Ambiguous Blessings from the Dead: Public Art and Understanding of Place and Community


Throughout archaeological practice, much has been written on the meaning and significance of monumental architecture, sculptures and statue as every culture/society has made public artwork that has survived long after the society itself.  Public artwork is one of the ways society adds meaning to places and to the people.  As Aristotle once said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance” and Sir Joshua Reynolds, “A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts” (McDowall 2011, Forbes).  Thus a place can be imagined as a room and statue/ sculptures can be imagined as symbols of significance which give people thought, invokes a particular relationship to people and to constructions of place, both real and imagined.  Therefore, public sculptures have primacy in an understanding of a culture, place, and people.

This paper explores some of the public sculptures and statue that were excavated from the remains of the McMaster University campus after the catastrophe of 2016 which left it abandoned.  I believe that beginning with the public artwork, we are able to gleam the cultural significance of art as well as the meaning that the artwork evokes.  I argue that these sculptures and the statue are symbols of power that both traverse and transform time, enmeshing the past into the present, but also give ideological significance to a representation of culture and history that bounds people to a common culture and community as well as inciting belonging. I look to use practice theory as well as structuration and phenomenology to bring meaning to the artifacts while considering all stakeholders involved, giving a way to model ancient processes with attention to “the intentions of past actors and the role of existing structures in shaping people’s actions as well as the community” (Joyce, 2004: 5).

Situating theory in practice

Contemporary beliefs, visions and myths can and often do lead to metaphorical and physical reconstruction of the archaeological record and constructed landscapes are particularly susceptible to such “freezing” of meaning (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 10).   It is therefore as an archaeologist important to acknowledge one’s own bias in the research but to use theory to bring to light an informed reconstruction of the archaeological site.  Sculptures and the statue offer images that are interpreted but give meaning through localized social practices and experience, attributing meaning to artifacts can lend itself to falling into the ‘freezing’ of meaning.

Practice theory helps us here understand how to conceptualize practice and behaviour, where practice is a homologous phenomenon which is not tied to time or place while behaviour is and meaning does do not reside in artifacts or people but rather in the movement of interaction (Pauketat, 2000: 114-117) .  Therefore to bring analysis of people to place and structure, I use structuration theory.  Giddens uses the term “duality of structure” in structuration to signal the “indivisibility of structure and action: the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems and therefore that both agent and structure are constantly interrelated” (Joyce, 2004: 11).  “By positing that through the exercise of agency human actors reproduce and transform social structure, structuration theories dispense with problematic notions that super-organic institutions ensure the persistence of specific cultural practices, ideas that pose serious analytic problems for understanding change” (Joyce, 2004: 11).

Methods and Artifacts

I have chosen to look at four sculptures and one statue excavated, as I believe a focused analysis of these particular artifacts give a better understanding of the campus.  In figure 1 I have a map of what the campus would have looked like and where the sculptures and statue would have stood (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour)..  You can see that they were all central on the campus, and with the exception of figure 6, were all found to have stood outside (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour). As well, figure A is the only statue I will outline in this paper, as it is of the founder of the University and where the name of the University comes from, Sir William McMaster who sits in the photo below as he would have, on a park bench (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour)..  I believe that this statue is critical to an understanding of the campus and the community.

Figure 2 is named B. Covenant and it was made in 2009 with the artist being Mary Anne Barkhouse of the Nimpkish tribe, Kwakiutl Nation (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour).  This is a sculpture that brings Aboriginal culture and history to the campus community, after all we know this place belonged originally to the Aboriginal people.  Animals have large significance to Aboriginal cultures and as a reflection on human life.  Animals are a way to connect to nature, to see the aspects of nature that can be found within humanity. In reverse, this sculpture is a way to reflect on the impact of culture on nature, as they are made out of stone.  In the university records, there is reference to the artist, who describes her work as a chance encounter between two coyotes: “we size up the other side…decide to either play or fight. It is all part of a natural order that is as old as time itself” (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour). This artifact clearly symbolizes nature, and invites the passerby to relate to nature, while relating to Aboriginal culture.

Man Releasing Eagles is the name of Figure 3, made by George Burton Wallace from steel, picturing truly a man releasing three eagles (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour).  George Wallace also taught in the Fine Art Department at McMaster for 25 years (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour). The work is described in the records as the “instant between release and freedom, a man stands frozen in time and space with eagles fluttering in mid-air at the end of his raised fingertips” (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour). The work was commissioned to honor Edward Carey Fox, a member of the University Board of Governors and a major University benefactor (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour).

The third sculpture is Figure 5, titled A Bird Bath, and was made by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, widely recognized as one of the outstanding sculptors of his generation. Bird Bath was commissioned in 1914 by art critic Roger Fry (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour). The fourth is Figure 6, the only sculpture found in a building, a building that held administration (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour).  It is entitled Struggle, and was made in 1962 by Gord Smith (Canadian, b. 1937) from Welded steel. Purchased with funds from the Canada Council Montreal-born Gord Smith focused on architecture and engineering, his design philosophy states: “[A work of art] should be timeless and with a power of its own. If it speaks, it will be heard…” (McMaster University Museum of Art, McMaster Campus Tour).

Ambiguous Blessings from the Dead: Landscape as Memory

If the original sense of community might well be the village, as Benedict Anderson asserts, then the intrusion of symbols in the form of the statue and sculptures, changing the visual character of the landscape but topography, are creating imagined community (Baker, 1989: 491).  Imagined community is the simultaneity of an encompassing, communal identity constructed through ideology (Anderson, 2006). One imagines oneself to be part of a university, a city and a nation without knowing other people, places or institutions that make up those aspects of identity and belonging.  I suggest that this is what the statue of Sir William McMaster evoked, a way to connect to the imagined community of the university through sitting next to the founder himself.  This is a practical and extremely relevant way that people connected to place and to both imagined university and educational community as well as the real place and space.

Ideology therefore, works to bring people into that imagined community, and to present the “arbitrariness of the social order to appear in place and history”, both of which are culturally constructed (Moore, 2005: 172). The sculptures allow new and old, time itself to be understood synchronically, invoking an ambiguous blessing from the dead, ambiguous because for each person it is different (Anderson, 2006: 187). I suggest that the rest of the art pieces served to rest ideology through practical symbolism, such as heteronormative and patriarchal ideals but also pedagogy and success.  However within the sculptures you can see people brought into relation with Aboriginal community and ideals around nature, belonging to nature as well as patriarchal, heteronormative, colonial ideals as almost all the artwork relates to English history, and was made for and depicts men in very different ways to women.  These are ideological frameworks, expressed through the statue and sculptures in spatial relationships of the constructed environment.

Public sculptures and statues are “the materialization of memory, fixing social and individual histories in place” (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 13).    Here, it is important to note that memory “constructs rather than retrieves, and that the past originates from the elaboration of cultural memory, which is itself socially constructed” (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 13). Therefore, the ways that statue and sculptures are a representation of history that is reflected when people interact with them, so many of our memories of place are of the statue and sculptures.  These are a way therefore to socially construct memory, and the past. As Foucault stated: “Memory is actually a very important factor in struggle. … If one controls memory, one controls their dynamism… It is vital to have possession of this memory, to control it, administer it, and tell it what it must contain” (Baker, 1989: 494).  Therefore, we see statues and sculptures as ways to construct memory, history and embed that within the landscape.

Memory is tied to history, and as Marx puts it “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Moore, 2005: 171).  Therefore, sculptures and statue on the McMaster campus evoke a past and memory of both colonial imperialism, and Aboriginal culture but one that is certainly patriarchal, and heteronormative.  Here we see sculptures and statues made to connect people to the past through imagined communities with the constructed landscape.

Landscape as Identity

One of the ways of answering how we create spaces and landscapes, as well as imagined communities, is through the objects we put into places, such as statues and sculptures, as they become a way of organizing place.  They embody culture, in a way that organizes place to signify belonging and imagined community.  Statues and sculptures are an immediate and apparently unmediated way of embodying and communicating values through symbolism to the public and the community.  “People recognize, inscribe and collectively maintain certain places or regions these symbolic terms”, and “landscape provides a focus by which people engage with the world and create and sustain a sense of their social identity” (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 15).  “The global distribution and deep antiquity of rock markings or ‘rock art’ are ample testimony that are is made on the landscape to bring special attention to that place and to connect human culture and identity”, who we are as people, to that place, to inscribe what we value on that place for it to be relatable (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 15).  Statues and sculptures are constructed to bring special attention to the place, to add political and socio/cultural identity/ marking to the place, and to bring people closer to that past, or at least to allow people to enjoy being at that place.

Monumentality, when added to the landscape, through the form of statues and sculptures are all means of identifying the place in a diachronic constructed, or conceptual place (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 15).  A way to vest identity in the landscape and in bringing people into imagined communities, impacting the identity of those people.  At the McMaster campus, when heteronormative, patriarchal ideals are presented in the statue and sculptures, we see this reflected in society, in the ways people identified in the society.  As well, we see the statue embody aspects of culture and society that form identity such as clothing and form, as well as the ever-present symbol of nature.

We see the statue and sculptures as embedding educational prestige in the place, while defining success through education, the act of acquiring knowledge.  This can be seen in the statue of Sir William McMaster sitting on a park bench, inviting people to sit beside him, in a way, showing that university education is both prestigious and successful, and metaphorically, by inviting students to discuss with the ancient, stone figure, I see value added in knowledge created through university relationships, and the sharing of knowledge with others.  It is as if this statue represents the University showing that it is sharing knowledge with students and faculty, inviting them into relation on those terms.

Landscape as Social Order

By studying statues and sculptures, they tell us a lot to answer the question as to if place is constructed, how is power and inequality found in place, in constructed reality, and impact the lives of people? Where does Agency lie? Just as statues and sculptures change landscape, to “construct place that maps memory and declares identity, so too they offer a key to interpreting society” (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 16).  Statues and sculptures “reflect ways of ordering people into society, of the cultural relations that are being acted upon in the place and symbolize the societal values people held” (Ashmore and Knapp, 1999: 16).  The historical significance of statues is that ‘they were used as a pedagogic device used by the dominant political ideologies to win over the inhabitants” (Baker, 1989: 491).  Therefore, sculptures and statues have a lot of political value attached to them, which is impacted by and within the community and society.

“Politics in any society depends upon the existence of cultural representations that define the relationships among political actors, thereby allowing individuals and groups to press claims upon one another and upon the whole” (Baker, 1989: 496). ‘‘Places themselves, and the very acts that build and transform places, may constitute authority’’ (Roddick et al, 2014: 142). I believe, statues and sculptures are ways for the university and the community to press claims on to the place, as well as authority and prestige, in other words to show success.  Sculptures and statues engage overarching structures such as heteronormativity and patriarchy, as well as capitalism and imperialism by just being there, in an unmediated way.  The act of enacting statues and sculptures to change place is important, as throughout time place is not fixed, but changing and the act itself of changing place gives an indication of societal change (Joyce, 2004).

Sculptures and statues relate symbolic representations of societal values and politics, they engage structure, which forms “personality” and “society” simultaneously, with people (Joyce, 2004: 9) However, it is important to note that while authority and power emerges, it is “sustained and questioned from within such social relations, that politics itself moves along potentially non-rational historical and social trajectories in complex fashions engaging all members of society”  (Roddick et al, 2014: 142). As these sculptures are made by common people, thus people, not authority, are pressing their values on to the place (Pauketat, 2000). They rely on people to relate, to have this moment of action, with the object itself and through that relation find the meaning associated in its symbolism.  This action is significant, “because there may be unintended consequences, through unacknowledged conditions of action” (Joyce, 2004: 9).

Actors are always knowledgeable, that is, they act with intention and the erection of statues and sculptures was done with a certain intent. But what we see now, as archaeologists, is as likely to be a result of “unforeseen effects of decisions made with other goals in mind”, and we have to keep this in mind. Sculptures and statues are great in that they are relational, they rely on interpretation (Joyce, 2004: 5).  Giddens uses the term “duality of structure” to “signal the indivisibility of structure and action: the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems” (Joyce, 2004: 11).   Therefore, we see both structure, but the duality of structure, the interpretation of people, when we analyze the meanings and symbolism attached to the sculptures/ statue.

Conclusion and Future Directions

This paper explores some of the symbols and meanings behind the public sculptures and one statue that were excavated from the remains of the McMaster University campus after the catastrophe of 2016 which left it abandoned.  I believe that beginning with the public artwork, we are able to gleam aspects of the culture/ society and place that were important to the people of the community.  I argue that these sculptures and the statue are symbols of power that both traverse and transform time, enmeshing the past into the present, but also give ideological significance to a representation of culture and history that bounds people to a common culture and have a sense of belonging. I look to use practice theory as well as structuration and phenomenology to bring meaning to the artifacts while considering all stakeholders involved. Further research could include an in depth analysis of each artifact, the rest of the statues uncovered as well as a historical analysis of all works of art throughout history that would have stood on the campus.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict.
2006 Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso Books.

Baker, Keith Michael.
1985 “Memory and practice: politics and the representation of the past in eighteenth-century France.” Representations 11: 134-164.

Cohen, William.
1989 “Symbols of power: statues in nineteenth-century provincial France”. Comparative Studies in Society and History31(03), Pp.491-513.

Joyce, Rosemary
2004 Unintended Consequences? Monumentality As a Novel Experience in Formative Mesoamerica. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(1)

Knapp, Bernard A. and Ashmore, Wendy
1999 “Archaeological Landscapes: Constructed, Conceptualized, Ideational”, Archaeologies of Landscape, edited by Wendy Ashmore and Bernard Knapp, pp. 1-33. Wiley Blackwell Malden, MA.

McDowall, Carolyn.
2011 “Aim of Art – Illumination and Enlightenment for All.”  Web. 13 Apr. 2016. <>.

McMaster University Museum of Art.
“McMaster Campus Sculpture Tour.”  N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. <>.

Moore, Jerry.
1995 “The Architecture of Social Control: Theory, Myth, and Method,” – Chapter 5 in Architecture and Power in the Ancient Andes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pauketat, Timothy R.
2000. “The Tragedy of the Commoners,” in Dobres, Marcia-Anne and John Robb, eds. Agency in Archaeology. London: Routledge. Pp. 113-129.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua.
2016 “Thoughts On The Business Of Life.” Forbes. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. <>.

Roddick, Andrew, Bruno, Maria and Christine Hastorf.
2014 Political Centers in Context: Depositional Histories at Formative Period Kala Uyuni, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology

Urton, Gary
1988 “Public Architecture as Social Text: The History of an Adobe Wall in Pacariqtambo, Peru (1915-1985). Revista Andina 6(1): 225-261.

Tables and Figures 

new campus map

Figure 1: Map of McMaster Campus with Indication of Sculptures and Statue

mcmaster sculpture 1

Figure 2: Sculpture B on Figure 1

mcmaster sculpture 3

Figure 3: Sculpture E on Figure 1

mcmaster statue 1

Figure 4: Statue A on Figure 1

mcmaster sculpture 2

Figure 5: Sculpture C on Figure 1


Figure 6: Sculpture D on Figure 1

Cultural Landscape and Spiritual Meaning

Dr. Isabel McBryde is professor emerita from Australian National University and is celebrated for development in her approaches in consult with Aboriginal populations, and for her ability to bridge archaeology, ethnohistory, historical archaeology and cultural heritage.  In this article, The Landscape Is a Series of Stories. Grindstones, Quarries and Exchange in Aboriginal Australia: A Lake Eyre Case Study, McBryde uses ethnohistoric records and archaeological data in the analysis of Australian Aboriginal exchange networks for grindstones (1997: 587-607).

The ethnohistoric record is used to understand the “stories” told by Australian Aboriginals which are “wrought with symbolism and meaning about the exchange network for grindstone” (1997: 595). They lead to analysis of grindstone artifacts and their relationship to the Australian landscape through the “lived experience of Aborigines in their journey in acquiring the grindstone” (1997: 587-607). This is explained by McBryde as grindstone artifacts are “embedded in the social and ceremonial structure of a society’s life” (1997: 588).  These grindstones are more than simply a stone, but “have social value, as they were important to the lived experience of Australian Aborigines in the experience of acquiring the stone, but also in the use of the stone, as their main staple came from wild cereal grasses” (1997: 591).  It is interesting that grindstones were group property, but only the women in the group looked after the stones, and these stones were passed on through generations (1997: 591-595). Therefore, McBryde effectively argues that the grindstone “holds a relationship to the landscape that links the present with the world of ancestral creative beings in ways that powerfully affirm and sustain collective identity for Australian Aborigines” (1997: 7).

McBryde goes into further detail as to the meaning associated to the landscape through the trade routes for the grindstone Aborigines took. She states, “The travel routes traverse the desert core of the continent, a landscape of outstanding beauty but limited resources, little surface water and uncertain climatic regimes”(1997: 7). Further, “The environmental stress for desert groups is such that this exchange network is part of adaptive strategies vital to desert living” (1997: 7).  As well, “The networks are certainly amongst the most extensive known from hunter-gatherer societies worldwide” (1997: 7). She describes that through them moved a diversity of goods, “some essential raw materials unavailable locally, like hatchet head stone, as well as some of symbolic or spiritual value, including stories, songs and dance” (1997: 7).  It is incredibly interesting to define social process through a journey in a landscape of spiritual meaning.

McBryde explains that items moved along an “exchange grid”, the routes were believed to also be followed by their “ancestral beings” and are known as “The Dreaming Tracks” (1997: 587).  Whose route was prescribed by “ceremonies and the locations along the way were also a part of young men’s training” (1997: 7) .  She describes that, “There has been found large archaeological assemblages marking the traditional meeting and ceremonial places at which exchange took place” (1997: 7). The places are also linked in “stories of the activities of ancestral, creative beings, often forming long storylines or song cycles” (1997: 587, 1997: 7-9). Therefore, she states, “it is within these powerful social values and practices that form the context within which we may see exchange systems acting as significant ‘adaptive strategies’ for desert living, allowing access to the resources of allied groups” (1997: 7-9).

In a following paper, The cultural landscapes of Aboriginal long distance exchange systems: Can they be confined within our heritage registers? McBryde argues that the Lake Eyre/Cooper Basin exchange system are “routes that are known but not denoted by physical markers such as roads, signs or boundaries”, but that these trade routes are “mental constructs forming a cohere system”, “a network of noded linkages”, which create a “cultural landscape” (1997: 7, 9). She describes that these routes are mental constructs from the conceptual framework and knowledge systems of two cultures, the created Aborigines, knowledge of the trading alliances, the social and ritual, as well as the economic linkages that are served and expressed by exchanges of goods that move along these invisible, but well known and clearly defined corridors across the landscape, and the archaeologists, schooled in western scientific traditions of the construction of knowledge (1997: 9-14).  It is really interesting to define space through mental construct, experience, and memory as these are rarely attributed to collective cultures but also rarely include the impact of researchers and archaeologists on that place.

McBryde sees the Aboriginal landscape is evident as it is a “world mapped by stories” and the archaeological landscape is the “evidence of material presence from the past that are components of the system, nodes in the linked lines of travel, or camping places along them may be interpreted and seen to fit the model of exchange system provide the fundamental empirical data” (1997: 11-14). The mental construct formed from two cultural landscapes “systematizes component elements and the linkages between these two cultures” (1997: 11). She sees that this accumulates to “a way of seeing the landscape in two articulated ways and recognizes the important aspects of social life as well as social significance which the system underpins” (1997: 11-12).  It is really unique to consider the landscape as ‘a world mapped by stories’, there is so much today on the landscape that it is hard to imagine what that would be, and it is certainly an interesting way of interacting with the landscape. It focuses on lived experience and perhaps uses theory around structuration.

This is quite different to the article by Dr. Michael E. Smith, Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms? which criticizes recent studies that go beyond evidence to assert that architectural cosmograms abounded in Classic Maya cities (2005: 217-224).  Here there is only textual, archaeological evidence to analyze a relationship of the landscape with religious symbolism. Thus, Dr. Michael E. Smith, as a Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University with longstanding research into Aztec social and economic organization, and the comparative analysis of ancient urban societies, criticizes the poorly supported speculations that are being treated like “established empirical findings” (2005: 217).

The problem with the new cosmogram studies, as Smith outlines, “start with the assumption that directional cosmology must have been expressed in architectural settings and look to identify the phenomenon in the ruins of Maya cities” (2005: 218-220). They identify a case in which buildings or features seem to have “some kind of cardinal orientation or arrangement and then assert confidently that the building/compound/city/reservoir/stelae in question formed a cosmogram” (2005: 220).  Smith argues that “This has then skewed the definition of cosmogram with cosmology” (217-220). He defines a cosmogram as “a representation of the entire universe through symbolic shorthand or artistic metaphor, not just representations of cardinal orientation arrangements” (2005: 217). Further, “authors of most of these studies offer little or no iconographic or epigraphic evidence for the presence of a cosmogram or cosmological symbolism in the settings they analyze as the definition itself is skewed and cosmogram is simply assumed without evidence” (2005: 220).  This article really shows the problems around ‘looking backwards rather than forwards’ in terms of archaeological process, assuming the landscape was created for the express purpose of spiritual/ cosmological significance.

The bigger problem that Smith outlines is that “these archaeologists rarely step back to consider the larger issue of whether Mesoamerican cosmograms were ever expressed in architecture and urban planning” (2005: 220). Or look into the fact that “Mesoamerica has little evidence to suppose that buildings were clearly planned and constructed as cosmograms only holding astronomical alignments” (2005: 220). He argues, “The relationship between cosmology and ancient architectural practice/ city planning needs to be demonstrated empirically and not just assumed as the motivations for the ancient Maya building a home or a public building” (2005: 220-221). It is interesting to consider again, like McBryde, the role of the archaeologist in defining the landscape, as there is a clear difference in the definitions of landscape of the archaeologist and the ancient people living on this landscape at that time.

This weekend I went to the Marianas Trench concert, and had a fantastic time.  With about three thousand other people in an amphitheater, I later thought about how this experience is completely spiritual, having grown up listening to them.  But also completely inexplicable.  I find it fascinating how McBryde and Smith are able to make sense of the ways in which different cultures defined their landscape, I mean how do you begin to understand the spiritual senses people had? And I find it fascinating the ways in which each archaeologist traverse the role archaeologists/ researchers play in those definitions,  that we are a part of this social process.  What do you think? Anyways, I hope everyone else had an amazing weekend with some good music!

Works Cited

Cluney, Christine
2014. McBryde, I. 1997 ‘The landscape is a series of stories’: Grindstones, quarries and exchange in Aboriginal Australia: A Lake Eyre case study. In A. Ramos-Millan and A. Bustillo (eds), Siliceous Rocks and Culture, pp.587-607. University of Granada.

McBryde, Isabel
1997 The Landscape Is a Series of Stories. Grindstones, Quarries and Exchange in Aboriginal Australia: A Lake Eyre Case Study. Siliceous Rocks and Culture 587-607.

McBryde, Isabel
1997 The cultural landscapes of Aboriginal long distance exchange systems: Can they be confined within our heritage registers? Historic Environment, Vol. 13, No. ¾:6-14.

Smith, Michael E.
2005. “Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms?” Latin American Antiquity 16(2): 217-224.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism or functionalism is a macro-theory that was foundational to anthropological inquiry in the early 20th century, setting a precedent for observing human relations for their institutionalization. This theory came out of fieldwork carried out by early anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski, Emile Durkheim and E.E Evans-Pritchard and reformulated by later anthropologists A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Talcott Parsons most notably. . Although structural functionalism was revolutionary to anthropological fieldwork methods, it was very costly to the field of anthropology/ archaeology in the ways in which anthropologists conceived of their fieldwork and the cultures they studied. This undermined a lot of fieldwork carried out by anthropologists and archaeologists as a functionalist lens was detrimental to the ways in which cultures were portrayed.

A functionalist approach sees culture as a complex network of social relations that make up social structures and institutions which is compared to a living organism in that each person serves in reproducing institutionalized functions (Radcliffe-Brown, 1940: 1-12). So the social phenomena which we observe in any human society are not the immediate result of the nature of individual human beings, but are the result of the social structure by which they are united (1940: 3). Thus, people are both individuals, but also persons in that they are active members within a web of human relations, or society, and reproduce societal norms/ stereotypes as they live their lives (1940: 5-9). By “studying” human beings you are finding out social phenomena and institutions that are the underpinnings. Therefore, a functionalist approach in cultural anthropology looks to uncover the function of institutions in society through participant observation on the interpersonal level.

Early anthropologists like Malinowski and E.E Evans-Pritchard are criticized for using very basic forms of functionalism, but I believe they shaped the study of anthropology the most. This is because of their use of participant observation and belief in anthropologists as objective scientists uncovering “truth” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976: 18-55). This shaped the way anthropology was carried out, more participant observation, but also gave credibility to the field and to anthropologists as objective “truth holders” – much like scientists (1976: 18-55). E.E Evans-Pritchard studied Azande society and analyzed religion systematically to theorize that it held a function within society and that function was to allow people to conform to social norms. This took populations of people popularly conceived of as ‘savage’ or ‘other’ and ‘different’ and gave credibility to an explanation of that culture as to why it is different. Giving an explanation as to the function of very different social phenomena led to a continued objectivity in giving ‘truth’ to explanations of function of differences between social phenomena of different cultures which negatively impacted the way society viewed different cultures and led to discrimination. This also led to a standard within anthropology where research had to look for a function or truth behind social phenomena which was a detriment to the field but also led to a standard of participant observation which was positive.

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Talcott Parsons are credited as bringing structural functionalism to the forefront within American anthropology and reinventing it as a field of thought. Talcott Parsons theorized that one person can and does fulfill many different roles at the same time such that an individual can be seen to be a “composition” (Ritzer, 1985: 89). Parsons later developed the idea of roles into collectivities of roles that complement each other in fulfilling functions for society (Ritzer, 1985: 89). A. R. Radcliffe-Brown studied the Andamanese and found that the Andamanese weep on prescribed occasions during life-crisis rituals to which he attributed weeping a social phenomenon (Kuper, 2009: 216). This was a functionalism that was critical of Malinowski and E.E Evans-Pritchard and critical of functionalism itself, as Radcliffe-Brown did not acknowledge the name as befitting but also focused on the ‘structural’ aspect to functionalism (2009: 216). He saw Malinowski’s ‘commonsense’ functionalist explanations as an example of the ‘danger that the ethnologist may interpret the beliefs of a native people not by reference to their mental life but by reference to his own’ (Pearce, 1994: 42). His functionalism was in the tradition established by Durkheim’s De la division du travail social (1893) and most of his ideas can be seen to derive from a wide, if somewhat insensitive reading of contributions to Durkheim’s journal Année Sociologique. Although there are a number of varieties of structural functionalism it was this macro-oriented “societal functionalism” that gained the greatest number of supporters in American sociology (1994: 89). There is little dispute among observers, that structural functionalism dominated American sociological theory from the 1930’s into the 1960’s (1994: 89).

Functionalism also shaped archaeology in that there was a shift for material culture to be analyzed with the purpose of pointing to social phenomena and underlying structure to be investigated by the archaeologist. This theory therefore applies as much to refuse distributions and ‘the economy’ as it does to burial, pot decoration and art (1994: 64). Thus, functionalism defined people as having a clear place in society, but also people making place within a landscape through material belongings and all is institutionalized (1994: 61-64). This started in the early 20th century where objects stood for prehistoric peoples who are the intended subject of study, but the symbolic process is easily inverted, and peoples under terms such as ‘cultures’ become viewed principally as labels for groups of artefacts, which are the immediate subjects of analysis and by the 1960’s the focus is then on the relationships between the objects themselves (1994: 28-64).

There are limitations to functionalism, and these limitations have led to the portrayal of archaeologist’s/ anthropologist’s work in detrimental ways. A central limitation is the inadequacy of function and utility in explaining social and cultural systems, and on the separation made between functional utility and culture (1994: 61-64). All aspects of culture have utilitarian purposes in terms of which they can be explained and all activities are the results of adaptive expedience. But explanation is sought only in terms of adaptation and function, which restricts the development of archaeological and anthropological theory because of the emphasis of functional value, which is always relative to the given cultural scheme (1994: 61-64). This does not account for human agency or for the fact that people are not always working from absolute adaptive expedience in what they do. Culture should not be seen as a machine for living but a form of life, a source of meanings rather than proteins, driven by ideas and not by genes and culture was to be interpreted, not explained away (2009: 223). Thus, dichotomies are created between culture and function, individual and society, statics and dynamics, which lead to limitations in theory and work.

Functionalism therefore served as foundational to the evolution of macro-theory in anthropology and archaeology in setting a precedent for observing human relations for their institutionalization and observing culture as a static impeding norm on human behavior/ action. This undermined a lot of fieldwork carried out by anthropologists and archaeologists as a functionalist lens was detrimental to the ways in which cultures were portrayed. Although structural functionalism was revolutionary to anthropological fieldwork methods, it was very costly to the field of anthropology/ archaeology in the ways in which anthropologists conceived of their fieldwork and the cultures they studied.

Works Cited
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. (1940). On Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 70, 1-12.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo (p. 66). New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (pp. 18-55). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Featherstone, R., & Deflem, M. (2003, November). Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories.Sociological Inquiry, 73(4), 471-489.
Kuper, A. (2009). Culture: The anthropologists’ account. Harvard University Press.
Pearce, S. M. (1994). Interpreting Objects and Collections (pp. 40-65). London, England: Routledge.
Raab, M., & Goodyear, A. C. (1984, April). Middle-Range Theory in Archaeology: A Critical Review of Origins and Applications. American Antiquity, 49(2), 255-268.
Ritzer, G. (1985). The Rise of Micro-Sociological Theory. Sociological Theory, 3(1), 88-98.