What I Believe: Doing Archaeology as a Feminist

By Levy, Janet E. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

What I Believe: Doing Archaeology as a Feminist


Levy, Janet E., Southeastern Archaeology


My background differs from that of many Southeastern archaeologists. I'm a suburban, Jewish Yankee who first met archaeology in the Egyptian galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At age 31, when I interviewed for a job in Charlotte, I had been to Chicago, San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, and Jerusalem, but never to North or South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, or even Florida. While I was introduced to archaeological fieldwork in western Kentucky during graduate school, my own research was based in northern Europe. However, when I arrived in 1980, I was the only archaeologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and I was the only professional archaeologist for 60 miles in any direction (and 90 miles in most directions). So I rather quickly became a Southeastern archaeologist.

My archaeological training occurred at a time in graduate education that emphasized a four-field approach to anthropology and a processual approach to archaeology. I remain committed to those perspectives. Along with my Old World experience, they have framed much of my approach to Southeastern archaeology. It is a fundamentally comparative approach that seeks understanding of our specific region through insights gained from other regions as well as from our own rich data base (e.g., Levy 1999). A comparative perspective may lead to broad generalizations about the human species, and those generalizations have a role in archaeology. However, I see comparisons as equally important in illuminating regional specifics. In the Southeast and Midsouth, we are well situated to take a four-field approach to understanding the past because of our rich database, encompassing archaeology, ethnography, ethnohistory, linguistics, and bioarchaeology. As I continue, I am emphasizing prehistoric archaeology because I am more knowledgeable about prehistoric archaeology than about historic archaeology.

Feminist Archaeology

Although trained as a processualist, and committed to that general perspective, in recent years I have found my approach to archaeology can also be labeled with Alison Wylie's (2007) phrase: doing archaeology as a feminist. Feminist archaeology, and the archaeology of gender more generally, derive from postprocessual developments in archaeology. Yet I do not find that feminist archaeology contradicts a processual perspective. In fact, Moss (2005:583) suggests that feminist archaeology is outside of the "processual-postprocessual opposition." A processual approach, for me, emphasizes material structure (both social structure and environmental context), while a feminist approach emphasizes history and actions of individuals. Both are necessary for understanding what happened in the past. A processual approach emphasizes explicitly linking data, theory, and conclusions, while a feminist approach emphasizes personal reflexivity. I see these guidelines as complementary. While gender archaeology developed historically out of postprocessualism, feminist archaeology does not necessarily incorporate all philosophical aspects of that perspective. Below, I outline what I mean by feminist archaeology and how it might be applied in the Southeast.

It is true that many feminist scholars, both in archaeology and in other fields, are critical of standard models of science, claiming that science presents itself as impersonal, universalizing, and authoritative (Harding 1992,1998). A feminist perspective does not require us to deny an objective reality to the past, however difficult it may be to discover that reality. A feminist perspective does require us to evaluate carefully how we frame research questions, procedures, evidence, and conclusions. I find that the practice of good scientists often incorporates (or could incorporate) the thoughtful questioning of self and others that is found in feminist scholarship. I imagine that such an attempted compromise has the potential to offend individuals in all the parties. Hegmon (2003), in her proposed rapprochement between theoretical schools of thought in modern archaeology, suggests the term "processual-plus" for something like this eclectic position. …

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