Archaeological Data, Subcultures and Social Dynamics

By Matthews, Keith J. | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Archaeological Data, Subcultures and Social Dynamics


Matthews, Keith J., Antiquity


The archaeological record is dominated by the repeated object and the repeated event, so we search for patterns that explain the regular in general terms. But human societies are not like that; the mass is actually made up of individuals, and the engine of change more often at the margin than at the centre.

Subcultures are an important but little-recognized element in every society. As soon as human communities exceed the nuclear family group, tensions may arise between separate power-groups (Argyle 1992: 199); groups which are not dominant will form embryonic subcultures focussed around any feature which gives them self-identification. This is, for example, how the modern homosexual male defines himself within a gay subculture (Freer 1987: 57; Giddens 1993: 198): his sexuality is what enables him to identify with other members, and gives the subculture a common 'purpose' or historical trajectory. There is literary evidence for a distinct gay subculture in London as early as the 1720s (Weeks 1991: 202), which it should be possible to identify from its material remains.

In the definition proposed here, every member of a society belongs to a number of subcultures, each with its own 'centre of gravity' to which each member is drawn, more or less strongly. As all members belong to many different subcultures, their 'pull' on each individual is in more than one direction; with all members of society being pulled in a multiplicity of directions, their separate and chaotic trajectories together give societies as a whole a single trajectory (Carrithers 1992: 199). Although I have used the term 'subculture', I do not wish to give the impression that they are in any way inferior to or dominated by 'mainstream' culture. Indeed, 'mainstream' culture as such does not exist; it is a construct, the point of meeting of the agreed subcultures to which dominant elites belong. In the late 20th-century United Kingdom this is the culture of the white, English, (nominally) Church of England, upper-middle-class, property-owning, heterosexual, married male; each defining adjective by itself is the descriptor of a separate subculture which includes a greater diversity of individuals than those within the elite.

Historical trajectories in this model become quasi-Marxist struggles between opposing forces. Because of the self-identifying nature of social subcultures, no single mechanistic cause, such as class struggle, drives their dynamics (Shanks & Tilley 1987: 210); they have no evolutionary direction. There will be cohesive forces - basically a form of feedback - but no system can remain either stable or on a single trajectory for long periods. The rise and fall of complex societies, which caused the processualist school so much anguish (Tainter 1988: 42), can be explained purely in terms of internal dynamics. This model of subcultures gives an explanation of culture change which relies entirely on itself: change is the norm, and it is the apparently stable culture (such as Bronze Age Egypt) which requires explanation. Society does not depend solely on economic, subsistence, ideological or any other subsystems or metasystems and their interaction: it is not some great mechanistic entity but a polythetic, fluid mediation of the concatenation of individual human behaviours.

The post-processual interest in subcultures and minorities has been criticised for encouraging the proliferation of 'unconstrained multiple readings of the past' (Kohl 1993: 16). Classic sociological interpretation views subcultures as 'deviant' behaviour, particularly associated with working-class and predominantly male youth (Hebidge 1979: 90; Brake 1985: 11); however, this seriously undervalues the variety of expression found even within mainstream elite culture. In any but the simplest societies there are social groups which fall outside the mainstream; an interest in these groups will not attempt to rewrite archaeology and history from their viewpoint but will seek to integrate the variety of experience of those marginalized within society (which usually means non-elites) into an understanding of how societies function as entities and to celebrate the importance of individual experience in the past and the present. …

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