First Blog “Bias in Archaeology: can we escape it?”

As a sophomore student with a major in anthropology, I have been exposed to many different schools of thought within the field. My very first anthropology class I took  was focused on the study of living cultures today, just like many others who have the same major. In that particular class, we were stressed that including any presence of a form of bias known as ethnocentrism in our work when studying different cultures is considered  both unacceptable and distasteful in the field. If one is studying an indigenous tribe in the Amazon as part of a study abroad and they portrayed the members of the tribe as cannibalistic crazed savages, that individual’s work would be practically bleeding in red ink (if the professor would accept it at all). However, it seems like archaeologists cannot help but use what could be considered a form of ethnocentrism (a much skewed version but a form of it none the less) known as the progression when thinking about how civilizations go through their cycles of rising and eventually collapsing after a period of time.

The idea of progression in archaeological terms is classically referred to as a simpler society becoming more complex. However, based on our own perspective from our technologically advanced world today, the concept of something being simple could be associated with being a bad or primitive period while being more complex of society is considered a good change (this is not always true, just look at the collapse of multiple ancient states such as the mound builders who settled by the banks of the Mississippi river). When the terms “simple’ and “complex” are used in this way, it is ethnocentrism; we are judging the quality of life in ancient societies based on our views about our own today.  The word “civilization” is also deeply rooted in the bias of archaeologists in the past; for it emphasizes that if an ancient state is civilized, the ones who came from it are considered to be barbaric. This idea of progression being a good thing is a legacy of the past that should be discarded.

Which leads me to finally answering the question I have been getting around to addressing: is bias inevitable in archaeology? The answer is not as black and white as one would think. Sure, one could have their papers edited so that there are no obvious forms of ethnocentrism before being published, but since we are working with history, there really is no real way around avoiding it completely. When working with ancient states where there are not any living individuals from that culture we can interview and only have the material culture left behind, our bias is bound to manifest in some form in our studies because we do not really have much else to work with. We have to use our imaginations to figure out why things were made and left behind the way they to understand what life was like back in However, as long as we are careful with our words in order to avoid ethnocentrism and focus on evidence provided by the material culture, we will have done our best to avoid as much of the presence of bias understandings from our work.

1 thought on “First Blog “Bias in Archaeology: can we escape it?”

  1. Mel Walker

    I think your last paragraph makes a really interesting point. Archaeology has more of a challenge than other branches of anthropology when it comes to avoiding ethnocentrism. Not only can it not look at living populations, it often lacks the evidence to form an anywhere near complete picture of the populations it studies. For example, the evidence found from early Paleoindian groups in North America is so scarce that a large part of what we know is conjecture. It’s difficult to make any hard statements regarding their culture and practices. When such a fragmented view is given, it is impossible to see all the nuances of a culture. In turn, this can make it difficult to see past cultures as on level with our own. We only know the broad strokes of a culture, making it easy to dismiss it as simple or primitive.

    Your point that simple is seen as bad in our technologically-focused society is another good one. Ethnocentrism occurs when cultural complexity is conflated with cultural worth, something we are wont to do in today’s world. While archaeology has moved on from the 19th century’s over-focus on “progress,” its legacy is still seen today. In the 19th century, Western society was seen as the pinnacle of progress that all earlier and simpler societies were working toward. While ideas this explicitly ethnocentric do not fly today, the remnants of this sort of thinking is seen in the definitions of civilization and complexity.

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