Monday, October 17, 2011

Theory, atheory or anti-theory? The state of play in Australian archaeology

I wasn't planning to go to the annual Australian Archaeological Association conference this year (it's in Toowoomba from 1-3 December), but pressure from my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis (president of the Association) who wants company in the presidential penthouse, plus an enticing suggestion from my new partner-in-crime Tom Sapienza to run a session on theory, has put an end to that.

Here is our session abstract.  It's actually nearly too late to submit a paper if you were feeling so inclined, but we will consider anything, however briefly. 

Theory, atheory or anti-theory?  Issues in Australian archaeology
From students to professionals, many archaeologists in Australia today deny that they are operating in a theoretical framework, or question the usefulness of theoretical approaches to their practice. With ever greater numbers of archaeologists in academia and cultural heritage management, what are the implications of this retreat from archaeological theory for the discipline? Since all data are theory-laden, what does Australian archaeology's particular interaction with theoretical matters say about our data?

Because of Australia’s history, location and unique archaeological record, archaeologists here have the potential to offer new theoretical insights into such questions as the origins of behavioural modernity, the relationship between lithics and social behaviour, cultural responses to climate change and the role of communities in creating heritage, to name a few.  Despite the existence of outstanding scholarship in many of these areas, we suggest that an a- or anti-theoretical culture, perhaps related to a broader Australian anti-intellectual tradition and the “cultural cringe”, has limited the realisation of this potential. Moreover, disciplines such as history and geography are currently engaging with a “material turn” (eg Bennett and Joyce 2010), acknowledging that material culture is a legitimate and indeed necessary component of their enquiries.  As they look to archaeology to understand how this works, we find ourselves in an awkward position. The question of whether archaeology has developed its own theories, as opposed to borrowing in bower-bird fashion from other disciplines, remains contentious. In this session, we want to examine the nature of theory in Australian archaeology today, both in the academic and private sectors.  We invite contributions which address, but are not limited to, the following themes: 

• Teaching archaeological theory
• Theory and communities; theory and students
• Contemporary theoretical developments in Australia
• Case studies in the application of theory
• Historical analyses
• The use of theory in cultural heritage management

References: Bennett, Tony and Patrick Joyce (eds) 2010  Material Powers:  Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn.  London and New York: Routledge

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