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Anthropology in Consumer Research  

Maryann McCabe and Rita Denny

Consumer research, an emergent field in applied anthropology, examines relationships between producers and consumers as mediated by the marketplace. The anthropological purpose of consumer research is to discover cultural meanings of products and services in people’s everyday lives and to identify societal practices and discourses that inform and perform these meanings. While consumer research is inspired by and draws on traditional anthropological theory, it has also made theoretical contributions to anthropology, including consumption practices as crafting identity, consumption activities generating and maintaining social relationships, and the transformative power of consumer goods instigating cultural change. Anthropologists engaged in consumer research work in three primary areas: (1) market-making to assist organizations in defining the environments in which they operate; (2) branding to differentiate an organization’s products and services from those of competitors by attaching to the brand a symbolic meaning from the lived experience of consumers; and (3) innovation to guide business growth by analyzing consumer practices, as well as client and other stakeholder suppositions about the nature of the problem to be solved. Anthropologists in consumer research not only represent consumer voices but are also mediators of stakeholder interests. Change occurs at minimal scale by reframing problems for clients and affecting how clients address target audiences through marketing and advertising strategies, communications, or innovation; and at broader scale, by simultaneously contesting cultural ideologies (e.g., gender, personhood, ethnicity) perpetuated by business practices.


Anthropologies of Cancer  

Nickolas Surawy-Stepney and Carlo Caduff

Cancer is a relatively new subject for the discipline of anthropology, but scholarship on the topic has already yielded a distinct and important body of literature. In biomedical terms, cancer can be thought of as the wide range of conditions characterized by the uncontrolled (and ultimately pathological) proliferation of cells. It is a disease that is responsible for the deaths of millions of people worldwide each year. As such, it is the focus of a vast number of discourses and practices in multiple areas, ranging from scientific research and media discussion to health insurance and government regulation, to name just a few. Anthropologists concerned with cancer typically use the methodology that is a hallmark of the discipline, long-term ethnographic fieldwork, in order to investigate these discourses and practices. This involves conducting participant observation among doctors, patients, nurses, family members, scientists, politicians, policymakers, and pharmaceutical representatives. Cancer is examined as a lived experience, revealing the numerous ways that local, regional, national, and transnational histories and politics shape the embodied realities of disease. Anthropologists also investigate the regimes of risk and statistical analysis to which bodies are subjected and the technologies around cancer, such as methods of screening or vaccination that aim to prevent it and the different ways in which these and other interventions and technologies fit into—or push uneasily against—the local words in which they are implemented. Anthropologists aim to look beyond the problem as simply one of biology and medicine, instead investigating cancer as pervasive within multiple dimensions of social, cultural, political, and economic life. Anthropological studies displace the prominent biomedical notion that cancers are the same in diverse locations and reveal the incoherence and intractability of cancer as an object. In paying close attention to this object in varied settings, anthropologists offer a critical account of discourses and practices that destabilize and decenter some of the assumptions on which global oncology is based.


Application of Space and Place Theories to Design  

Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga

Anthropological inquiry about the reciprocal influence of human behavior on space and place primarily focuses on the production and use of built environments. Many questions about “design” began in the 19th century when medical doctors sought to “cure” schizophrenia through the architecture of mental hospitals. Vigorous renewed interest re-emerged, however, in the mid-20th century when designers and planners, sometimes also trained in psychological and social sciences, began focusing on designs that could accommodate users’ needs. Sociocultural anthropological research using ethnography has traditionally described the adaptation of native peoples to their physical environments that enable their survival. These investigations and findings are framed by the concept of culture—a holistic understanding of integrated, collectivized, and institutionalized systems and values. A variety of space and place theories emphasize notions of practical and symbolic foundations in place-making beginning with perception and proxemic dimensions of spatial recognition and interpersonal interaction. Ethnographic studies of holistic spatial concepts focus on houses, work environments, and prisons, hospitals, schools, and eldercare facilities. Out-of-door spaces include the consideration of neighborhoods and gated housing, and public plazas and parks. Some of these latter spaces are public, some are private, and some are ambiguous. Finally, in the world of professional design practices, anthropology contributes insights into P.O.E. (post-occupancy evaluation) and “design anthropology,” which emphasizes an engaged anthropological participation to consider reflexively not just design recommendations but anthropology itself.


Language and Culture in Workplace Ethnography  

Lauren A. Hayes

Scholars studying the anthropology of work have traditionally been interested in questions of power, class, inequality, moral economy, and the transformations brought about by global capitalism. To address these larger questions, workplace ethnography gives attention to both interactional and systemic level analysis, making linguistic methods a powerful tool for studying both talk at work and institutional discourse. Language has many social functions within the workplace, from the organization of tasks and goals to the ways people navigate relationships and perform identity. Linguistic theoretical and methodological perspectives are applied to the study of power and gatekeeping practices in institutional settings, performance of identity and gender at work, and inequalities related to race, ethnicity, and perceptions of accent. Linguistic practices in the neoliberal global economy are also an economic resource to be managed, regulated, scripted, and marketed, as part of the reflexive project of worker self-improvement. Language is also a form of labor itself in global customer service interactions, accent-reduction training, and contexts of tourism. Thus, workplace ethnography and language study complement each other, and linguistic methods and theory may be applied to major questions in the field of anthropology of work.


Archaeologies of the Recent and Contemporary Past in Africa  

Rachel King

Archaeologies of the recent and contemporary world represent a relatively young movement within Africa. Rather than being conceived as relative to a particular chronology, this movement is often characterized as concerned with investigating the practice of archaeology itself, especially its politics and its understanding of time. The small but growing body of literature in this subfield is reviewed both to highlight a moment of disciplinary innovation and to reflect on what modifications of methodology, ethics, and theory are necessary to adapt an intellectual movement developed in other parts of the world for the African continent. These include an emphasis on foregrounding African knowledge systems, especially diverse experiences of time and materiality; the potential for co-creation of data through relationships between these and Western ways of knowing; and mixed research methods. Themes such as time, materiality, and reflexivity are considered in contexts across the continent, as well as where archaeologies of the contemporary world overlap or exist in tension with related moves in cognate African Studies fields.


Salt Production, Use, and Trade  

Alexander Antonites

Salt was an important commodity throughout the human past. Although salt (sodium chloride) is essential to human health, the desire for salt in humans cannot be explained by physiological need alone. Instead, both biology and culture drive the taste for salt. The result is that salt was frequently highly valued, with its production and trade important in economic, social, and political systems of the past. Despite this importance, salt is an elusive item to study since it does not preserve well and is mostly consumed. Production sites are often the only places with any discernible remains related to salt use. However, historical and ethnographic material are rich sources of analogies of how salt was produced and traded in preindustrial societies. There are frequently large-scale similarities in traditional salt-making practices despite tremendous technological, organizational, and environmental contexts. These show that salt production technology is mostly robust and fairly simple and that salt can be made with very little investment in infrastructure. As a result, many communities with access to salt sources could be self-sufficient. In the absence of readily available salt, trade networks developed around its distribution over medium and long distances. Consequently, control over this spatially restricted resource was often an important factor in regional politics, and in several cases played an important role in the development of hierarchical systems of power. It is, however, important to discern between specialization production for trade by a small group of producers and production by multiple small-scale producers for their own use, since the archaeological remains of these two different production strategies may look very similar. As a result, archaeologists need to employ multiple lines of evidence in discerning the organization of production.


Sign Languages  

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway and Kristin Snoddon

Ethnographic studies of sign languages illuminate and complicate the ways in which the category of sign language is differentiated from other categories, including the categories of language and non-language, different types of sign languages, and signed versus spoken languages. These studies also highlight how sign language ideologies emerge in particular contexts, methods, and interpretations of data. An ethics of nonnormative communication is both an object and a mode of inquiry in anthropological and ethnographic studies of sign languages. Rather than pursuing categorical distinctions between codes and modalities, ethnographic studies show that such distinctions hinge on the situated interpretations that people make based on their life experiences, their sensory orientations, and the ideological frameworks that mediate their assessments.


Social Media  

Kendra Calhoun

Foundational linguistic anthropological theories of community, identity, and multimodality, among other topics, offer invaluable insights into communicative practices on social media. Phenomena on social media also require researchers to continually adapt and update these theories—which were first conceptualized before social media became integral to everyday life—to account for the unique communicative possibilities afforded by constantly evolving digital technology. Like anthropological studies in in-person contexts, anthropological studies of language and culture online vary in scope, theoretical framing, and methodological approach depending on their central topics of inquiry. Social media can be studied within a primarily in-person ethnographic project as one of many sites of communication for members of a community in addition to (or overlapping with) contexts such as work, school, and the home. Social media can also be studied as primary sites of analysis through digital ethnographic approaches, typically focused on the communication patterns within a network or community of social media users on a single platform. Linguistic anthropological perspectives on social media are necessarily interdisciplinary, informed by scholarship in related fields including sociolinguistics, cultural anthropology, communication studies, and media studies. To this interdisciplinary understanding linguistic anthropology contributes a unique perspective attuned to the details of linguistic structure and the ways language and culture are mutually constitutive.


Gender in African Metallurgy  

Louise Iles

Gender is frequently invoked as a core explanatory factor for many aspects of past African metallurgy, including conceptualizations of the technological process by its practitioners, the organization of—and participation in—metallurgical production activity, and the acquisition of power and wealth that is associated with it. If a study of technology is to contribute to our understanding of the African past, an exploration of the socioeconomic framework of a production activity is as important as understanding the materiality of a technology; gender is an essential part of that framework. Ethnographies offer an unparalleled opportunity to consider concepts such as technological style, symbolic expression, and gender in relation to technological activity and materiality—structuring principles that can be of limited visibility in the archaeological record. It is through ethnographic and historical documentation that gender has been made highly and dramatically visible in African smelting and metalworking processes. A stark focus has tended to rest on the cosmologies of fertility and human reproduction that permeate many (though certainly not all) iron smelting technologies across the continent. Metal production is positioned as a form of social reproduction, enabling the continuation of cultural activity through technological production. Metaphors of transformation are reproduced through the design and decoration of technological artifacts, through taboos and prohibitions, and through the symbolic songs, words, and actions of the metal workers, and have been closely tied with narratives of female exclusion from (and conversely male access to) metallurgical activities. Insights from the ethnographic and historical records of sub-Saharan Africa have been used to inform archaeological interpretations, both implicitly and explicitly, within and far beyond the continent. Yet the insights they provide need to be tempered by a critical evaluation of the ways in which such analogies are selected from a vast bank of historic and ethnographic data and how they can be most appropriately utilized. Importantly, the variability that is present within the ethnographic record cautions against the construction and promulgation of overgeneralizations, and strongly suggests that gender and gendered work roles within African metallurgy, past and present, are not yet fully understood.


Literature and Anthropology  

Andrew Brandel

Literature is often understood to be one of anthropology’s most recurrent and provocative companions in thought. The relationship between the two has taken a number of different and variously interrelated forms. Perhaps the most familiar of these is the theorization of the anthropologist’s status as a writer; this work tends to take its cue from certain strands of postmodernism and invokes literary techniques as tools through which to address concerns around representation and the evocation of lived experience. A second important, if often overlooked, area of research involves the study of concrete literary practices including reading, writing, performing, sharing, and listening, whether by means of ethnographic fieldwork or anthropological modes of textual analysis. Finally, there are the myriad relationships that anthropologists have maintained with particular literary figures or texts, which have proven essential to their thinking and to their lives.


Ethnographies of Water  

Sandy Toussaint

Water in all its permanent, temporary, colored, salt and freshwater forms, is vital and life-sustaining to human and other living species. Ethnographic research has, by necessity, always included water in all its variations, whereas ethnographies of water describe and analyze not only accounts about water’s intrinsic value to life, but also how different societies conceptualize, sustain, use, control, and attribute meaning to it. Water as a cultural ethnographic lens reveals how both the presence and absence of water is managed, as well as how it is believed to have originated and should be cared for. Practices such as the regular enactment of religious rituals, the development of irrigation, origin narratives, understandings of hydrological movements, and the problem of drought and flood, all convey a complex of water-inspired stories. Water’s relationship to other elements—air, wind, fire, cloud, and smoke—are also part of the depth and breadth embedded in ethnographies of water, constituting a richness of narratives, especially when explored from country to country, and place to place, as new generations and circumstances across time and space converge. These inevitably include the impact of global warming, the technology revolution, and globalization, alongside the curiosity, rigor, and insight that is the long-term hallmark of anthropological inquiry.


Digital Garbology  

Gideon Singer

What is electronic waste? E-waste is both a by-product of manufacturing processes and the disposal of end-point devices in our digital infrastructure—the mountains of televisions, microwaves, video game consoles and handhelds, Christmas lights, and so on which are often visualized in news reports and popular media. However, digital garbology reveals an alarming assemblage of additional externalities resulting from the hyper consumption of electronic devices and even digital services requiring significant amounts of physical and social resources to operate (such as Facebook, Netflix, and bitcoin). Consequently, digital worlds are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them. And yet, digital media is often perceived as immaterial because of a growing disconnect between people and the wires, power sources, and data centers that enable them to access digital worlds. Anthropologists practicing digital garbology have a critical role to play in helping to counteract the socioecological consequences of the world’s fastest growing waste stream empathetically and strategically. Waste is a quintessential anthropological topic because it crosscuts the subfields of archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology. The digital is also becoming an essential topic for 21st-century anthropologists looking to interpret and design the interactions people have with social media, surveillance technology, geographic information systems (GIS), and Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART). Anthropological archaeologists have increasingly integrated archaeological and ethnographic methods to make contributions to policy, public perceptions, and behavioral interventions concerning consumption, discard, recycling, and reuse. However, it is only in the last decade, from 2010 on, that anthropology and closely related disciplines have begun paying attention to electronic waste. Digital garbology, a synthesis of digital anthropology and garbology, is a novel and essential framework for practicing anthropology in the 21st century. Digital garbology helps to identify and recommend strategies for confronting uneven, and often unjust, distributions of e-waste onto marginalized communities. Furthermore, digital garbology encourages anthropologists to support community-based actions such as organizing repair cafés, participating in local government, banding with activists to challenge multinational corporations, and drawing attention to the blind spots in environmental, economic, and social discourse concerning waste produced by digital technologies.


Southern Africa’s Later Stone Age and Hunter-Gatherer Ethnography  

Tim Forssman

Reviews of southern Africa’s Later Stone Age (LSA) have seen many different iterations. Generally, however, they summarize the technocomplex from its earliest industry until it ceases to be recognizable in the archaeological record, summarizing the variety of research topics, questions, and approaches. Binding much of this together, despite the diaspora of studies, is the use of ethnography to understand past hunter-gatherer lifeways. This resource has guided interpretations of the past and helped design research approaches since the 1970s. And yet, from as early as the 1980s, archaeologists as well as anthropologists have debated the influence ethnography plays in understanding the past. Nonetheless, without it, significantly less would be written of hunter-gatherer prehistory in southern Africa, which includes belief systems, settlement structures, mobility patterns, subsistence habits, and social relations. Using ethnography as a vehicle, it is possible to navigate the LSA pathways created by scholars and examine the aforementioned contributions this knowledge system has made to interpretations of the past. From this vantage, envisioning a future for ethnography within the field is possible. This should involve expanding the ethnographies archaeologists use, moving beyond the Kalahari Desert, creating a diverse group of LSA researchers, and decolonizing the discipline.


Ostrich Eggshell Beads in Later Stone Age Contexts  

Benjamin Collins

Ostrich eggshell (OES) beads are a common feature of Later Stone Age (LSA) archaeology throughout eastern and southern Africa and have the potential to inform on site use, cultural diversity, social networks, and site formation. However, too often OES bead assemblages have not been recorded or studied in the necessary detail to make meaningful contributions to these important questions. In this respect, and to aid future research focusing on the African LSA, OES and OES beads must be discussed in detail, beginning with a background to ostriches and their eggs and commenting on why OES is an important raw material. Then, one should consider OES beads in detail, specifically, the manufacturing process, the social context in which they were made, and how they may have been used in the past. Subsequently, the focus should be on how OES bead assemblages are analyzed, as well as archaeometric approaches to studying OES bead residues and OES bead provenance. The potential insights gained from these diverse and multidisciplinary analytical approaches, especially when combined, are then highlighted through discussing trends in OES bead research from African LSA contexts. These trends include the contribution of OES beads to understanding the complex transition from hunter-gatherers to herders, the identification of different cultural groups in the past, and identifying the presence and extent of past social networks. The final focus should be on future research directions that will benefit OES bead research, specifically more detailed approaches to understanding OES bead diversity and the expansion of experimentally derived taphonomic frameworks for identifying past human and nonhuman behaviors in OES bead assemblages. Future research should build on the growing body of detailed OES bead analyses, as they provide unique insight and a strong complement to traditional archaeological approaches to understanding past peoples, groups, and cultures during the African LSA.


Anthropology of Education  

Rosemary Henze

The anthropology of education (also known as educational anthropology, pedagogical anthropology, ethnography of education, and educational ethnography) is a broad area of interest with roots and continuing connections in several major disciplines, including anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy, as well as the field of education. It emerged as a named subdiscipline in the 1950s primarily in the United States through the work of George and Louise Spindler, Margaret Mead, and others. However, work of a related nature was also taking place around the same time in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and Britain. While research in the anthropology of education is extremely diverse, a few central aims can be articulated. One is to build our understanding of how people teach and learn and what they teach and learn across different community, cultural, national, and regional contexts. Through comparisons of educative processes, scholars often draw insights about how culture shapes educational processes, how culture is acquired by individuals and groups through such processes, as well as how people create changes in and through their educational environments. A basic premise is that formal schooling is implicated in a paradoxical relationship with social inequality. While formal education can lead to greater social justice, it can also contribute to the creation and widening of social inequality. Thus, another key aim is to describe, uncover, and expose educational processes that undermine as well as enhance greater social equality. Formal education is not the only focus; studies of informal learning in families and communities provide rich descriptions of everyday contexts in which young people develop the skills and knowledge to be productive members of their community. Often such descriptions stand in stark contrast to the formal educational system where the same learners may be perceived as deficient. Since the 1990s, the anthropology of education has witnessed a number of shifts, including a movement toward research that takes an activist and engaged stance (e.g., research that includes a goal of changing oppressive conditions by collaborating directly with stakeholders such as youth and parents). This movement entails accompanying changes in methodologies, expanding beyond primarily descriptive ethnography to include methods such as participatory action research, teacher research, policy research, and critical ethnography. A more international and less US-centric perspective is also emerging as scholars around the world recognize the importance of studying both formal and informal education through ethnographic and other qualitative methods. The field is enriched as scholars around the world contribute new perspectives forged in regions with different historical and political environments. One of the key questions asked in early 21st-century educational anthropology is, under what circumstances can formal education be a force for change to create more egalitarian and inclusive societies?


Social Media Relationships  

Umoloyouvwe Ejiro Onomake

Ethnography has been used to research various people and topics online, primarily using netnography and digital ethnography. Researchers and businesses employ digital ethnographic methods to access an assortment of social media platforms in order to learn about social media users. Researchers seek to understand relationships between social media users and organizations from both academic and practitioner perspectives. These organizations run the gamut from for-profit businesses, to nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies. The specific focus here is on social media research as it relates to businesses. Organizations make use of social media in a variety of ways, but chiefly to market to clients and to gather information on followers; the latter of which, in turn, helps them understand their target markets. While this social media data is both quantitative and qualitative in nature, the emphasis here centers on qualitative data, particularly the ways businesses interact with social media users. While some firms mainly use older forms of one-way marketing that solely focus on disseminating information, other firms increasingly seek ways to interact with customers and co-create products with clients. Additionally, social media users are creating their own communities, formed due to a shared interest in a brand. Companies strive to learn more about their customers through these groups. Influencers also play a role in the relationship between organizations and social media users by linking their own followerships to products and brands. In turn, influencers develop their own relationships with organizations through sponsorships, thus becoming brands themselves. Influencers risk losing their followerships when followers perceive them as no longer accessible or authentic. This change in perception can occur for a variety of reasons, including when followers believe that an influencer has prioritized brand alignment over building connections with followers. Due to multiple relationships with different brands and their followers, influencers must negotiate the ambiguity and evolving nature of their role. As social media and digital spaces develop, so must the tools used by anthropologists. Anthropologists should remain open to incorporating hallmarks of ethnographic research such as fieldnotes, participant observation, and focus groups in new ways and alongside tools from other disciplines, including market and UX (user experience) research. The divide between practitioners and academics is blurring. Anthropologists can solve client issues while contributing their voices to larger anthropological and societal discussions.



Jörg Niewöhner

The notion of infrastructure commonly refers to the networked technical support structures that facilitate the provision of services and the movement of goods, people, and ideas through space. In anthropology, the notion of infrastructure also designates an analytic. As such, infrastructure is sensitive to the constant interweaving of technical objects, social organization, knowledge practices, and moral orders. Three key perspectives have been formative for this analytic: historical materialism, the historical and social construction of technology, and the ethnography of infrastructure. The wealth of current infrastructure research revolves around the discussion of four current topics: technopolitics, poetics and promises, paradoxes, and thinking infrastructures. Infrastructure as a theoretical framework holds potential as a new Anthropocene anthropology through minor and terrestrial infrastructuring.


Anthropological Approaches to South American Rock Art  

Marcela Sepúlveda, Leonardo Páez, María Pía Falchi, and Liz Gonzales

The study of rock art in South America has become a particularly relevant topic in the archaeology developed throughout the different countries within the continent. In this context, anthropology’s methodological and theoretical contribution has become particularly fruitful in specifying the meaning of rock art and involving the communities around the different sites for their interpretation and preservation. Thus, ethnography has become essential in various regions for this type of work, and even more so in territories harmed by the actions of major extractive companies, such as mining and oil drilling. Tourism also exerts growing pressure on the communities to manage rock art sites better. Finally, the theoretical contribution has become significant for the interactions between humans, human–environment, agency, embodiment, or ontological practices to broaden the spectrum of meaning, value, and the role of rock art in our continent.


Rhetoric Culture Theory  

Robert Hariman, Shauna LaTosky, Michał Mokrzan, Jamin Pelkey, and Ivo Strecker

Pragmatic linguistics, discourse analysis, and the ethnography of speaking developed rapidly from the middle of the 20th century, when researchers began to be able to take ever smaller and more efficient audiovisual recording equipment to the field, and computers helped them play back, analyze, and discuss these especially rich new data with their interlocutors on location and with their colleagues at home. Part of this newly energized research was the comparative study of rhetoric—that is, of how distinctive speech practices could have persuasive effects. It soon led to the finding that specific forms of culture produce specific forms of rhetoric, as when economic horizons (hunters, herders, cultivators, etc.) provide specific metaphorical repertoires. However, a further finding took longer to emerge. It was first articulated by the rhetoric culture project, which seeks to explore not only how culture structures rhetoric but also how rhetoric structures culture. This fundamental chiasmus was initially discussed at several international conferences in Germany and the United States and has been elaborated in nine volumes of the Berghahn Books series Studies in Rhetoric and Culture (2009–2022). A key premise of Rhetoric Culture Theory (RCT) is that human beings are neither fully free nor fully determined in what they can do, and that this tension is mediated by the continual generation of discourses from the interaction between intention, convention, and performance. Stephen Tyler has provided a model for this complex process which illustrates the open-ended and emergent nature of discourse and explains how cultures, with their diverse customs, conventions, habits, and lifestyles, are self-organizing configurations continually recreated, negotiated, and changed through texts and performances. Cultural explanation is advanced through attention to processes of argument and appeal, dissonance and resonance, variation and feedback, and the like, but the results may not be objectively functional. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote de la Mancha was chosen as RCT’s icon and telling example of this rhetorically produced and potentially fantastic nature of culture. RCT is also inspired and supported by understandings of the power of the word in other (and especially non-European) cultures. An example of this is Baldambe (Father of the Dark Brown Cow), an elder from Hamar, southern Ethiopia, who provided “historic” moments where in collaboration with the ethnographer spoken words were transformed into written ones, and texts with their own distinctive features and literary style emerged as documented in a number of publications. RCT is also influenced by the tenor of its time, not least an impending climate collapse and other threats that characterize the Anthropocene. Rhetorical and cultural abundance can be part of the existential crisis and resources for renewal on behalf of equity and sustainability. Reflecting on the relationship between speech practices and deep problems can reveal how all of culture is challenged by vicissitudes that are unanticipated and that scale up disastrously, and that call up inventive answers while testing the limits of human ingenuity.


Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology in Africa: Status and Scope  

Per Ditlef Fredriksen

Studies of social practices that include the making and use of ceramics constitute a significant part of the subfield of ethnoarchaeology. Pottery is still the archaeological artifact par excellence in many parts of the world, not least in Africa. Because of its omnipresence, pottery not only persists as a convenient way of dating but is also a frequently used point of entry to meaning in the archaeological record. Ethnoarchaeology gained momentum in the 1960s to improve reasoning and inference, by conducting studies of 21st-century practices viewed as providing analogical insights of value for archaeology. Needless to say, this studying of Others in the 21st century to understand Others in the past is a source of severe critique. However, since the late 1990s ethnoarchaeology has transcended the handmaiden role. The debates are not only critical but also vibrant and forward-looking. Key issues relate to ethics, the use and continued development of postcolonial critique, the archaeology of technology, and new forms of interdisciplinarity in the wake of increasing amounts of data coming from laboratory disciplines. The latter issue compels the question what a “slow” science field like ethnoarchaeology can and should offer, not least since there is a clear tendency for modeling and syntheses of past societal change to be constantly “lagging behind.” Viewing research within the field in Africa so far in the early 21st century against a geographically wider and temporally deeper backdrop, comprising key developments in the research field globally since the 1960s: what are its main contributions and challenges? What is the status in the early 21st century, and what can and should the near future hold?