The Archaeology of Institutional Life

By Skowronek, Russell K. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Archaeology of Institutional Life


Skowronek, Russell K., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


The Archaeology of Institutional Life April M. Beisaw and James G. Gibb. 2009. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, xi & 249 pages, 28 b/w illustrations, index. $28.95 (paper), $52.50 (hardcover), $23.16 (ebook). ISBN 978-0-8173-5516-6 (paper), 978-0-8173-1637-2 (hardcover), 978-0-8713-8118-9 (ebook).

"Institutional Life" - the words alone connote popular images created in books and films about the loss of freedom and identity, regimented lives, resistance, and brutality. These may range from "insane" asylums (e.g" "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus") to prisons (e.g., "Cool Hand Luke," "The Longest Yard," "The Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Green Mile"), orphanages ("Oliver Twist"), schools ("Tom Brown's School Days," "Anne of Green Gables"), and POW camps ("Stalag 17," "Bridge Over the River Kwai," "King Rat," "The Great Escape"). As memorable as these images are we must ask how accurate these representations are and where "institutional life" fits in the larger milieu of life.

In the fourteen chapters that comprise The Archaeology of Institutional Life, editors April M. Beisaw and James G. Gibbs and colleagues from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia show how institutions permeate life and can offer insights into social history. The chapters are divided into four thematic sections dealing with "Method and Theory," and the study of institutions of "Education," "Communality," and "Incarceration."

The book opens with a terrific humanizing introduction by Gibbs on how institutions permeate and structure life and change behavior. Their archaeological study can offer insights into social history which would otherwise be unknown. It is followed by a brief essay by Sherene Baugher documenting earlier archaeological research on institutions. In it she emphasizes that it is this work which provides oüierwise unknown insights into "the lives of the people who worked, fought, played, laughed, cried, cooperated, resisted, lived, and died in these diverse institutions" (p. 13).

Section I of the book, "Method and Theory," provides two distinct approaches to its study. The first by Eleanor Conlin Casella explores various philosophical approaches to the study of institutional life including criminal justice and sociology. She goes on to explore how the inmates negotiated confinement. Topics included "punishment, reform and deterrence," "domination and resistance," "reform, respite, ritual," and "coping, survival, and exchange."

In Chapter 4, Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood applies feminist theory to the historical archaeology of institutions. She shows how feminist theories give insights which are usually lacking in histories by showing the place of women in social agency. There is a discussion of how "Feminist," "MarxistFeminist," "Liberal Feminist," and "Feminist Queer" approaches can shed light on the inmates and staff who were associated with the institutions.

The last chapter in this section by Beisaw considers "institution-specific" site formation models. Beisaw focuses on the study of one-room schools and notes that the school and its associated outbuildings and schoolyard represent a site "type" very different from domestic sites. Her closing sentence is important to archaeologists who study institutions as all these "sites should be expected to have produced fewer possessions than regulations" (p.66).

Following Beisaw's chapter is Section II of the book which considers "Institutions of Education." This work anticipated what is now a growing body of recent archaeological scholarship on this topic including Laurie Wilkie's (2010) Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: A Hûtorical Archaeology of Masculinity at a University Fraternity, and Skowronek and Lewis' (2010) Beneath the Ivory Tower, the Archaeology of Academia. The two chapters found in The Archaeology of Institutional Life consider a one-room school house and an "Indian" school. In the former, Deborah Rotman considers how "Rural Education and Community Social Relations" are played out at Schoolhouse No.

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