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.