Performative Informality in Archaeology

I really like Mary Leighton’s work and have found myself citing her work and referring to it regularly on my blog (e.g. here and here). Last week, I read her most recent piece in American Anthropologist on “performative informality” in academic archaeology and found it particularly compelling. She argues that the performance of informality marks many of the ways in which archaeology as a discipline functions. For Leighton, performative informality include practices that might appear benign or even admirable in our discipline – such as the familiar collegiality between faculty and students that emerges from hours in the field – to some of archaeology’s more toxic rituals such as binge drinking. Understanding the unspoken rules this informal behavior is often key to professional success within our field. Like many of the formal structures that dictate professional advancement in more formal academic settings, the rules of performative informality are likewise shaped by white, European, male privilege. Unlike the more structured environment of formal academia, however, the more shadowy informal world often operates in ways that escape critique, reinforces white male privilege, and serves as a gatekeeper function within academic circles. 

My little summary does not really do this article justice. Go read it.

Most field archaeologists are familiar with practices that Leighton describes in this article. These range from seemingly innocuous suggestion that, in the field, archaeologists use each others first names rather than academic titles to the deeply problematic rituals of late-night drinking, romantic liaisons between faculty, supervisors, and students, and moments of casual interaction that have real professional consequences for students seeking to receive a positive letter of recommendation, future opportunities for collaboration, or even just professional encouragement and professional. We all know far too well that a student or colleague that struggles with the informal world of archaeology — no matter how rigorous their formal scholarship — will often find themselves struggling to make the kind of informal connections that contribute to opportunities for career advancement. In fact, social awkwardness in the close knit world that emerges during field work often reflects an inability to discern the cues that shape the performance of informality that shapes field work relationships.    

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have a growing distrust for many of the rules that structure our professional lives. I’ve complained about the assessocracy and the bureaucratized processes that reduce the complex work of research and teaching to measurable and comparable outputsI’ve worried about administrative structures such as colleges and departments, and their formal roles in keeping us siloed. I’ve worked on projects that seek to reject, or at very least complicate, the boundaries between various kinds of work in our field, especially publishing, and considered the potential of such abstract and elusive metaphors of flow as models for understanding relationship between the defined spaces of fieldwork, analysis, writing, and publishing.

Many of my critiques have drawn upon Ivan Illich’s ideas of conviviality as a mode of interaction that ostensibly sheds some of the social, institutional, and practical formality that dictates the maintenance of productive relationships in a world of (post)industrial capitalism. After reading Leighton’s article, however, I worry that so much of what I have tried to articulate is less about challenging practices in academia that seek to institutionalize forms of white, male, bourgeois privilege and more about finding new ways to act out these structural advantages by other means. While it is easy enough to critique the role of alcohol both in the field and in a professional settings, for example, as deeply problematic in archaeology, Leighton’s ethnographic study nudges us to see the drinking, overt and often physical performances of familiarity (my aversion to hugs is well-known), and cliquishness within our discipline as a kind of carnivalesque behavior designed not to subvert the existing structures institutionalized within policies at our institutions, but to reinforce them through their inversion.

(I really want to insert a long tirade against hugging here, but I won’t. Just don’t hug me. In fact, even before our virus-inflected new normal, I’d prefer that we not touch. A simple head nod will do just fine.) 

It may well be that my embrace of conviviality as a form of anti-modernism serves merely to reinforce the modern practices at the core of professional academic life. I’ve long conceded that “slow archaeology” (to which Leighton’s work contributed significantly) may well have its roots in privileged practices (as first called out by Shawn Graham). Leighton, of course, does not deal explicitly with my formulation of slow, but her article does suggest that my vision of a more egalitarian, “structureless,” and convivial discipline might do little to mitigate the kind of structural sexism, racism, and classism present in academia. In fact, Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (which I blogged about here) made a similar point by showing how both formal and informal expectations work together to create both administrative and social barriers for disadvantaged students.

Leighton’s article also got me thinking about the recent piece in History Australia by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (which I blogged about here) that proposes that historians work to create micro-utopias where we can both suspend the institutional practices that structure so much of our professional lives and create more inclusive spaces defined by new performative gestures and attendant relationships. Of course, the creation of such micro-utopias, even for a short lived period or under very specific circumstances, may do little to undermine structural inequalities that fundamentally shape our field if they rely too heavily on the simple inversion of more formal practices that define our professional relationships.

It seems to me that the formal/informal dichotomy that Leighton interrogates in her piece may be the relationship that most requires critique. This is not at all a criticism of Leighton’s important work. I recognize that heavy drinking, coerced familiarity, and other common forms of social inversion present on archaeological projects are deeply problematic. At the same time, I want to think that we can still challenge the institutional and policy-defined relationships that define our field and privilege individuals who can code-switch between manifestations of the same social structures whether manifest in the rules of performative informality, the unspoken formalism of “civility,” or policy mandated behaviors. I’d gently proposes that the problem with performative informality on archaeological projects is not that it the structures that shape the discipline with the “the tyranny of structurelessness,” but the opposite: performative informality make the ubiquity of these structures visible and reinforces their inescapability.

What I really want to understand is how do we move forward from the kinds of critique that Leighton offers? Her ambivalence throughout the article (especially at the end) demonstrates how deeply entrenched these structures are as they not only define professional communities but also give shape to how we perform such deeply personal acts as grieving. 

I don’t have answers, but I hope that it remains possible to construct communities in the field of archaeology that do not conform to the formal/informal dichotomy and, instead, create convivial and perhaps even utopian space for more a inclusive, meaningful, and productive discipline. 


  1. Thanks for these interesting reflections and connections to other literature. Leighton’s work similarly resonated with me. Just a minor correction, her recent paper appeared in “American Anthropologist”, not “American Antiquity” as you say.


    1. Thanks, Ben!! And I fixed it!


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