Monday, February 23, 2015

The Ideology of Archaeological Theory and Practice

“Ideology,” while a prevalent term in archaeological literature, is difficult to define precisely. In the first chapter of Ideology: An Introduction, “What is Ideology,” Terry Eagleton enumerates a variety of definitions, some of which are more neutral and others that either imply or assert value judgments. For instance, ideology is to certain scholars “the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life,” while to others it is “systematically distorted communication.” (1-2). The first description is fairly neutral, while the second has clearly pejorative connotations.

Like Foucault, I am reluctant to reject the Marxist notion of ideology as inherently distorted or false because it implies the existence of its opposite: a universal, absolute truth. However, I do not believe that “ideology” as a concept necessitates rejection altogether. Rather, I tend towards the first definition, which can reflect the formation and propagation of any belief system, dominant or marginal, as all are neither “true” nor “false.” Additionally, in my view, ideologies are not teleological; rather, they are relational and evolve, converge and diverge. As Said emphasized in his discussion of Orientalism, ideologies are formed through dialectical interactions between individuals within society. Therefore, individuals do have the capacity to influence ideologies and even contradict them. Acknowledgement of this individual agency makes the continued dominance of certain ideologies that much more impressive and allows us to consider the reasons why they were so well suited to a particular spatiotemporal arena.

In thinking about the concept of ideology and how I might define such a problematic (but also, I would argue, useful) term, I began to think about the ideologies of archaeology itself, both as a theoretical discipline and a practical, applied endeavor. This passage from the first chapter of Archaeological Theory in Europe: The Last Three Decades emphasizes the ideological nature of archaeology:
Each age, in each country, writes its own history and its own archaeology. As a result of these changes and differences, and as a result of the engrained social and political uses and misuses of archaeology in the European context, it is difficult to remain blind to the theoretical construction of archaeological objects, difficult not to see archaeologists transforming reality and difficult not to recognize artefacts as products rather than records (Hodder, 10).
The shift in archaeological theory and practice from antiquarianism to post (or even perhaps post-post) processualism can arguably be discussed as a change in the dominant ideologies of the archaeologist. As Hodder emphasizes, the pasts we construct as archaeologists change from year to year, decade to decade, and century to century not because of radical shifts in the material culture that is excavated but by changes in the belief systems of the discipline’s practitioners. Post-processualism acknowledges the influence of the individual archaeologist’s sociopolitical history in his/her scholarship. It is standard practice today to concede that objectivity is an impossible and therefore futile goal. However, it is important to realize that this shift is not an escape from ideology altogether but rather the emergence of a new dominant paradigm within archaeology.

This recognition of the pervasiveness of ideology as an integral component of society is important with regards to the practical, cultural heritage applications of archaeology in addition to the theoretical. For example, in the first chapter of Ann Stahl’s book African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction, she briefly problematizes UNESCO World Heritage sites. According to the organization’s website, “What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” While this sentiment is seemingly positive, it imposes an ideology of global allegiance to an organization that is predominantly “Western” in philosophy, personnel and funding. It is trendy in the United States educational system to produce “global citizens,” but in countries that face constant socioeconomic and political instability (largely as the result of a Western colonialist history), prioritizing a national or even local agenda may be more advantageous. Of course, I am thrilled that because of these organizations, tracts of biodiverse ecosystems and historical sites have been preserved. However, it is important to recognize that the idea that one organization can lay claim to the entire globe is a fundamentally Western ideology stemming from an expansionist, colonialist history.

Therefore, not only is ideology still relevant as a theoretical concept in archaeology, it has practical implications for the preservation (and therefore construction) of the past.  

1 comment:

  1. That was an interesting quote from Hodder. We all bring our biases into observation--so much so that observation really becomes repeated interpretation. There's no going back to the days of definitiveness, which is a good thing.