Exploring the Social Self: Putting Theory to Work

I haven’t blogged properly for along time – I had an issue with what Howard Williams would call a Troweltard which put me off, but I think blogging is a valuable sounding board for ideas, so I’ve taken the decision to try again, rather than just using the blog to promote conference sessions and publications (which I will still do!).

Theory, Theory, Theory…

Those who know me will know that I’m an unashamed lover of theory in archaeology. If I had a tagline it would probably be ‘using theory to (try to) make pottery interesting since 2005…’ – indeed words to that effect were recently used by the best man at my wedding! My field, medieval archaeology, is often perceived from the outside as lacking in theoretical depth, although this has certainly changed in recent years, thanks in no small part to excellent work by the likes of Roberta Gilchrist, Aleks McClain and Mark Hall in relation to the later middle ages. In my own PhD I sought to develop an approach to medieval archaeology which utilised so called ‘relational’ or ‘non-representational’ approaches – in a nutshell I wanted to explore the relationships between people and objects in the past, and how this was a 2 way relationship – objects don’t always do as they are told! This approach is summed up in my book, which also provides some background to theory in medieval archaeology, should anyone be interested!

At last year’s TAG conference in Manchester I attended a thoroughly stimulating session organised by my former PhD supervisor on ‘assemblage theory’ in archaeology. This set out explicitly to explore how theoretical approaches developed from the French philosophers (although it might be more accurate to call them polymaths!) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari might be applied within archaeology (most of the papers also explored how work inspired by their writing, particularly by Manuel de Landa and Jane Bennett can be applied in archaeology). There was one historical archaeology contribution, but, as usual, most of the papers were from prehistorians. Since then I have been familiarising myself with this work, which is fairly closely related to the approaches I had already been working on (principally developed out of readings of the writing of Bruno Latour). My journey has taken me, perhaps in the rhizomatic manner described by Deleuze and Guattari, through literature relating to town planning, the sociology of war torn communities and even accounting!

I think one reason why medieval archaeologists have been reluctant to explore theory deeply is that they already have so much to read. As an historical discipline we need to not only be aware of archaeological material but also scholarship in history and perhaps even in areas of literature and other subjects too. Of course, the extent to which we read history varies greatly, but I think Colin Platt’s regular assertion that medieval archaeologists no longer read history is a little harsh. Recently I have been thinking about issues of consumption and identity, and in doing so I followed a path which led me to the concept of the social self.

The Social Self

My starting theory was that with the increasingly commercialisation of medieval society that ‘consumers’ (a word which I am now shying away from) had a greater variety of goods – pottery for example becomes highly variable in the 13th century, there was choice in the market place. I thought that this could be linked to self expression, but in the back of my mind I had a niggling doubt – was there really free choice? How free were people to express themselves? Did a concept of self expression even exist? I had in the back of my mind work by Sally Smith on dress accessories which argues that the use of decorative metalwork might be related to resistance rather than aspiration. So, I decided to do some reading about concepts of medieval selfhood. I quickly discovered the key debates about the ‘discovery’ of the self and discussions of individuality in literature. But the work which really got me thinking was David Shaw’s (2005) Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England. This book uses court records (principally) from Wells in Somerset to explore the self within the context of a medieval town. He argues that we have a social self, formed as a bundle of perceptions and social relationships, and that we are hungry to form social relationships.

Aha! I thought! Here we have a concept of the self which I can work with, it linked back to ideas with which I am familiar, people as Actor-Networks, or assemblages, formed of social relationships, the self as dis-embodied. What is exciting about Shaw’s work though is that it doesn’t just argue that people project identities, he explores the impact, or effect, of how actions are perceived by others. Social relationships are not self-centered, they cause the self to spill out and form a dialogue with society. In this light then we can argue, as Shaw begins to, that there are limitations placed on social relationships – there was not necessarily free choice in the medieval market. Of course, sumpturary laws were an (arguably fairly token) attempt to regulate consumption in the later medieval period, but can we think about more fundamental social barriers, unwritten rules and behaviors. Shaw talks in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, I prefer to think in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of textured social space. This has profound implications for our understanding of the social relationships formed with objects. There can be a tendency to do what David Graeber has satirised as saying ‘Look! They are using consumption to build identities!’ and infer what those identities might be, but not to go beyond that, to think about the social tensions and ruptures that the performance of an identity might cause. For me, the concept of the social self forces us to think about these tensions.

Putting Theory to Work

I think with much archaeological theory the theory isn’t really put to work. Data and theory can be separated too much, the theory might be presented as a grand over-arching framework which the data doesn’t really fit, or alternatively the theory can be tagged on the end. There is sometimes a feeling that theory has been included to tick a box, or to show how well read and clever the author is. Here though, theory has fundamentally changed my approach towards the issue of ‘consumption’ in the medieval period. It is not enough to, as I perhaps set out to do, identify commercialisation in the archaeological record and make basic, common sense, inferences. Theory has caused me to look at my data more closely, I’m starting to build a conclusion which might be considered quite radical and contrary to popular opinion. Perhaps I should be worried about that, but what is theory for if not to help us make sense of our data in new ways, to ask new questions of it and deepen our understanding of the past?


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