Social structures

The methodological problems that have accompanied the attempts to build a Social Archaeology' might be best illustrated by the ways that the term structure has been used, both as a noun to describe an arrangement or organisation, and as a verb to describe a process (as in ‘to structure’). In the former case a social structure describes the more general arrangement of institutions, such as those functioning within a chiefdom that is an arrangement of status differences linked by the downward pressures of obligation and authority and by the upward movement of tributary materials. Such an arrangement holds out the possibility of being unambiguously represented by the pattern of archaeological residues, as illustrated by the late third- millennium settlement hierarchy on Crete (Renfrew 1972, Fig. 14.14). It therefore appears as if the patterned range of settlement locations, sizes, and their supposed functions could be treated as if they offered the representation of the social structural complexity of the regional system (Flannery 1976, 195).

The second use of structure as a verb indicates the ability of an agency to bring an arrangement into existence or to transform an existing arrangement. Such an agency would require an existing facility, the material conditions of its existence for example, for it to either reproduce existing structural arrangements between things and people, or for it to transform those relationships. These ‘structuring structures’ expressed the practical intention of an agency to achieve certain ends (Bourdieu 1977) and would have involved, on the part of the human agents concerned, the interpretation of the conditions occupied, and the aims of the strategies that were employed.

The conditions that are studied anthropologically, are conditions that are replicated by agents who work through their own lifetime projects to reproduce, and possibly transform, the social and material conditions to which they belong. This process of replication is achieved by the human agents’ abilities to draw upon a body of material resources and traditional practices, along with their own dispositions and abilities to act, given the various constraints that might act upon them. These subjectivities would seem to stand in contrast to the fossilised patterns of social types that archaeological studies reveal as being represented by the patterns of archaeological residues. The disciplines of anthropology and of archaeology' were distinguished by Renfrew who proposed that an anthropological understanding of ‘a society’ was of the structure ‘as its members see it’ whilst an archaeological perception, ‘lacking access to direct verbal testimony’, utilises the available residues to gain a knowledge ‘of the operation of certain aspects of the society’ (Renfrew 1977, 90 & 91). From this view, the archaeological account of a social structure must ‘centre upon specially patterned interactions which are indicative of [its] organisation’, a cultural system whose ‘interactions with the environment [are] seen as input or output to that . . . system’ (Renfrew 1977, 98 & 108). Archaeology appears to model the social ‘polity’, which is defined as the highest order of social organisation (Renfrew 1977, 105), as if its organisation was represented by material residues. The problem for archaeology is that each polity was reproduced historically by the practical expression of the world as it was seen and lived in by the agencies that inhabited it. If an understanding of these subjective processes of ‘structuration’ was only available to anthropologists who could access a verbal testimony of the members of other communities, then this would seem to preclude an archaeological understanding of the processes by which social organisations were reproduced.

It is important to re-emphasise at this point that archaeology, like anthropology', seeks our understanding of the lives that others once lived. This is not the world ‘as they saw it’ but the world in which their actions make sense as seen by us. We own, and are responsible for, our understandings of others. This does not mean that we are free to colonise those lives with ideas as to how we might interpret those same conditions, nor does it mean that we are bound to attempt the impossible, namely to see the world as they saw it. What it does mean is that we should attempt to recognise the options that those others had to enable them to respond to the conditions in which they lived and which we glimpse in the surviving fragmentary residues studied archaeologically. To do this in a self-critical manner will mean that we make our assumptions explicit. The structuring of the social system was therefore achieved by agencies that were able to direct their own interpretation of the conditions which they inhabited towards either the replication of those conditions, or towards their transformation. It is by seeking to understand the basis upon which the roles of the various agencies of history become comprehensible to us that archaeology aims to build its understanding of the ways that those various agencies once operated, without having access to the verbal testimony of those agencies.

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