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Theory and Method in Archaeology

(Anthropology 39000)


This course offers a critical exploration of some major theoretical and methodological trends in the knowledge-producing endeavor that has come to be called “archaeology”, set within a socio-historical examination of its development. In an effort to encourage critical comparative reflection and avoid the sort of facile “presentist” historical narratives that often imbue discussions of theory with a kind of evolutionary teleology, the course readings about major theoretical and methodological issues and debates are intentionally not arranged in chronological periods. 

History is, of course, crucial. An understanding of the socio-historical framework in which archaeology emerged as a scholarly practice, was formalized as a professional field of knowledge production within a complex set of institutions, and has changed over the last couple of centuries, is clearly essential to understanding the shifting nature, meaning, and goals of theoretical discourse. Consequently, the first week of the course will be devoted to examining these historical issues, and this will provide a referential structure for the subsequent exploration of theoretical debates. But the readings from weeks 2 through 9 are organized by themes rather than chronology. This is designed to run against the grain of narratives of progressive stages of radical transformation and novelty (the "New", "Post-", and "turns" syndrome) by encouraging critical thinking about the recurrence and persistence of certain questions, dispositions, and problems in theoretical arguments. It is meant to encourage students to discern what aspects of the complex palimpsest of theory constitute genuine novelties and improvements, while reflecting on “reinventions of the wheel”, “old wine in new bottles”, complex genealogies of ideas, and the reasons why some issues and questions disappear while others remerge from the tomb clothed in new terminology, and some simply refuse to die. Terms like “the New Archaeology” and “Postprocessual Archaeology” are not analytical terms, but rather political slogans of polemical strategic essentialism. Hence, we should avoid using them as terms of analysis and instead view them as objects of analysis: that is, we must examine what functions the rhetoric of novelty performs and how it is deployed, while at the same time exploring the more complexly entangled landscape of ideas that it masks. Philosophical pretentions to the contrary, archaeological theory is not a rarified realm of the abstract clash of ideas. Like all other aspects of archaeology it is a practice that is situated in complex social fields structured by institutions, personal relations, and embodied intellectual dispositions. Hence, critical analysis of logic, rhetoric, and historical-sociology of the field are crucial for navigating the shifting winds of theoretical discourse.

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