SAS Bulletin

Volume 20   Number 1/2   January /June 1997

Society, Culture and Technology in Africa.

S. Terry Childs (editor). MASCA Research Papers in Science and Archaeology, Supplement to Volume 11, 1994. 108 pp. $22.50 (cloth). ISSN 1048-5325.

Reviewed by Mark Leney, New College, Oxford, OX1 3RH England, UK

    This collection of papers seeks to investigate the relationship between culture and technology in Africa since the late Pliocene. In just seven substantive essays and an introduction, the editor has attempted to draw together an extremely disparate array of research to argue the point that technology is the product of ìdynamic interaction of social, ideological and technical factorsî. This seem a rather heavy-handed attempt to reiterate the dogma of post-modern cultural anthropology (that nothing meaningful can be learned from the study of artefacts divorced from their socio-cultural contexts), but the individual papers themselves do not labor this point. Moreover the lack of any overall conclusion to the volume leaves readers free to draw their own conclusions about the interaction of technology and society in a way that is refreshingly free of the veil of verbose deconstruction commonly found padding the work of the more anthropologically minded archaeologists (a ëdeconstructioní that reasonably skeptical readers can supply by themselves).
    Childsís unqualified use of the words ësocietyí and ëcultureí while laying bare the plurality of meaning in the word ëtechnologyí goes to the heart of the whole debate. While we find all three words alternately convenient and inadequate, the underlying reality is that there are no independent entities underlying these three terms. There really is no ëtechnologyí outside socio-cultural contexts. However, to then say that there is no point in abstracting ëtechnologyí from its cultural underpinnings for the purpose of analysis, is to make a grave syllogistic error. The papers on metallurgy that make up the central part of this volume illustrate this point. The imposition of contemporary metallurgical analyses upon the archaeological artefacts defines entirely new fields of knowledge, providing real insights into the mind and milieu of the ancient metalworker. By determining what we can and cannot know about the raw materials and technical processes that contributed to the object of study, the interdisciplinary approach shows that the clash of opinions in the ìtechnology and societyî debate stems more from the anthropologistsí failure to engage with the possibilities of technical enquiry than from the insensitivity of specialist analysts to the cultural context of the material studied.
    The end of the volume contains three cautionary tales about using fine-grained technical analysis of artifacts to investigate the minds of their makers. Although instructive to undergraduates, one feels that it was unnecessary, in the context of this volume, to expend three papers to illustrate the point that the ancient artisan may have had multiple agendas and multiple skills that are only partially reflected in the material left to posterity; a necessarily fragmented record that is inevitably biased towards the taphonomically stable. To present these points as new and/or important, attacks on positivist methods in the reconstruction of past societies from their material culture is to topple a straw-man. I feel sure that everyone can recall instances where researchers have, understandably considering the investment of time and scholarship, overplayed the importance of conclusions drawn from highly empirical analyses and refused to recognize the implausibility of their inferences in the wider socio-cultural context. But it is wrong to equate such individual errors with the wrong-headedness of the positivist program as a whole. After all, the empirical worker is merely advocating a model to explain some of the patterning observed in material remains. The assumption that there is something to explain is not inherent to the validity of the approach. If there is no order, mechanism or rationale behind a perceived pattern, then the model will not prove a useful one. Nevertheless, the erosion of empirically generated explanations by the weight of contrary observation only vindicates the validity of the positivist, model building paradigm. The perception of intransigence and cultural bias in positivist interpretations of material culture, so heavily criticised over the last quarter of a century, seems to stem more from the technophobia and anti-rationalism of such critics and the fact that empirical analysis appears to allow definite statements (even if wrong), than from any inherent flaw in positivism. The rebuttal of these criticisms has been less effective, but then this is probably because the more extreme proponents of the anti-positivist position tend to take the view that one can learn nothing about the maker of an artefact outside itís immediate socio-cultural context, something that might be phrased as a faux-paradox; ëI know that I am wise in that I know that I know nothing.í Clearly it is difficult to disabuse someone of this notion, or even to provide a focused criticism of such a non-viewpoint, but one does wonder about their position in the discipline in the first place. The solution seems to be for anthropologists of all camps to be a little more mature and sophisticated in their dealings with other (sub-) disciplines. Whilst it would be too much to ask the ìtechnological deterministsî to stop viewing their opponents as arm-chair theorists, a compromise of some sorts can be reached by laying aside the idea of culture as an entity. I am not proposing that all aspects of societal development are mediated by technological change; however I do feel that some, perhaps many, changes in social organisation probably are causally linked to shifts in technical capacity. If one disregards the concept of culture as a unit, there is no ìtechnology and society debateî. Some aspects of ësocietyí will be closely bound up with technology and others will be more or less independent. Similarly, technological diversity may be entirely without consequence for the structure of the associated society.
    Re-reading the papers, one feels that maybe this is the point that the volume is making, without actually ever articulating it. Given Childsí closing statement that ìtechnologies must be examined in their socio-cultural contextsî (my italics), it is surprising to read in the subsequent papers how much can be learnt from the raw artifacts even when the socio-cultural contexts are almost entirely obscured. This is especially true in the papers on the use of fire and obsidian. There is obviously a need to keep an open mind here, but the majority of these papers impose a framework of empirical analyses to make what appear to be reasonable inferences about the nature of the societies and individuals that produced the material. This apparent paradox, the gulf between the editorial statement and the accounts given in the papers reveals the nature of the ìtechnology and societyî issue. It is a debate about misconceptions. What this volume illustrates very clearly is that the debate arises primarily from the reciprocal misconception of research methods rather than the nature of material culture itself.

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