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5th-Feb-2007 09:05 pm - Processualism vs. Post-Processualism
A few days ago in a restaurant a friend and I were having a talk about post-processualism and processualism. I explained that I was more sympathetic to processualism, although had issues with it, and also found certain aspects of post-processualism important to keep in mind. It occurred to me afterward that the problem with post-processualism that it has misunderstood the scope of anthropology.


Let me back up and explain. Anthropology is a discipline of the social sciences, as I'm sure I don't need to explain. It's sister disciplines, sociology and psychology, also deal with human beings but from slightly different points of view. (Actually, my personal opinion is that sociology is actually close enough to anthropology and anthropology a broad enough field, that sociology should be renamed "Ethnography of Western Civilization" and merged into anthropology, but that's just me.) It also has a few cousins in the humanities--- the most obvious being history.

People are central to all of these disciplines, and in America, archeology is a subdivision of anthropology (thanks to the processualists). At this point it's important to realize that anthropology is the study of culture--- that thing which humans possess that is shared, learned, patterned and symbolic. Period. Anthropologists are the "big picture" people. Culture is that big picture.

In contrast, we could talk about Psychology. Psychologists are interested in the inner workings of a human mind. Although there is work on how a group of minds interact in psychology, for the most part they focus on individual traits--- personality, psychological disorders, the structure of the brain.

And this is where things get interesting and where I believe the post-processualists get it wrong. The post-processualists believe that agency and free will are important and are overlooked by the processual method. That because of free will, we can't truly reconstruct a culture from the archaeological record, that it's all just biased interpretation.

When I was discussing post-processualism with my friend, he made a point of grabbing a salt shaker that was in front of us and pouring some of it's contents out. Then he said that there was no real reason for him to have done so, that this demonstrated agency, and how as a result human beings can't be reduced to mere patterns due to their free will.

I now think I see the flaw in his argument. Free Will and Agency have NOTHING to do with culture. In fact, insomuch as culture determines the set of beliefs and behaviors you're more likely to possess, it is in fact the complete opposite of Free Will.

The post-processualists have messed up because they based their arguement on the INDIVIDUAL, which anthropology does not care about. Anthropology cares about the culture of that individual. My friend's actions that day had no cultural meaning, no significance, beyond something that he randomly did. You could say that the proper field for exploring his actions is not anthropology then, but psychology. It is only when we do things that fall under the definition of being shared, learned, patterned and symbolic can we apply the methods of anthropology to our actions.

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I would like to conclude by stating that I do feel that aspects of post-processualism are very important. The insistence on reflexivity during the course of one's research is quite possible one of the most important, for example. So I don't consider it a total waste. I just don't find it completely adequate as a theoretical framework to base one's research on.
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