Social Theory and Context of Digital Archaeology

I really enjoyed Lorna-Jane Richardson’s and Simon Lindgren’s recent article “Online Tribes and Digital Authority: What Can Social Theory Bring to Digital Archaeology?” In Open Archaeology. She argue that archaeologists would be wise to apply social theory to digital archaeological practices, and, in doing so, continues a trend toward reflexive archaeology that is as invested in practices as methods and results.

I found particularly useful their interest in using social theory to unlock the power structures that shape digital practices in the field and across the discipline. They bring to their critique the work of Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes (2009) that argues – among other things – that the despite the illusion of freedom and democracy, the internet (and digital practices more broadly) remains a deeply hierarchical place dominated by well-established (if often unspoken) rules. These rules, often established by loosely organized groups with distinct expectations of practice that O’Neil terms “tribes” that form the relational spaces of authority which often conforms to bureaucratic practices and amplifies the social power of so-called “cyber-chiefs.”

Without unpacking the way in which these tribes function or manifest, Richardson and Lindgren are right in appreciating the role of authority in the development of digital practices in archaeology and the dissemination of digital archaeological data and the production of digital standards. Anyone who has spent any time around the edges of the digital archaeology world recognizes the role of tribes and tribal markers as structuring certain key aspects of authority in the space of digital practice. To be clear, some of the things that serve as tribal markers are necessary and, in fact, represent important elements of good digital practices, promote cohesive dialogue between practitioners, and reflect the balance the highly technical (and commercialized) discourse of digital tools with the more familiar (albeit no less tribal) world of archaeology. Simple things like the bewildering cacophony of acronyms serve as significant barriers to entry and markers of certain levels of proficiency in the digital archaeology world (while at the same time representing a useful shorthand for the densely obscure codes and standards). The need to demonstrate technical prowess through innovation even as this innovation frequently duplicates similar functionality already existing tools mediates a kind of competition between tribal entities that can be as inefficient as it is professionally disruptive, but it nevertheless forms the basis for a kind of authority.

Of course, nowhere is the tribal nature of digital archaeology more evident than the dense network of informal and formal associations that make up advisory boards, conference proceedings and panels, and grant collaborations. These relationships provide both tribal structure, but also define major currents of authority in our field. They’re traceable (and here I’m thinking about Shawn Graham’s work in network analysis (or this intriguing article by Tom Brughmans); in fact, they’re particularly traceable owing to the digital nature of this work as well as the increasingly digitally mediated nature of professional communication in our field. While it would be naive to assume that these links reproduce the power relationships present in various “digital tribes,” it would provide a useful point of departure for a more specific and potentially incisive critique in how digital archaeology functions at the level of practice.

[And do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s recent post on professional genealogy which would also be interesting to hold up against a map of collaborations and communication for the same figures. How neatly does genealogy align with the professional networks that scholars cultivate and maintain?]  

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