Doing Archaeology as a Feminist: Moving from Theory to Practice

Advanced Seminar

April 18–24, 1998

In April 1998, nine archaeologists, one historian, and a philosopher gathered for an advanced seminar on the implications of feminist commitments for the discipline of archaeology. Although their areas of interest were enormously diverse, they shared a conviction that feminist insights make a constructive difference not just “at a conceptual, theoretical level,” as co-organizers Alison Wylie (University of Western Ontario) and Margaret Conkey (University of California, Berkeley) put it, “but to all aspects of archeological practice: fieldwork, data analysis, teaching, and writing, as well as relationships with the various communities and publics that have an interest in archaeology.”

From the outset, “Doing Archaeology as a Feminist” was marked by the goal of moving from theory to practice. Because “our commitment to feminism permeates the way we are in the world,” said Conkey, “we began by integrating it into the traditional SAR seminar format.” Three break-out groups identified issues for discussion in each paper, then rotating chairs facilitated presentations in which each speaker called on the next. This fostered a collaborative, rather than a competitive, approach, and participants were able to identify the crosscutting themes quickly at the beginning of the week.

Central to the seminar’s working definition of feminism were two ideas—first, that although sex and gender systems are inextricably connected to other contextual factors such as race and class, they organize our lives in fundamental and distinctive ways. Second, any inequalities created by these systems should be challenged. “Doing archaeology as a feminist,” then, is decidedly different from developing a “feminist archaeology,” which implies the development of a subdiscipline rather than a constructive approach to the existing science.

The resulting variety of feminist practices identified during the seminar week included the exploration of multiple scales of analysis, a commitment to acknowledging human agency, a recognition of the complexity of explanation and a willingness to question ideals of certainty, and a concern for contextualizing research and taking responsibility for its ethical and political implications. Above all, doing archaeology as a feminist reflects a commitment to ensuring that gender is taken into account whenever it makes a difference.

In their papers, participants addressed issues ranging from the concrete dimensions of archaeological practice—such as the masculinist culture of most fieldwork—to the conceptual framework of the discipline, reflected in questions about “the gender of theory.” Conkey asked, “Who gets to develop theory, on what topics, and with what impact on the research agenda of the discipline?”

The seminar week ended on a strong note with plans to “extend the collaborative structure of the seminar to the structure of the book, integrating our papers, e-mail texts, and discussion transcripts in a creative way,” Wylie said.

Margaret Conkey, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley Re-Mapping Theory in Archaeology: The Gender of Theory and Feminist Commitments to Research Practice
Alison Wylie, Chair Department of Philosophy, University of Western Ontario The Feminism Question in Science: What Does It Mean To 'Do Social Science as a Feminist'?
Leora Auslander Department of History, University of Chicago 'Experience' and Reflexivity: Reflections on the Writing of Usable History
Elizabeth M. Brumfiel Department of Anthropology, Albion College Doing Archaeology as a Feminist: Implications for Theory
Cheryl Claassen Department of Anthropology, Appalachian State University Feminist Archaeology: The Importance of Community
Joan Gero Department of Anthropology, American University Honoring Ambiguity
Rosemary A. Joyce Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley Telling Stories: Doing Archaeology as a Feminist
Stephanie Moser Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton The Cultural Dimensions of Archaeological Practice: The Role of Fieldwork and Its Gendered Associations
Janet D. Spector Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico Feminist Archaeology: What It All Means (After All These Years)
Ruth Tringham Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley Multimedia Authoring and the Feminist Practice of Archaeology

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