Thursday 29 December 2011

Touchstone Thursday: Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector's "Archaeology and the Study of Gender" (1984)

[If this post encourages you to read this article for the first time, the other readers and I would really love to hear what you think of it.] 

Article available online at 
It's difficult to imagine a more courageous and radical treatment of archaeological theory than 'Archaeology and the Study of Gender.' Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector's 'shot across the bow' of the archaeological establishment has every bit as much to say to the present generation of archaeological big-wigs as it did nearly three decades ago.
     As a male who has practiced archaeology on four continents and through four decades I can claim a certain amount of authority in saying that the message of this week's touchstone still generates venal back-room commentary amongst 'the boys' who have reason to think they set the agenda for 'the gals.' Indeed, the 'No Girlz Aloud' sign still hangs on the clubhouse door. I have trouble believing that it is simple sexism. Instead, I believe that out-and-out misogyny slithers along in the social and political negotiation of power in archaeology, at least in the English-speaking world.
     To say that the cogent empirical argument presented in 'Archaeology and the Study of Gender' met with vilification would be a ludicrous understatement. I've heard Conkey and Spector [and their ilk] referred to in the worst possible ways imaginable. And I have to ask 'Why?'
     Why would a community of literate and self-described 'objective' males find Conkey and Spector's words so despicable? Why would that same group of males greet this thoroughly empirical study of the status quo with base behavior? It's not as if they needed to worry about the study of gender in archaeology. How could it possibly have posed a threat to them? It couldn't. No, I think there's been a fundamentally personal and emotional reaction on the part of each male who ever found fault with or had disdain for 'Archaeology and the Study of Gender.'
     And I think I know the reason. I think I know because I've many times observed the enmity that many male archaeologists have for the females in their midst. Take anything that Conkey and Spector relate about the male stance with respect to women, both within and outside of archaeology and double it. Then double it again. Then you might be getting close to the truth.
     It has nothing to do with research agendas. It has little to do with serious criticism of the promise for an archaeology of gender. Instead, I believe it has everything to do with power and access to power, and how it is meted out. I'm not positing a revolutionary insight. Others have no doubt argued in a similar vein. So, I hope you'll forgive me if I say anything that you may have heard before.
     In 1967 a presidential executive order amended affirmative action legislation in the U.S. to include sex. With academic positions becoming fewer and fewer by the 1980s, males were beginning to speak of the 'pinch' of affirmative action. Even though there had been women in the field for generations, as long as they were a small minority it had always been possible to ensure that they never achieved positions of power, or 'took away the job' of a prospective male academic. 
     And it's not as if affirmative action provided women with instant access to power, or even in the short term. And it certainly never provided direct access to power at any time. Thus, in reality, the 'boys' weren't in any danger of losing their grip on power. Nevertheless, in the 1980s every time a woman was successful in her job search, there was an immediate and visceral response on the part of the males--those who'd competed alongside the woman, and those already safe in their positions as her new colleagues. Their response was simple. It was misguided. It was fundamentally hateful. And it was this: 'There goes another affirmative action hire.'
     I'd like to say that Conkey and Spector's article began a slow erosion of androcentrism in archaeology. I'd like to be able to say that their work is, in the present, a quaint anachronism. Sadly, it is neither.


  1. The most interesting thing that I find about gender in archaeology is that the majority of current archaeology students are female (in Australia that is, although I suspect the rest of the world is heading the same way). For example I've finished my undergrad degree and out of the 40 or so students in my year only 3 were male.
    It seems that as the boys club gets older and inevitably they will start to retire their replacements will have to be women, as in a few decades there won't be many other choices.
    Although it is sad that we have to wait for people to get old and frankly die for shifts in archaeology come about.

  2. @Jacq
    I've noticed the same trend. But it worries me. As you know, the sex ratio in a sample of the larger population would yield very nearly 50:50. If it varies much from those proportions we'd be scrambling to find a social explanation. I think we should be as concerned to discover an explanation for the sex ratio in anthropology/archaeology. Historically such shifts have meant that the vocation has become so devalued in society that the males have abandoned it in favour of more lucrative (or perhaps in this case more abundant) jobs. I hope I'm wrong.


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