Agency, Power and Heterarchy in Contempory Archaeology

Agency, Power and Heterarchy in Contempory Archaeology

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Stephen Shennan's concern with how non-state agrarian societies have been characterized by archaeological studies in the past is well founded.  Characterizing (and categorizing) non-state societies as stepping-stones evolving into future states is an outdated approach to these studies. The approach he proposed would focus on our understanding the archaeological record as the remains of social practices, rather than generalized social institutions.  He refers to Bourdieu's theory of practice, and stresses the need to ground social archaeology in the micro-scale of day-to-day activities in our analyses.  The study of long-term change, patterns of inequality, domination and resistance can be investigated through statistical analysis of the distributions of outcomes.  

Bourdieu's theory of practice is again a large influence in A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization (Blanton, et. al.).  They focus on process rather than stages or categories to explain variations between social formations and their changes through time.  They advocate a political behavioral theory of social change, seeing two main types of political power strategies accounting for variation among societies of similar complexity and scale; exclusionary (or network) and corporate.  The outcome of exclusionary political behavior is the development of patrimonial rhetoric, emphasizing the control of particular individuals based on kinship (found in the archaeological record by portrayals or reference to particular rulers), and a prestige-goods system, resulting in an "international style" in goods and information crossing sociocultural boundaries.  The corporate strategy signifies collective representations and ritual based on a societies cosmology.

John Douglas questions the reliability of applying the three common models used to analyze exchange in the archaeological record; World Systems Theory, peer polity interaction, and prestige goods economy.  He then explores their expectations and assumptions with data analysis of pre-Paquime mortuary goods from northwest Chihuahua, Mexico.  His comparisons demonstrate inadequacies in all three models, and the author points out that there are many potential explanations for long distance exchanges other than those offered by the three common models in use by archaeologists today.  I agree with his recommendation that we have "a more open-ended approach in which exchange is viewed as a search for power contested both within and between societies."

Tammy Stone offers another non-linear perspective of studying non-state agrarian societies in her examination of the Zuni region of the American Southwest using changes in architecture and ceramics.  She uses chaos theory to explain extensive and rapid sociopolitical, economic and ritual change (dissipative structures) in her case study.

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 She points out that "chaos theory, while using a systems concept, is not a model of structural determinism."  Chaos theory asserts that individuals in a society, in response to perceived problems in their existing system, will experiment and develop new organizational strategies, and by studying differing rates of change and varying amounts of experimentation in information flow (exchange), archaeologists can understand the degree of perceived instability in a cultural system.  

These authors have shown innovation in interpreting the archaeological record, and should be applauded for the advances they are making in social archaeology by developing expanded theories capable of addressing specific social practices.
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