Expanding Middle-Range Theory

By Trigger, Bruce G. | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Expanding Middle-Range Theory


Trigger, Bruce G., Antiquity


The obscure and ugly language of theoretical archaeology conceals as well as reveals fundamentals that no real practice of archaeology can actually escape. In this paper, revised from a plenary address at the TAG conference at Bradford last year, one of the cannier of the old hands puts some of those fundamentals into proper place.

This paper is based on the conviction that a judicious combination of processual and post-processual approaches can significantly enhance the analytical power of archaeology. It will be argued that the systematic inference of human behaviour and beliefs that is needed for such an expansion of the purview of archaeology necessitates broadening the concept of middle-range theory far beyond its current limits.

Post-processual advances

The post-processual trends of the 1980s, although promoted by only a small number of archaeologists, forged new concepts and revived long-neglected ones that are essential for the development of archaeology. They introduced archaeologists to a wider range of theoretical positions, breaking the former near-monopoly of empiricism and positivism. They also expanded the range of archaeological concerns beyond the habitual ecological, social and political interests of processual archaeology to engage religious beliefs, gender, ethnicity and other subjective states that most processual archaeologists, with such eminent exceptions as Kent Flannery and Colin Renfrew, either tabooed or dismissed as wholly epiphenomenal and therefore uninteresting. They also made archaeologists more aware of cultural diversity, discredited Julian Steward's (1955: 179, 182-3) claim that only regularities are fit objects for archaeological investigation, revived an awareness that cultures consist of ideas and made archaeologists more conscious of the problems posed by intersubjectivity (Patterson 1995: 129-44; Preucel 1991; Yoffee & Sherratt 1993).

While human beings, like all other biological organisms, must adapt to the natural environment, they have evolved a unique way of doing this, which is mediated by the manipulation of symbols. This highly efficacious form of adaptation, which permits individuals to objectify themselves, imagine the thought processes of others and play out in their minds innumerable scenarios involving real and imaginary characters and situations, vastly enhances social co-operation and often greatly reduces physical risk to the individual organism, but has disturbing and not easily predictable side effects. It also produces a situation in which the 'landscape of action' is inseparable from the 'landscape of consciousness' (Carrithers 1992: 86; Godelier 1986). This permits us once more to appreciate Gordon Childe's (1956a; 1979) prescient observation that human beings do not adapt to the real world but rather to what they imagine the real world to be like.

The most novel and far-reaching contribution of post-processual archaeology has been Ian Hodder's (1982) irrefutable ethnoarchaeological demonstration that material culture inverts and distorts, as well as reflects, social organization and hence plays a more active role in social processes than was hitherto believed. This discovery struck at one of the central principles of Binfordian processual archaeology; which had assigned a purely epiphenomenal status to the ideological subsystem.

Although subject to vituperative attacks, post-processual archaeology has transformed archaeology in important and irreversible ways. It has also provided a humanistic antidote to the technocratic dogmatism and scientism of American New Archaeology. There is now growing support for the position that, while important aspects of human behaviour can be understood as rational adaptations to ecological, demographic and technological factors, all cultural change takes place within a context of existing beliefs and practices that guide human behaviour. Individual cultures are cognitive heritages from the past that provide guidance for everyday life, constitute the basis for coping with changing conditions and may actively encourage resistance to change (Boyer 1990; Giddens 1977; Hall 1986; Mann 1986). …

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