualisation, my arguments have been rebutted with dismissive comments about how archaeologists do not face the same “real” challenges of anthropologists.  The logic is that because archaeologists deal with the past, they have less critical awareness of (and, apparently, less need to negotiate) “live” anthropological matters and beings (see Perry and Marion 2010). 

In fact, the fallacy of such reasoning has been debunked by decades of critical analysis (e.g., Leone et al. 1987, Hodder 1985; Shanks and Tilley 1987, 1992)—to name a tiny handful of studies).  Nevertheless, owing to the above-mentioned negative reactions, there have been several instances at these events where I have been reluctant to declare myself as an archaeologist for fear of devaluing my own knowledge base. 

What is ironic about both my own sense of reluctance and my audiences’ common response to my presentations, is the legacy of visual anthropology itself: a not insignificant number of pivotal figures in the crafting of the discipline (e.g., Edmund Carpenter, Karl Heider, Paul Hockings, Jay Ruby) had archaeological backgrounds at the start of their careers—excavating archaeological sites; reviewing archaeological outputs (e.g. Ruby 1969); perpetuating archaeological knowledge making.  Moreover, there is a plenitude of other emerging and well-established professionals, trained as archaeologists (some of whom do, indeed, simultaneously identify as visual anthropologists), for whom versatility in visual media usage and methodology is the norm (e.g., Andrew Cochrane, Adam Fish, Carl Knappett, Colleen Morgan, Stephanie Moser, Ian Russell, Michael Shanks, Christopher Tilley, Ruth Tringham, Aaron Watson, Christopher Witmore, Helen Wickstead).  This includes key figures in the field of museum studies (e.g., Susan Pearce) who are arguably under-acknowledged in the visual anthropology literature because of its often curbed (and hence, I think, intellectually-limiting) focus on ethnographic film and photography.

However, on the other side, amongst audiences of archaeologists, I am often similarly loath to declare myself to be a visual anthropologist.  This is because I have repeatedly been challenged by both my archaeological students and colleagues for doing research that is purportedly “not real archaeology.”  My response to such a baseless statement is that archaeologists are—and always have been—skilled users and makers of multi-media, capitalising on various visual anthropological methodologies to facilitate or augment their work.  There is a growing body of historical scholarship testifying to this skilfulness, wherein I would situate some of my own research (see Perry 2011).  What I see as critical is that in neglecting this long history of disciplinary engagement with visual media—creating, distributing, and remixing images; using them to solicit information, and to formulate and resolve research questions—archaeologists prove themselves ignorant of the full scope of their own field and, arguably, incompetent to succeed as professionals. 

However, the extent to which archaeologists agree with my point of view is debatable, as evidenced by my own recent experiences with the peer review process.  Herein, my colleagues and I have been critiqued for privileging a topic “on the boundaries of the discipline”—one that is supposedly not of “equal significance” to the authentic work of excavation.  Elsewhere, and at the opposite extreme, we have been criticised for belabouring a purportedly already obvious, ubiquitous, integral and widely-endorsed set of disciplinary practices.  For the most part, it is the former critique that still dominates my encounters with archaeological audiences.  Although, in either case, such commentary highlights an obvious gap in knowledge about the current state of visual engagement in archaeology.

The essential problem for both archaeology and visual anthropology, as I see it, is that insularity in practice breeds impoverished scholarship.  If we stand inattentive to the productivities and possibilities of others’ tools, and of their indivisibility from our own disciplinary histories, we leave ourselves poorly equipped to produce rigorous, pioneering research, and hence to negotiate the future of our fields.  In other words, borrowing from Wylie (2008), we risk placing ourselves at an obvious epistemic disadvantage.  This is a point that Colleen Morgan has herself alluded to in an earlier contribution to anthropologies, and from my perspective, it applies as much to visual anthropologists as it does to archaeologists (not to mention other professionals). 

Of course, I am not arguing here that we should know everything about everything.  Rather, I am appealing to basic standards of academic integrity.  Surely we have a responsibility both to familiarise ourselves with practices that are already deeply-embedded in our own disciplinary cultures, and at a minimum, avoid propagating unsubstantiated statements about the nature of our (and others’) work.  Recognising the already fluid makeup of our fields and intellectual trajectories is not to sideline or delegitimise our research objectives, but to support and amplify them. 

I am fortunate to be both an archaeologist and a visual anthropologist.

Sara Perry
Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management
University of York, UK


Hodder, I. 1985. Postprocessual Archaeology. In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, M.B. Schiffer, ed. Pp. 1-26. Orlando: Academic Press.

Leone, M.P., Potter, P.B. Jr. and Shackel, P.A. 1987. Toward a critical archaeology. Current Anthropology 28(3):283-302.

Perry, S. 2011. The Archaeological Eye: Visualisation and the Institutionalisation of Academic Archaeology in London. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK.

Perry, S., and Marion, J. 2010. State of the ethics in visual anthropology. Visual Anthropology Review 26(2):96-104.

Ruby, J. 1969. Film Review of 4-Butte-I: A Lesson In Archaeology. Produced by Peter Schnitzler. American Anthropologist 71(2):380.

Shanks, M., and Tilley, C. 1987. Social Theory and Archaeology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Shanks, M., and Tilley, C. 1992. Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Wylie, A. 2008. Legacies of collaboration: Transformative criticism in archaeology. Paper presented at the 107th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, CA, 19-23 November, 2008.

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