Agency: Theories, Approaches, and Applications

Theoretical movements in archaeology make long lasting contributions in how we understand and interpret archaeological material.  The concept of agency has made a similar impact since its institution by scholars such as Bourdieu, Giddens, and Foucault (Dobres and Robb, 2000).  The concept of agency can be traced back to a variety of philosophical scholars examining the nature of consciousness and later the founders of the social sciences who built theoretical concepts in an attempt to assess the deeper levels of an individual’s function within society (Dobres and Robb, 2000).

A concrete definition of agency has been elusive throughout the recent past as many scholars have contributed their interpretations of what agency means to them.  For instance, Bourdieu (1990) notes that agency is the replication of unconscious structures within one’s mind.  Foucault describes agency as the constitution of individual subjectivity through diffuse power relations (Dobres and Robb, 2000).  Others note that it is the experience individual action in creating a life story, or the imposition of form on material through socially situated creative activity (Hodder, 2000; Wobst, 2000; Sassaman, 2000). Dobres and Robb (2000) discuss the importance of recognizing that agency can operate in many ways at once and sometimes can contradict itself as a result of the archaeological context.  A paramount resource in understanding agency is the book Agency in Archaeology, with a variety of contributing authors such as Clark, Barrett, and Hodder, that assist in assessing a variety of limitations and strengths within the theory in order to more clearly build a definition of agency relevant to archaeology.

A significant issue to examine within the context of agency is scale. When agency is discussed, do we refer to an individual agent or do we find agency within groups? Theorists have built multiple debates on which is correct; some argue that agency is not about the personal interest of an individual but the cultural process through which individuality and a sense of being part of the group is constructed and transformed, while others such as Hodder and Johnson contend that there are multiple varieties of agency within one society as well that there are specific individuals we can identify as true historical agents (Dobres and Robb, 2000).

Temporal scales are also vital to examine in this case as the implications of agency can have short term importance and can explain social change over long periods of time (Dobres and Robb, 2000). In an analysis of Algerian culture, Bourdieu notes that “the precepts of custom which govern the temporal distribution of activities vary greatly from place to place and, in the same place, from one informant to another” (Bourdieu, 1990, pg. 201). In this case, it can be said that Algerians’ understanding of the passage of time is influenced by both the individual agent that creates minor variations in their understanding of the passage of time, and the group agents that establish the larger cultural framework which is adhered to for more significant events, such as holidays.

Archaeological interpretations are often limited to material culture and associated remains within a particular space. This can pose many challenges as traditional interpretations of material culture are centered on situations in which we can postulate individuals doing physical things like, for example, making pots, burying their dead, and holding feasts (Dobres and Robb, 2000).  Meanings, values, and identity can be attributed to material things which can be viewed not only as constructing the world but also constructing the identity of the people themselves (Dobres and Robb, 2000).

During class, we discussed Bourdieu’s work on the Berber house where the processes by which meaning is assigned to a particular room or portion of the house was significantly rooted in the cultural notions of this society. The Berber house demonstrates the replication of the opposition of gender in material goods and the distribution of space, as it is perceived in the unconscious structures of the mind. Furthermore, diffuse power relations between genders evidently impacted the subjectively defined meaning placed on material culture to resemble and reinforce these power relations, as noted by Foucault. Various interpretations of agency assist theorists and archaeologists in arriving at unique conclusions about a particular social process in question (Silliman, 2001). Within the context of this course, theories regarding agency help us think more closely about conceptualising individual versus group agents and their impact on McMaster’s campus when preparing for our term projects.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of the Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hodder, I. (2000) ‘Agency and Individuals in Long-Term Processes’, in MA. Dobres and J. Robb (eds) Agency in Archaeology, pp. 21–33. New York and London: Routledge.

Dobres M, and Robbs J. (2000) ‘Agency in Archaeology: Paradigm or Platitude?, in M A. Dobres and J. Robb (eds) Agency in Archaeology, pp. 21–33. New York and London: Routledge.

Silliman, S. (2001). Agency, practical politics and the archaeology of culture contact. Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2): 190-209.

Phenomenology: Understanding the Concept of ‘Space’

Part of the process of understanding any term, concept, or theory I come across includes determining its potential and limitations. When something I encounter has clear limitations it is much easier to understand, however phenomenology has successfully blurred the boundaries for concepts like ‘space’ and ‘place’ as a result of this week’s readings. From the three readings encountered this week, I concluded that traditional theoretical models of examining space are often limited by westernized concepts of space. Tuan (1978) further notes that even the word ‘space’ is so deeply a part of the western experience that it cannot be accurately translated into non-European languages. In this blog post I would like to discuss boundaries of functionality in how phenomenology can be applied to archaeology, using the Classic Maya as a case study.


The broader concepts of this week’s readings can be related to last week’s discussion on functionalism and structuralism. When attempting to interpret methods of spatialization in various societies we undertake a structuralist role as we look at the intangible, internal structures that result in the surface phenomena we uncover through archaeological means. We can therefore make a minimal assumption that every society, in their own way, engages in the act of spatialization. Moving forward from this point is where western taxonomies influence how we interpret archaeological material.


Robin (2002) took a unique approach when evaluating the limitations of a theoretical model regarding domestic space. Domestic activities are vital to understanding the daily lives of past social groups; however, interpretations that can be made regarding this subject are often limited to the housing structures that can be excavated. In order to evaluate the significance of information that is lost while relying solely on residential structures, Robin (2002) examined a late Classic Maya society that lacked permanent structures. Results of the study demonstrated that the notion of private versus public activities are a highly ethnocentric assumption of ancient societies that may play a key role in clouding our vision and ability to understand the importance of this distinction to other societies. Robin (2002) notes that space is only meaningful when a social entity constructs, uses, and reuses it. Basso (year) notes that the concept of ‘place’ and our individual relationship with it is created when that place becomes an object of our awareness. How are we to apply this knowledge to the practice of archaeology?


I believe the primary limitation when interpreting the role of space, time, and place in an archaeological context lies with the researcher conducting the study. A thorough understanding of phenomenology as it applies to concepts of space can result in increased caution and awareness of one’s own limitations when approaching an interpretative situation. It seems as though the use of theoretical models in studying phenomenological concepts must be used in order to minimize the possibility of contaminating an archaeological interpretation with personal ethnocentric values. It would be interesting to discuss additional interpretations of the readings with regards to how else these concepts can be applied to the practice of archaeology.


Tuan, Yi-Fu
1978 Space, Time, Place: A Humanistic Frame. In Making Sense of Time, edited by T. Carlstein, D. Parkes and N. Thrift, pp. 7-16. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Basso, Keith H.
1996 “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape” in Senses of Place, edited by S. Feld and K.H. Basso, pp. 53-90. School of American Research, Santa Fe; read excerpt pp. 53-58 only

Robin, Cynthia
2002 Outside of Houses: The Practices of Everyday Life at Chan Noohol, Belize. In Journal of Social Archaeology 2(2): 245-268.