Marcia-Anne Dobres

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

1996–1997

Toward an Anthropology of Technology: A Humanistic Framework for the Study of Technical Agency in Prehistory

"Technology is a web consisting of things, people, cultural values, and social interactions," says Marcia-Anne Dobres. In a manuscript titled Technology and Social Agency: Outlining an Anthropological Framework for Archaeology, Dobres challenges mainstream contemporary archaeology's approach to understanding the technology of prehistoric peoples, an approach characterized by the long-held Western distinction between technology as practical science on one hand and art and symbols on the other.

"Archaeologists miss the big picture by trying to explain an ancient culture through its tools," Dobres said. "An archaeological site was actually an arena of social interaction. The bottom line is, you don't have a technology without people."

Dobres' goal is to facilitate an analytic shift of attention beyond the artifact. "The legacy of archaeology is that we find a hand ax and call it technology," she said. "This reaffirms Western beliefs that technology is about stuff and not people, and that material technology is what allows us to survive and adapt." These views, she writes, "are foundational to why contemporary archaeologists ask certain questions about technologies of the past and how they go about trying to answer them." Christopher Hawkes' "ladder of inference," for instance, argues that technology rests at the bottom of what is knowable about the past and determines everything deriving from it—social organization, politics, symbolism.

When she did fieldwork at Upper Paleolithic occupation and cave art sites in France, Dobres found herself wondering why people changed or didn't change the particular ways they made and used things. "People are my subject, not artifacts," she said. "Artifacts are a means to an end. I believe that concrete material choices are constrained more by people's ideas about the right and wrong ways to do things than by mechanical properties of natural resources." To make this argument, Dobres shifted from archaeology's traditional focus on the region and began examining particular sites as the arenas wherein specific individuals interacted while making and using tools.

To find inspiration for the humanistic framework she believes is missing in archaeology, Dobres turned to philosophy and contemporary anthropological theory. Her work synthesizes her readings of Mumford, Heidegger, Kant, Marx, and Giddens, among others. "What I'm doing is merging three bodies of theory: Marcel Mauss's ideas about the chane opratoire, which is both an analytic methodology and conceptual framework for linking sequences of artifact manufacture and use with the social milieu in which they take place; contemporary social theory about how relationships and values are created and challenged during acts of material culture production and use; and the philosophers' emphasis on how such bodily experiences create both practical and esoteric knowledge."

It is Dobres' hope that an actor-centered vision of technology will provide a meaningful alternative to the entrenched techno-deterministic understanding that archaeologists have held for almost two hundred years. "We must do more than simply describe artifact use," she said. "We have to understand something of the dynamic social conditions within which these things were made and given cultural meaning."

Affiliation at time of award:
Research Associate, Archaeological Research Facility, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley


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