P. Duke and D.J. Saitta, An Emancipatory Archaeology


An Emancipatory Archaeology for the Working Class

P. Duke, Center of Southwest Studies and Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College, and
D.J. Saitta, Department of Anthropology, University of Denver

Recent critiques of archaeological practice have sought to turn the discipline into a more socially relevant enterprise. Fuelled in part by postmodern movements in social science (Knapp 1996), many archaeologists now recognise that studies of the past serve different social interests, and thus have consequences for wider society. Knowledge of the past can be, and has been, used to oppress (Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990; Kohl and Fawcett 1995). However, it can also emancipate; that is, it can help in the struggle to realise human freedom, potential, and dignity (Wright 1993) by exposing the political, economic, and cultural structuring principles that organise human life in particular circumstances. This emancipatory potential has already been tapped as concerns the study of gender (e.g. Gero and Conkey 1991) and efforts to involve indigenous peoples in archaeological practice (Layton 1989; Leone and Preucel 1992).

One area where this potential has been less well developed is the study of social class. Given current interest in the politics of archaeology, the absence of a serious discourse about social class in our discipline is striking and, ultimately, disturbing. Although much of the work in the gender and indigenous archaeologies acknowledges that class is an important factor in shaping social inequality, few Anglo-American archaeologists have actively used their practice to advance the interests of contemporary 'working' classes. There has been little effort to develop concepts of class (either theoretically or empirically) in ways that can aid emancipatory projects, and even less effort to communicate the results of archaeology to working classes in terms that can foster new insights, mutual understanding, and fruitful collaboration.

In this paper, we argue that an emancipatory archaeology must, in addition to developing gendered and indigenous knowledges of the past, actively involve itself in developing an archaeology of, and for, the working class. We note straight away that the concept of 'working class' desperately needs reworking to keep pace with political and economic changes in 'post-industrial' society. Obviously, we cannot accomplish that reworking here. Suffice it to say that our concept refers to a heterogeneous group of people (in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, occupation, employment status, etc.), broadly sharing a particular relationship to the social process of appropriating surplus labour (Meiksins 1997; Wolff and Resnick 1988: 14). That is, this group produces surplus labour without being involved in decision-making about its production, is largely separated from productive means, is economically impoverished, and is often mystified by bourgeois ideologies into thinking that capitalist regimes serve its best interests [1]. We believe that the central objectives of any transformative, 'New Left' project in archaeology should be to clarify the diverse lived experiences of this group and to collaborate actively with it in both recounting working class histories and advancing progressive agendas for social change.

In the first section we substantiate our claim that class is a blindspot in current archaeological inquiry and consider some explanations for this situation. We then clarify why we are compelled to reinvigorate the discussion of class in archaeology. In the final section we talk about what must be accomplished if an archaeology for the working class is to achieve its emancipatory goals.

Class as intellectual blindspot
We concur with Knapp (1996) that, with few exceptions, mainstream archaeology -- which now includes postprocessualism -- has little explicit interest in class issues or questions. We find this to be the case on both sides of the Atlantic. Among postprocessualists, class interests are rarely, if ever, mentioned by those championing the cause of gender and indigenous archaeologies (e.g. Hodder 1991). The utility of class as a central analytical concept is denied for most of the societies we study, as evidenced by the distinction routinely drawn (even by Marxists) between 'class-based' and 'preclass' societies (Spriggs 1984) [2]. Where the unambiguously class-based civilisations of later prehistory are concerned we are only now developing an 'archaeology of inequality' sensitive to working class contexts and dynamics (Paynter and McGuire 1991). Even in historical archaeology, where one might expect class to be a central concern and organising concept, explicit reference to the concept is rare. For example, in a series of exchanges between historical archaeologists about organising concepts in their field in six recent issues of the Bulletin of the Society for American Archaeology, the term 'class' was mentioned only once. Suggestions for an overriding conceptual focus for historical archaeology included 'capitalism', 'history', and 'the modern', but not class (but see Leone 1995) [3].

While we find this pattern of neglect to be curious, it is not uncommon in contemporary anthropology either. Ortner (1991) notes that class is a theoretical blindspot in American anthropology, rarely spoken of in its own right. She explains this situation by suggesting that class is made invisible by an ideology that emphasises the power of individual initiative as the key to social success. Americans tend not to speak of themselves or their society in class terms; instead, class is displaced to, or represented through, other categories of social difference such as race, ethnicity, and gender (Ortner 1991: 164). For example, Halle (1984), in a study of a factory in New Jersey, observed that workers would refer to themselves as working men or working women, but never as the working class. The national experience of public education reinforces the ideal of classlessness, the media imply that the working class no longer exists, and the rhetoric of American political leaders only uses the word when it is prefixed with 'middle'. This ideology is now institutionalised by government in the argument that, while affirmative action programmes can and should assist females and minority members of society, a member of the working class has only himself to blame if he (and it must be a he) is not successful. Amazingly, the question of whether poor people are to be blamed for their own conditions of poverty is still actually debated both inside and outside of academia (Maxwell 1993).

There are other possible explanations for the absence of a class discourse in America. One can follow Habermas (1973) in explaining the situation as a function of class conflict in late capitalism having been displaced onto administrative structures that act to soften or disguise class differences and thereby prevent class conflict from reaching critical mass. Or, one can follow that self-proclaimed 'skeptical Whig', Daniel Bell (1992: 82-84), in seeing the neglect of class as a function of changing life circumstances for an 'aging New Left'. For Bell, these individuals now occupy positions of power in academia, Hollywood and the media and have made their battleground culture rather than class -- a battle that, we might cynically suggest, safely protects their own positions of affluence.

Of course, not all intellectuals neglect class. Erik Olin Wright's edited volume The Debate on Classes (1989) is one of the rare recent volumes devoted to class and class analysis. However, many contributions to the volume are framed within a determinist theory of society and a modernist conception of class subjectivity in which individuals are fully constituted by economic forces. In a recent essay Wright (1991) breaks with this classical Marxist orientation by calling for a new class analysis that can accommodate a plurality of causal forces and that recognises the complexity of an individual's class position. We should follow Wright's lead and vigorously rethink the category of class: its meaning, its relationship to non-economic processes, and its utility as a tool for creating social change.

By advocating attention to class we do not mean to devalue race, gender, or any other category of difference as an entry point to archaeological analysis. However, we could argue that feminist archaeologies, at least in terms of how they have developed over the past decade, are not likely to alter the essentially middle-class character of the discipline. So too with the indigenous archaeologies; our discipline can afford to become more sensitive to the concerns of indigenous groups, precisely because they have such an undervalued position within the overall hegemonic structure of western capitalist society. While these alternative archaeologies might eliminate certain patterns of domination within the discipline, neither of them seriously challenges existing structures of exploitation within society at large. And, while they should not be abandoned, the time does seem right to engage in serious discussion about the relative social consequences of different entry points (gender, ethnicity, class, etc.) to archaeological analysis.

In this vein one could argue that, to the extent that class is an axis of variability that crosscuts lines of gender, race, and ethnicity, it is arguably more important than these other categories -- in a tactical, not ontological sense -- as a touchstone for creating the sort of social consciousness productive of progressive and humane change. That is, one could argue that class is the most useful strategic entry point for creating the kinds of complex interpersonal, pan-gender, and pan-ethnic alliances necessary to radical social transformation. However, a more prudent approach would involve better integrating gender, race, and ethnicity with class concerns. Sandra Harding (1989: 9) makes the point, correctly in our view, that class, race and gender must be examined for their intersections with and influences upon each other. If Ortner is right that class in our society is displaced into other arenas of social life, then these arenas do indeed carry what she terms 'surplus antagonism' over and above whatever historical and structural frictions they embody in their own terms (1991: 185). This surplus antagonism must be investigated in any archaeology of and for the working class. Thus, by privileging class as an analytical category in this paper we wish merely to elevate it to a position of importance at least equal to those categories that have already been developed.

Why the concern for class?
We champion this class-analytical entry point for both intellectual and personal reasons. The intellectual reasons have already been discussed. Just as important to us are the personal reasons.

One of us (Phil Duke) was originally a member of the British working class until his education propelled him elsewhere. Despite forty years of social gains, the experiences of his relatives in trying to secure decent work in Britain today seem little different to those of his grandfathers sixty years ago. The essential conditions of economic existence remain unchanged. Even today, despite the so-called popularisation of archaeology, there is little understanding of what the discipline does or more importantly could do; archaeology is essentially something for somebody else, not them.

The other of us (Dean Saitta) is a product of the American middle class. He had little reason to think much about working-class issues until a recent experience trying to explain, to a group of mostly unemployed coal miners in southeastern Colorado, why a historical archaeology of mining camps in their community was important. After hearing a proposal for archaeological field work at the Ludlow Memorial, site of a 1914 massacre of striking coal miners, women, and children by the Colorado National Guard, one coal miner suggested that 'all you need to know about Ludlow can be summed up in three words: they got fucked'. The deep alienation and even hostility apparent in this statement was a wake-up call concerning the realities of working-class life and thought, and it also threw into question the wider social value of a pursuit like archaeology.

(We should note at this point that our own recent histories have made us more familiar with the American scene. However, we suspect that contemporary conditions in Britain would elicit the same response from us, were we to experience them first hand.)

The Colorado miner's reaction may or may not reinforce the need for a working class archaeology, but it certainly implies the need for a different way of justifying it. Clearly, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is not a justification for archaeology that would pass muster in this, or likely most, working-class communities. Working-class understandings of archaeology (as more 'recreation' than work?) and the events of history are likely unique. Archaeologists may need to make a different kind of intellectual engagement with working-class collaborators than they would make with 'middle-class' or native collaborators. Minimally, such an engagement should make no a priori presumptions about the utility or relevance of archaeology in contemporary life.

While archaeologists who celebrate the scientific status of the discipline (e.g. Binford 1989) might feel uncomfortable with this deeply personal justification for archaeology, we make no apologies. We stand with those who advocate a turn in archaeology toward more personal and interpretative narrative work, or who view archaeology as craft -- a 'unified practice of hand, heart, mind' and 'emotion, need, desire' (Shanks and McGuire 1995). We are tired of processualist pretensions to value-free and politically neutral archaeological inquiry. We are equally concerned with the postprocessualist disinterest in working-class experiences and voices. We are interested in the radical class transformation of society, and we seek in all of our scholarly work to provide some tools for accomplishing this. In what remains of this paper we want to mention three particular intellectual commitments that inform this activist approach to the production of archaeological knowledge.

Producing an archaeology for the working class
The first of these commitments involves an epistemological reorientation around the pragmatist programme advanced by Richard Rorty and others (Rorty 1989, 1991). After an initial fling with relativism, the postprocessualists have moved to a more respectable 'realist' position that, if not situated on a middle ground between empiricism and relativism, at least better dovetails with processualist epistemological commitments (e.g. Ian Hodder's 'qualified objectivism'; Julian Thomas's 'perspectivism'). We are sympathetic to the presumption that there was a real past, and that there are empirical constraints on what we can say about it. But for us, realism, in the end, still implies an overriding concern with accumulating knowledge for its own sake and for 'getting things right'. We believe that an emancipatory archaeology for the working class should be (1) less concerned with accumulating knowledge than with expanding social/organisational possibilities; (2) less concerned with 'getting things right' than with 'making things new'; and (3) less concerned with achieving hegemony for a particular theoretical position (or some new, eclectic synthesis of 'the best' of existing paradigms) than with 'keeping the conversation going' among the diverse sets of clients and constituencies served by archaeology. All of these interests are at home in a pragmatist epistemology. To the extent that what matters in pragmatism is our loyalty to other human beings struggling to cope rather than to the scientific hope of getting things right, it is an epistemology that better serves our activist agenda.

Secondly, a working-class archaeology must obviously involve working-class groups in the representation of the past. When we speak of producing an archaeology 'for' the working class, what we have in mind is a genuine collaboration, not an imposition of the professional scholar's view. Working-class beliefs and understandings must be woven together with our own so as to expand community or, as the pragmatists say, 'expand the scope of us'. This means, for one thing, the creation of museum and heritage displays that portray the historical development of the working class and that accommodate the kinds of sentiments expressed by our alienated Colorado miner. Leone (1981: 308) has correctly pointed out that a museum is a true ideotechnic artefact, deeply involved in the shaping of modern consciousness (see also Shanks and Tilley 1987). The messages sent by museums need to be evaluated carefully, however, because sometimes conflicting messages are sent. For instance, heritage displays such as Wigan Pier or the Albert Docks in Liverpool actually can contribute to a greater acceptance of the status quo, insofar as members of the working class who see these displays tend to remark on how much better their life today is; at least today, we have a colour 'telly' and food on the table. A survey of museum visitors reported by Merriman (1989) suggested that disadvantaged groups admitted that they were better off now than in the past, but that the present lacked a sense of family and general happiness.

The same survey found, not surprisingly, that different segments of society looked to the past for different reasons and came away with different lessons. Higher-income, better-educated groups tended to rank history of the world and the region as more important than learning about their individual family histories, the opposite of what lower income groups deemed important. Given this, we must question the universality of interest in such questions as those suggested by Binford (1983: 26-29): (1) the origins of humans; (2) the development of agriculture; and (3) the rise of civilisations. Instead, we should replace these with questions about everyday life in specific times and places, including who produces what, how production is accomplished, who benefits from the distribution of the social product, and how these arrangements are ideologically justified.

However, we do not need to abandon more 'nomothetic' or generalising goals. We can consider the common existential problems that tie working people in all social formations and historical epochs together and the variety of ways that they coped with these problems. More specifically, we can follow the lead of Lukács (see also Leone 1995), and use archaeology to show how groups who have learned to see themselves as different (racially, ethnically, sexually, and in other ways) have actually shared similar class experiences, in turn creating a basis for more effective political action. And, we can link 'class' and 'preclass' lifeways and thought-worlds via a comparative archaeology that, for starters, contrasts the drudgery, monotony, isolation, anxiety, and alienation of industrial capitalist production with the rich collective economic and cultural life evident in other socioeconomic arrangements. We can do this without reducing the working class to a homogenous 'common being'; instead, we should aim to clarify its 'being in common' across time and space.

For a working-class archaeology to succeed we need creative thought about what questions and problems to focus on and how to present them. Obviously, the questions and problems need to resonate with our working-class collaborators. Although there are very few models available in archaeology for this kind of explicitly political use of the discipline, other disciplines have found it possible. One such example comes from theatre. In Germany, since the late nineteenth century, the Volksbühne [people's stage] movement has actively used theatre as a medium for social education (Davies 1977: vii). Community theatre in Britain, which began with the angry, young, mainly working-class playwrights of the 1950s has fulfilled a similar function (Taylor 1962). That such movements could only succeed amongst populations used to attending theatre should not be lost on archaeologists, who need to encourage museum participation beyond its traditional audience of the well educated, affluent, and middle-aged segments of society (Merriman 1989: 15). Whatever strategies of representation we come up with, they should function to create a new consciousness of class that can go along with (and perhaps serve as antidote for) those already formed around race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth.

Finally, an archaeology for the working class must adopt an alternative mode of writing if it is to achieve 'rational consensus' (Habermas 1973) or 'unforced agreement' (Rorty 1989) among participating groups about overarching goals. It is unfortunate that postprocessualists -- the one group most responsible for creating a climate of discourse favourable to this paper -- all too often write in a language virtually inaccessible to members of the working class, let alone other colleagues. Although we recognise that language is important (i.e. different words capture different causal forces and powers), and although we are suspicious of any argument celebrating the virtues of 'plain talk' (as if 'plain talk' was philosophically innocent) much current postprocessual language is not useful to creating those 'ideal speech situations' (Habermas 1973; Leone and Potter 1992) that can foster mutual understanding and collaboration. If we want to adopt the pragmatist aim to 'enlarge the scope of us' and create more potent communities for change, we need another language that can accommodate and better integrate intellectual and working-class sensibilities.

In conclusion, we see the analysis of class as an indispensable part of the core agenda of any archaeological project aimed at human emancipation. We fully acknowledge the practical and political difficulties of implementing such a programme. The discipline of archaeology is hostage to the society in which it exists (as well as to the editors of our mainstream journals and presses, and to reviewers for major granting agencies), and the radical programme outlined here is not, we feel, going to be accepted easily.

However, there is room for optimism. Recent years have seen a renewal of dialogue in America between labour union activists and academics about how to revive and strengthen their long-dormant alliance (Berman 1997). There is also a growing concern in more progressive Marxist circles and journals about how to strengthen links to green parties and other popular movements. Accompanying this concern is the important realisation that concepts of class structure, formation and struggle must also be rethought in order to achieve desired changes.

We have tried to suggest in this paper how archaeology can contribute to such efforts toward progressive, emancipatory change. If nothing else, we hope to have established that a working-class archaeology is at least as important (and just as feasible) as those alternative archaeologies that already exist. In so doing, we place the onus for its implementation on practising archaeologists who can no longer excuse their inaction on the grounds that a warrant for such a programme does not exist. To the extent that the United Mine Workers of America recently approved our proposal for archaeological research and expanded public interpretation at the Ludlow Memorial we (along with our colleague Randy McGuire) have an opportunity to 'walk the talk' via concrete, empirical research. Fellow archaeologists who do not support such a programme of working-class emancipation or its motives can now at least be asked 'why not?'

We thank the United Mine Workers of America and the Local 9856 Women's Auxiliary of Trinidad, Colorado, for their support of, and collaboration in, the design of research and public interpretation at the Ludlow Memorial. We also gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Colorado Historical Society and University of Denver Humanities Institute.


Copyright © P. Duke and D.J. Saitta 1998

An Emancipatory Archaeology
B. Frazer's commentary D.J. Saitta and P. Duke's response


contents masthead e. mail issues index contributions

editorial research articles features forum field notes reviews state of... wise words games info links


Copyright © assemblage 1998