Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley.  Social Theory and Archaeology.  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press.  1987.

A few nights ago, when I spluttered an uncomplimentary remark about this book, and read a Shanks and Tilley sentence aloud with angry enunciation, underscoring its needlessly dense style, my friend sat quite still and silent.  Then he turned and said, "face it Christine, this book was written for brighter people than you."

Gloomy meditations on this thought have not endeared me to the book.  Furthermore, Shanks and Tilley are Marxists, and it goes hardly with me to sit patiently through Marxist dogma   I lived for a fair stint in a society that attempted "Marxism;" whatever it may be in theory, in practice it is a poor fit for any group.   Derrida earned me the only dressing down I have ever gotten from a graduate school professor -- a dressing down for "smirking" in class -- and so open-ended chains of signifiers  leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.   Finally, to top it off, I am a passionate believer in the Logos, God Almighty who kicked off the universe and inhabits it now.  All of these matters  -- a lack of brightness, a lack of sympathy, a fullness of faith -- leave me unsuited to do this book justice.

And yet, after all, as I came to think it through and sum it up, I found this work well worth reading.  First, it takes a definitive stand on a number of important issues; second it is pugnacious towards its theoretical opponents; and third, it dares to tell archaeologists how to behave in classrooms and in front of deans.  These are reasons for liking the book.  Then, its authors are not content to offer a viewpoint among viewpoints, a theory among theories.  They propose that they have set forth the truth about theory, about archaeology, about society, about individuals, about time and space.  That is a bold stance, and those are further reasons for wry enjoyment.

What are the book's essential ideas?

It is critical of those past theories of archaeology that focus on evolving and interacting systems to explain material culture and cultural motivations. Proper theories, say Shanks and Tilley, cannot be reductionist or essentialist. Shanks and Tilley argue that systems of material exchange, codified religious rites and rituals, and hierarchies of rank, are present-day reified constructs overlaid on a imaginary society we ourselves have created and defined out of artifacts whose meaning and order we have chosen.   There are no essential trajectories of evolution. Past archaeologists have been intent on creating a taxonomy of artistic and evolutionary type, lining up artifacts in Linnean systems.  In all these efforts, time has been a background to rather than an element within the analysis.  When Renfrew, Hodder and Binford come in for review, Renfrew and Binford are challenged for building unfied theories of heirarchy and system-exchange on the sand of an untheorized notion of society.  Hodder, by contrast, makes "historically specific" arguments about artifacts as signifiers, but because he desires open academic debate without fore-fronting power relations as part of his archeological social critique (at least as they present him), Hodder "comes close to a disabling relativism" (192).

How do  Shanks and Tilley account for change, for time, for social structure, for individuality, and for right archaeological practice?

If we accept the notion that all meaning resides in context, in chains of meaning, in signifiers pointing to other signifiers, then the project of elevating one feature of society over another and using that feature to account for change -- of creating a hierarchy of determination -- is unimportant.   In effect, Shanks and Tilley suggest that in the older systems, change is used to explain change, and stasis is used to explain stasis.   They understand historical events as contingent, non-repeatable, not predictable. (With this I am in total agreement.  History is not science.)  Change occurs because of contradiction inherent in the social order.  Their notion of contradiction is "an opposition between elements of structures residing in practices which presuppose one another and constitute conditions of existence for each other" (183). "Contradictions are always overdetermined" (184) and change occurs when there is "a multiplicity of contradictions between structing principles" which create "competing beliefs, evaluations and rationalizations for socially situated actions" and so alter the conditions of existence.  Bound up with their notion of change is time.  "It may not be chronology which is important, but the intersection of contradiction and event."  (note)

Society, properly understood,  is an "overdetermined relational whole" (59).  Social order, then,  "is constituted in the practice of individual social actors which relates to historical context, not an abstract universal pattern.  This is to stress the primacy of the political:  practical negotiation, strategy and power in the structuring of social reality" (59).  Power --gaining it and exercising it -- is not what society is really about; rather power is what what society is really made of. Moreover, society subsumes individuality.  Individuals are born into social systems that limit all they can think and do.  They cannot stand outside of their own cultures, countries, structures of order.   They cannot possibly change anything of significance.  I find Shanks and Tilley's understanding of individual motivation a bit -- well, "aboriginal". Having no essential or transcendent being, and struggling for political primacy (why?), individuals become a pathetic present-absence.  Someone of an imaginative turn might begin to see the hungry ghosts of power limned against the pale halls of academia.

What is right archaeological practice?  Certainly it is recursive, juxtaposing the past against the present against the past.  Rather than building structures and systems, archaeolgists could (or should) highlight contraditions and lacunae, keeping the agenda of the moment forefronted in all of practice.  Can an archaeologist be wrong about the past?  Shanks and Tilley say "yes,"  but they aren't very convincing.  After all, they've spend much of the book arguing that the past is always already in a struggle with the present for meaning.  Exclusive meaning isn't a pinhead they can dance on for very long.  However, Shanks and Tilley do argue that they are not simply offering one theory among theories.  Theirs is right.  I'm not sure how they account for rightness when they are also non-essentialist, but that's their lookout.

I would like to see Shanks and Tilley's ideas in action.  How would they do a close reading of a site?  Or an ethnographical description?  What would rule out an interpretation?  If analysis involves selecting data, building logical links, and letting a story evolve from those links (undoubtedly a story dictated by "what is possible to think in this culture"), then all of those mental efforts would be suspect.  What would a polysemous analysis look like?

(NOTE)I am not sure I understood their explanation of social change.  How does their definition work in practice?   It seems to wipe out the very notion of cause and effect. I would like to ask you about it when we next meet.  I also need a refresher on "overdetermined."  I've forgotten what it means, theoretically speaking.