Blogging Week 2 – Redux

The two articles looked at this week are “Social Memory” by Paul Connerton and “Concrete Memories: Fragments of the Past in Classic Maya Present (500-1000 AD) by Rosemary Joyce. I’ll be looking at both, starting with “Social Memory.”

You can’t break with the past. You, your conceptions and your expectations of the world were created in the past and any attempt to make a is doomed because as soon as we try we will only reproduce it again. Perhaps not the same world, but it will still be one that is a product of the circumstances from before the revolution (p. 7).

We can though reject the past and in seeking to build a new world this is a critical part of the development. We don’t know what the new world will look like, but we know what it won’t. The new way is found by breaking down the old. Way, for example, if you want to create a secular, egalitarian society, kill God’s incarnation on Earth in a fair trial. You force the old to bend the new rules (p. 7).

Why is this an important thing to do? Because of the overlap between “social memory” and “history.” Social memory is what a collective (and the comprising individuals) remembers about itself and themselves. Social memory is when a village remembers the last festival, when the rumour about Mary and Mr. Pamuk resurfaces.

History is a category all its own (p. 14). History can be about “what happened to us” but it is constructive. History creates and follows a narrative of everything that happened “during that time” and bundles it up into a collection that is understandable. A formalized “history” of something is always ultimately interpreted through a person, be it in the memory of an oral historian, in the written words of a biographer or group of historians working in concert. What this means is that history is not only a nebulous, social-constructed thing, it means that alternate histories of the same general time can be only tangentially related (p. 16).

Getting back to the revolution, the reason why a symbolic destruction of the old order is important is because for the people who are being presented to, that destruction is going to be a powerful moment in both. You’re trying to rebuild the world, a historical moment. But you want the people to live in that world to sit up and take notice. So you invert something historically significant that is within the collective social memory to act as a touchstone and bring the history to them, in a sense. Things won’t be the same anymore and people will feel that things aren’t the same anymore because of the impact of affecting something so important in their social memory (the king).

Most important, when we are reading a historical account or a historian’s piecing together of the details, we are not reading precise, scientific measurements. We are reading theory-laden facts. We connect to a interpreted, personal, collection of understands, facts and inter-related concepts that evoke one another, through the medium of text. The text should be the start point for our understanding of what it presents, not the endpoint “truth” or even “one view of the objective truth” that should be taken as gospel.

Alternate viewpoints are not just the same event viewed a different vantage. A different viewpoint has different ways of interpretative events, focus on different aspects of the event, has other events happening at the same time that might be more or less important in relation, has other concepts that linked to events, etc, etc. Since context is so important in constructing a narrative (and therefore constructing history), the different in context between a dominate and subordinate group are going to be very different.

So alternate histories aren’t two different viewpoints of the same thing, they are two different stories that happen to intersect spatially and temporally. It’s not that the Islamic world has a different interpretation of the Crusades from the Christian world because they saw it from the other side. The actual event, “a bunch of people with swords going to Jerusalem” was seen differently, remembered differently, labelled differently and put in an entirely different conceptual box. In the same way that the story of your life doesn’t make complete sense to anyone except yourself (maybe not even yourself!), the same goes for history.

The idea text is more reliable than an account in an oral history is due to our assumption that texts are more accurate because the physical article is permanent, and the words written are perfectly reproducible in a way that speech isn’t. In the same way that Stonehenge is commonly seen as an monument frozen in time, text can be seen as frozen in time. And while we are able to see the ways a text might be reinterpreted, reexamined or debated, we see these as independent outcroppings from the solid, unchanging document.


Second we look at Hodder, Ian and Craig in “Daily practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk.” Catalhoyuk is a site in Turkey. They looked at what we might consider provincial life over the course of time. Burial practices, household chores and cleaning, house construction, etc. People are born, age and die in a cycle that does not seem to change much. The next generation of actors are taught the old rituals and things go on. Of course we know that the process is dynamic and that nothing is ever truly replicated, but that’s the general idea and to an inside observer the traditions are unchanged.

Of course as archaeologists we are interested in the seeming sameness of rituals performed again and again, and of the impact of that material culture on the people, and the reasons why these practices arose. They argue that the intensive regularity of chores were a response to the conditions that the people of Catalhoyuk lived in, a dense population with sanitation needs, space needs, economic needs, etc. The regularity was a way of teaching the proper rules for how to deal with these matters.

How regular? Very. Analysis showed that a single wall was replastered 700 times over the course of 70 years. Pottery is never found in graveyards. Obsidian deposits are left at hearths. There is a marked degree of regularity that covers many aspects of these people’s lives

But why? Why the incessant chores that seem to be more than what would be required?The traditional functionalist argument is that these rituals are a necessity for organizing a complex society, and since Turkey is one of the earliest sites of sedentary societies (which, as common-sense dictates is the first step towards increasingly complex societies) the regularity of the patterns seen in life at Catalhoyuk over the ages only reinforces the idea that ritual builds order and order creates ritual. It’s only common sense.

But no! Of course not. We’re cleverer than that. The argument presented is that the daily chores were a way to ingrain social memory for people, enculturation and social learning. The repetition serves as a social and communal touchstone for the tasks, a way to order time without an official calendar and a way to delineate local space based on what tasks happen where. This even goes so far as embodiment, as you do not move through a crowded kitchen in the same way that you move through a open field.






Connerton, Paul

1991 :Social Memory.” Chapter 1 in How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hodder, Ian Cessford.

2004. “Daily practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk.” American Antiquity 69(1):17-40

Blogging Week!

This week we’re dealing with gender in archaeology as looked at by Ruth Tringham in “Households with Faces” as she looks at house architecture in Eastern Europe and “Intepretting Space” by Henrietta Moore as she looks at contemporary Marakewet-Endo understandings of gender and space in Kenya.

Let’s first take a look at Henrietta. In looking at the Endo she argues that gendered division of space is primarily a difference between two “attitudes” in approaching the world and the gendered division of tasks, behaviour and space are a way for the Endo to contextualize conflict and tension between different parts of social life.

To explain, there is always going to be tension/cooperation/conflict between the community and individual households. Maleness and Femaleness are lens to structure and look at this relationship and the stresses it undergoes (Moore, 110). The two lens rely on each other and conceptions of what are male/female qualities to maintain their cohesiveness.

And (in recalling the Berber article), opposites reference each other and differences can be complex, circular, overlapping and contradictory. Ash and dung are opposed, as dung is creative, male and social and ash is destructive, female and solitary. But, chaff is female and social (a contradiction) but non-contradictory because chaff is also a symbol of production and motherhood (Moore, 112). That chaff is a symbol of the social that is accessible to women means that it lets women participate in conceptual space that naturally belongs to men. Chaff’s connection to the male domain of the social makes it a bridge for women to interact with parts of the male order (Moore, 113).

The multiple meanings of an object (like ash) can be understood sort of like a Swiss army knife. All of the meanings exist simultaneously but not all of them are used simultaneously even if those unused meanings are still present. For example, pretending you’re going to throw ash at a friend invokes the negative aspects of ash as a representative of destruction. But, it can also be a reference to its ritual role, and the link that you and your friend have through that ritual and through womanhood (Moore, 115). The meaning shifts as the context demands, but the other meanings are ignored, they’re just…. Pushed to the background. Still present, still felt, but secondary for the moment.

Now looking at Tringham. Tringham looks at the development in methodological and ideology of looking at gendered space at pre-historic archaeological sites. There are the Soviet archaeologists who sent out with an agenda to prove and Marija Gimbutas who sets out with the #1 sin of science, finding evidence to support your existing theory, not trying to falsify it (Tringham, 95).

She looks at her own development, and comments on the important of thinking about the actual individuals of archaeology, putting faces on the productive forces that build, farmed and lived at a site and trying to imagine how they would operate as people (who would move through and think of their space in unique ways) instead of faceless “creators of artifacts and sites (Tringham, 94). It grounds your thinking, and while you are imagining how they lived without direct evidence to support it you aren’t going to make proclamations about social hierarchies or value systems. You’re using your imagined people to try to explain what you do have evidence of, like burned material at a high enough temperature that suggests a house burning was intentional (Tringham, 123).

In household archaeology, the presence of women must be felt, oppose to a temple, market or other space which could conceivably be off-limits to a gender and Tringham tries to figure out how to look at a household and make statements about the gendering of the space found, since (presumably) it must have occurred. Her conclusion – it’s hard (Tringham, 103). You have to think of the people, the faces instead of the positivist recording of information and actually imagine what the situation would be like while at the same time not getting into the widescale assumptions that Soviets or Marija fell into. If you’re making a statement about gendered space it is limited to a single site, that might be applicable to neighbouring sites within the same horizon (Tringham, 103).



Moore, Henrietta L.
1986 “Interpreting Space.” Introduction and Chapter 7 of Space, Text and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Tringham, Ruth.
1991. “Households With Faces: The Challenge of Gender in Prehistoric Architectural Remains,” In Gero, Joan M. and Margaret W. Conkey, eds., Engendering Archaeology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Pp. 93-131

Primary Source Blog

Christian Cullis


Actor-Network Theory

Actor-network theory (ANT) is the concept that everything, everything is simultaneously an actor and a network of actors. An actor-network is an actor because it can act on the world and influence things. It is also network because how it influences the world is determined by all of the actors within it and the way they interact with each other.

To explain. Take a book club. Every member is an actor, sure. After all, they debate what book to read next. They act. But the books they read are also actors. Suppose that after reading a book by an author a member of the book club wants to read more of that author’s work. The book has had an influence on the book club. The person read the book, the book gave its message to the person.

So the people and the books are actors, and they are arranged in a network since they all interact with each other. The book club is an actor-network. But we can go further, because the book is an actor-network too. We’ve seen how it was an actor because it gave its message to a reader, but that one book is the sum of an author, a book manufacturer, a shipping company, a book seller, everything, right down to the cousin who bought it as a Christmas present for one of the members.

And it’s like that for everything in the world.

This is what makes ANT such an interesting topic. It gives objects the same status as actors that humans do and erases the conceptual difference between individuals, institutions, objects and ideas so that it can focus on inter-actor relationships. ANT analyzes the relationships between actor-networks to understand how they function and what they do. A band is a bunch of people with instruments and inspiration who create music. An event planner delegates tasks to achieve a unified vision. ANT looks at the world as one big, interconnected network of actors that are themselves comprised of smaller actors. You can take an actor-network (a book club) and “black box” it to look at how it interacts with other actor-networks. You can black box that actor-network into a greater one, and so on. You can also attempt to open black-boxes and get to smaller and smaller levels of analysis.

ANT developed as a way to look at the process of technology develops in the early 1980s, but since then it has grown and been used in exploring many more fields, most importantly to us, anthropology and archaeology. Its appeal lies in its ability to scale up and down well (you can break down actor-networks into smaller pieces or combine multiple actor-networks into a larger whole) and how it offers a new way to analyze people, objects and concepts through their relationships with one another.  This is attractive for post-structuralists, as everything is relational and the line between institution and actor is erased.

ANT is, from what I’ve found and believe I understand, an extension of Foucault’s theories on power-dynamics in many ways. That’s not what it was intended as (because it started as a way to look at scientific progression and discovery as more like a magpie collecting information until it could construct some instead of a cold, on-rails “train of progress”), and ANT is used so differently across the various fields it is found in that it is hard to find a universal label for it, but that’s what I’ve found. Things are connected, have power over each other to varying degrees and what we would call an institution or tradition is on a more level playing field with the people who exist within it than previous thinkers assumed. As an extension of Foucault, the inclusion of the importance of objects makes it more appealing from an archaeological perspective because we are primarily concerned with objects.

ANT relates to archaeology because it reframes the way that we examine what we find. Take an excavation of a Neolithic camp site. A structuralist would look at the objects found and try to understand their purpose. What did these things do for people? How did people form them to best serve a purpose? With ANT we can look at the objects ask how they impacted the people. We can ask questions about the two developed together. Not a linear progression of “Making better tools” but a back-and-forth relationship of how, say, making an adze for the first time would affect the people who made it. Which would affect how they could interact with the world. Which would change the way people thought about the adze. Which would change the impact that the adze would have on people, etc, etc. ANT could be used to look at the relationships between sacred mountains and villagers, between crosses and bishops or between blacksmiths and farriers. Every interaction sends ripples throughout the web, and instead of limiting ourselves to look at the ripples caused by humans acting on objects or rulers acting on subjects, we can see the way that everything comes together into a holistic whole and relationships are two-way streets.

ANT relates to this course because it is another theoretical neighbourhood to walk through, and it offers new ways to examine existing archaeological data that reveals things other methods have failed at. In looking at the moa-hunters in New Zealand ANT was used to reexamine the history of the moa’s extinction and the theories around it. ANT was used to understand the scientific process of how knowledge of the extinction was acquired, the politics of individuals, to understand and question the base assumptions that researchers made as they investigated the moa and the moa-hunters.

ANT has a few limitations. One, it doesn’t sort connections between actor based on how important they are, or likely are. It has no system for pruning connections that are of little importance. Yes, as an actor-network within McMaster I have an influence on everything else in McMaster. But how much of it is negligible? Can I use my influence to lower tuition?

ANT is also bad at finding causes. Suppose I started an on-campus organization to lower textbook costs and we succeed. Am I the cause of that change? Is everybody in the movement a cause of that change? Or is it the devilishly high price of textbooks? Since everything is an actor-network, nothing is just ”an actor.” Since everything in an actor-network is interconnected, any change observed is a result of the actor-network acting on itself. There is no outside or inside, all change is self-caused. ANT can describe and analyze, but it can’t explain very well. It relies on create “black boxes” around actor-networks.

Finally, ANT needs to have the entire network visible to operate. In returning to the example of a book club, if we are unaware of one member of the club it will make it impossible to understand the club. We will be able to deduce that there is something we aren’t seeing, but we don’t know the nature of what it is because we can’t observe with certainty any of the relationships (relationships being our primary method of investigation) between the unknown and the known. And if we black box the book club without being aware of the unknown elements, we won’t know that our observations are off, and we won’t be able to find out without reopening the black box and reexamining the actor-network within.



Gray, B. J. and Gibson, J. W. (2013), Actor–Networks, Farmer Decisions, and Identity. CAFÉ, 35: 82–101. doi:10.1111/cuag.12013

Kockelman, P. (2010), Enemies, Parasites, and Noise:How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 20: 406–421. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01077.x

Latour, B.. (1996). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications. Soziale Welt47(4), 369–381. Retrieved from

McBRIDE, N.. (2003). Actor-Network Theory and the Adoption of Mobile Communications. Geography88(4), 266–276. Retrieved from

Saito, H.. (2011). An Actor-Network Theory of Cosmopolitanism. Sociological Theory29(2), 124–149. Retrieved from

Stausberg, M.. (2010). Distinctions, Differentiations, Ontology, and Non-humans in Theories of Religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion,22(4), 354–374. Retrieved from

Thode, S.. (2009). Bones and Words in 1870s New Zealand: The Moa-Hunter Debate through Actor Networks. The British Journal for the History of Science42(2), 225–244. Retrieved from

Westin, J. (2014), Inking a Past; Visualization as a Shedding of Uncertainty. Vis. Anthropol. Rev., 30: 139–150. doi:10.1111/var.12044

This came up in a discussion group, gender and wealth and such

Oh, I meant to post this a few weeks ago. I guess I hit the wrong button.

This essay covers a lot of interest and worthwhile stuff, but to get to the part I feel is most relative ctrl-F “once, in another professional life” and read down to “only worry.” There is more on cultural myths and motifs, and what future archaeologists would think digging through the remains of our society and how they would interpret stuff, so give the whole thing a read why not?

tl;dr – The surface “parole” of consumerist equality is a result of our place at the end of the capitalist production chain. This is a great contemporary example of functionalism focusing entirely on the surface level and ignoring the rest of the processes and underlying cultural assumptions that go into producing that surface.