Taking Stock of Social Theory in Southeastern Archaeology

By Knight, Vernon James | Southeastern Archaeology, December 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Taking Stock of Social Theory in Southeastern Archaeology


Knight, Vernon James, Southeastern Archaeology


The articles collected here were originally presented as papers in a plenary session on archaeological theory sponsored by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, offered on November 8, 2012, at the annual meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On two previous occasions, SEAC has sponsored comparable plenary sessions. The first of these, organized and chaired by David Dye, took place at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Conference in New Orleans in 1988. Its theme was "Theory and Method in American Archaeology," and the presenters were James A. Brown, Robert C. Dunnell, Barbara A. Purdy, Christopher S. Peebles, Patty Jo Watson, and Stephen Williams. Those papers, with the exception of Williams's and with a later editorial addition by Robert Murowchick, were published together in a special issue of Southeastern Archaeology (vol. 9, no. 1,1990).

Ten years later, at the 60th annual meeting in Greenville in 1998, Kenneth Sassaman organized and chaired a second sponsored plenary session on theory. This one was titled "Culture History as Paradigm: Thriving Legacy, Harmless Anachronism, or Intellectual Handicap?" Its presenters were Patricia Galloway, Robert C. Mainfort Jr., William H. Marquardt, Michael J. O'Brien and R. Lee Lyman, Timothy R. Pauketat, Vincas P. Steponaitis, Paul D. Welch, and Stephen Williams. Those papers were not published as a set.

Knowing that both prior sessions were well attended and well received, and moreover that there seemed to be sentiment in favor of SEAC doing this again from time to time, I organized the 2012 session around the theme "Taking Stock of Social Theory in Southeastern Archaeology." The idea for such a plenary session was graciously accepted by President Ann Early. Meeting organizers Rebecca Saunders and Richard Weinstein were deftly able to orchestrate a Thursday afternoon time slot that did not overlap with anything else on the meeting program.

During the summer prior to the meeting, as the idea of the session began to take shape, one question rose to the fore, at least in my own thinking: Is current theory in southeastern U.S. archaeology really as eclectic as it seems at first glance? That issue has a special prominence for the writer, one that provokes memories of my own days of graduate training some 35 years or so ago. For in those days, I took classwork from Marvin Harris, and Harris hated eclecticism (see Harris 1980:287-314). He was not intolerant of students whose views diverged from his own cultural materialism. In fact, he encouraged such students to speak up in class, if only to provide him a debating foil. And many a pitiable advocate for structuralism or interpretivism or Marxism would be humiliated in the ensuing verbal exchange. But Harris reserved a special loathing for eclecticism. Whereas the other "isms" were tolerated as worthy opponents, eclecticism he felt was simply intellectually lazy, a prescription for disaster. And Harris was hardly the only acquaintance of mine who said that in public. Chris Peebles, a participant in SEAC's first plenary session on theory, put it this way: "Archaeology treats philosophical traditions a bit like a Chinese menu or perhaps the contents of a supermarket: the archaeologist takes one from column A and another from column B, and a whole bunch of stuff from the dairy aisle and more from the fruits and vegetables section. Not only is this not kosher-one does not mix dairy and Derrida-but the selections are radically contradictory and sometimes even incoherent" (Peebles 2006:151; the food metaphor arises repeatedly in the papers that follow). In that context, I was interested to see if what I perceived as a deliberate move toward greater theoretical eclecticism would show itself among our Southeastern colleagues.

Personally, I mistrust eclecticism, largely due, I suppose, to my foundational encounter with Harris, although I did not divulge that to the session participants beforehand. I have long thought that to get anywhere one must choose a path. …

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