Chapter one: Agency and an archaeology of practice

The arrival of agency

As Shanks and Tilley pointed out in their book, Social theory and archaeology, processual archaeology was largely interested "in units larger than the individual" (1987a, 61). This was partly due to the emphasis of processual archaeology on long-term processes but equally to a weakness for systems theory, best exemplified by the work of David Clarke (e.g. Clarke 1968) and Colin Renfrew (e.g. Renfrew 1972). Within the hermetically sealed and homeostatic societies described in these accounts the actions of a single person or individual were of little consequence, and were in any case thought to be unrecoverable archaeologically. The people of the past were little more than "faceless blobs" (Tringham 1991). This was challenged on two fronts in the 1980s with the arrival of the first structuralist attack of processual archaeology along with the first sustained feminist critique of the subject (e.g. Hodder 1982; Conkey and Spector 1984). Ian Hodder argued that the cross-cultural rules sought for by processual archaeology were an inappropriate goal, and instead archaeology should concern itself with the historical uniqueness of each situation (1982, 13). Indeed Hodder developed this argument to conclude that any "adequate explanation of social systems and social change must involve the individuals assessment and aims" (Hodder 1982, 5). It is here then, that we see the concept of agency emerge in archaeological writings.

Since the arrival of agency in archaeology there has been anything but unanimity over its application and meaning (cf. papers in Dobres and Robb 2000a). Generally however agency is accepted to be the way in which societies structures inhabit and empower agents, those agents’ aims, ideals and desires and the material conditions of social life (Dobres and Robb 2000b, 8). Whilst this forms a statement that underlies most of the uses of agency in archaeology, there remain wide differences concerning its application. The largest divide remains over the degree to which the intentions of an individual agent are important. Many argue that this is what counts. Shanks and Tilley add an important caveat however, that whist "individuals are competent and knowledgeable… at the same time their action is situated within unacknowledged conditions and has unintended consequences" (1987b, 116). In other words the unintended actions may be as important as those that are intended. Some would go further and argue that the unintended consequences are all that really matter (Dobres and Robb 2000b, 10). This intertwines with the relationship between agency and material culture. How does material culture interact with agency? Is the material responsive to the will of free agents or does the material control and limit the possibilities of agency (Dobres and Robb 2000b, 12)? One of the most controversial debates surrounds the scale to which agency can be applied. Is it something that applies exclusively to individuals, or can it apply to groups also (Wobst 2000)? John Barrett has offered one set of answers to these questions, drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1990) and Anthony Giddens (1979; 1984). Barrett’s work also deals with one of the principal criticisms of agency theory in archaeology; how can it be "recovered" from the archaeological record?

An archaeology of practice

How can agency be recovered from the archaeological record? This very question is in fact a misnomer as it is based on a particular view of the material archaeologists encounter. John Barrett has argued passionately that the material archaeologists encounter is not in fact a record at all (2001). Instead we need to think of the material as the physical conditions of social life. Thus Barrett doubts that the concept of the archaeological record is a valid one (2000a, 24). Barrett argues that if we take the material to be a direct record of social conditions, then the material is immediately separated from the processes of agency that brought that material into existence (2000a, 25). The task is not so much to recover human agency archaeologically as to recognise that human agency is inherent in the material. As Barrett has said:

"Those who claim the study of agency through archaeology to be impossible because they are unable to see agency in the material can be disarmed simply because the study of agency does not adhere for its validation to such a theory of representation" (2000b: 63).

In this argument the object of study are the principles which structure agency (Barrett, 1994, 165). Within these principles we need to ask questions as to what possibilities of being there were. In other words, what ways of living were possible within those material conditions? Barrett’s work is explicitly based on the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens and the concept of habitus developed by Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1977; Giddens 1984). Structuration theory is based on the concept of the duality of structure, "that the structural properties of a system are both the medium and the outcome of practices they recursively organise" (Giddens 1984, 25). In other words that when an agent acts they are simultaneously constrained and empowered by the material and social structures in which they live, and by acting within those structures they contribute to their reaffirmation. This is a direct rejection of a dichotomy between agency and structure, between the individual and society; here it is recast as a duality. Giddens directly argues against theoretical concepts that privilege the social totality or the experience of the individual agent; instead he argues we should look at social practices ordered across time and space (1984, 2). This theory allows Barrett to deal with questions surrounding the scale of agency. In social practice, the performance of agency requires actions that have ramifications beyond the individual, beyond even their lifespan, as they work and act within institutions that extend beyond themselves.

Barrett also draws extensively on the concept of habitus. The term was first coined by Marcel Mauss, but has become best known through the work of French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his now famous (though hardly punchy) definition, the habitus is:

"Systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively "regulated" and "regular" without in anyway being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends, or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them, and being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor" (Bourdieu 1977, 72).

The habitus is based on practical rather than discursive knowledge. That is to say knowledge of how to act and precede that is based on experience, rather than discussion and debate. It is the habitus that informs people of when to speak and when to remain silent, when to act and when not to; it tells us what is conventional, acceptable and proper (Barrett 2001, 153). Tempo is crucial to the habitus, as it is crucial to social practice (Barrett 2001, 152). The habitus is learned and generated through everyday bodily movements, through observation and emulation (Gosden 1999, 126). Habitus is a concept bound into to people’s everyday life, as it is created and sustained through their actions on a day-to-day basis. It is also a product of history. As Bourdieu points out, it "produces individual and collective practices - more history - in accordance with the schemes generated by history" (1990, 54). It is thus perpetuated through it own expression.

The habitus is not merely expressed through practice however, but rather subsists in practice (Ingold 2000, 162). It is not a set of rules, and this is what Bourdieu means by "regulated improvisation" (1977, 78). It is made as we act, and is informed but not controlled by our understandings of ourselves and others. Chris Gosden has pointed out that the habitus is difficult to capture in words (1999, 126), and he is right. This is exactly the point of the habitus. It is, as Maurice Bloch might put it, "what goes without saying" (1992). As Bourdieu points out "it is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know. The habitus is the universalising mediation that causes an individual agent’s practices, without either explicit reason or signifying intent, to be none the less ‘sensible’ and ‘reasonable’" (1977, 79).

Barrett uses the concepts of habitus and structuration theory to explore the material conditions that archaeologists discover (1994). They allow him to consider the encounter agents had with their world, the experience of living in it and the possibilities they had for action. There are difficulties with such an approach however, principally around the essentialist nature of agency, and the under-theorised nature of the agents themselves.

An archaeology of practice: an unthinking essentialist universal?

A number of criticisms have been put forward in response to an archaeology of practice. Ian Hodder has been one of its more notable critics. Hodder argues that the introduction of agency theory into archaeology in the early 1980s was specifically to discuss individual intentionality (2000, 22). The role of the individual was crucial in this. Hodder argues that the practice centred arguments of Barrett and others, drawing on Giddens and Bourdieu, ignores the role of the individual and their discursive consciousness and places "too little emphasis on subjectivity and self as constructed by individual agents" (Hodder 2000, 25). There is of course difficulty with Hodder’s use of the term individual, which is a culturally and historically specific (Fowler 1999), but setting that to one side he makes a valuable point. The agents in Barrett’s accounts (e.g. 1994) are largely undifferentiated; their identities are ignored and their genders unmentioned. Furthermore it can be argued that many accounts that focus on practice and action implicitly gender those in power as male (Brück 2001, 653; Gero 2000, 35). It is also true that both Giddens and Bourdieu are better at dealing with stability than change (Whittle 2003). The concept of the knowledgeable agent, drawn from Giddens and applied by Barrett has become an unthinking universal, an essentialist position. That said, I do not believe the answer is to reject an archaeology of practice and turn, as Hodder argues, to the study of individual lives (2000). Rather it is to build a more nuanced understanding of agents and agency by including ideas of gender and identity within accounts of how lives were lived through the material archaeologists recover. The work of Giddens and Bourdieu still offer us important understandings of the interaction between structure and agency and of the relationship between practical knowledge and action. We must recognise however as Joanna Brück has pointed out that:

"if people are constituted through their bonds with others then they are never "free agents" in the liberal Western sense of the phrase; indeed, their capacity for action arises out of and cannot be separated from their relationships with others. As such, agency is located not simply within bounded human bodies but within the wider set of social relationships that make up the person" (Brück 2001, 655).


Thus our understanding of agency needs to be broadened to consider this wider issue of a relational perspective. We also need to consider how memory and emotion affect agency and action within the relationships and structures in which people reside. Thus we seek not only to identify and discuss the structuring principles of a society (cf. Barrett 2001), but also to flesh out the people and relationships within those principles. In order to do so, we require not only an understanding of agency but also, and crucially, identity, and how performativity and practice are central to its creation. It is to this that we now turn.