J. Situating Prehistoric Communities of Practice

Organizers: Andrew Roddick, University of Victoria and Alexander Bauer, Queens College, CUNY

Saturday, May 7th
1:30 – 5:50
Ida Sproul Room


In 1991 Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger published a highly influential text titled “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation”. Drawing on theories of practice and situated cognition this publication offered several important avenues for social scientists interested in the essential role of learning in daily activity.  Lave and Wenger used the term “community of practice” to refer to the web of relations among persons, activity and world, over time and in relationship with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice.  While an interest in learning is certainly not new in archaeology, this popular theoretical approach, developed in ethnographic contexts, has distinct advantages. For example, here the focus on knowledge and practice is about relational, ever-changing communities, foregrounding the dynamics that lay hidden ‘behind’ archaeological traditions.  At the same time, it recognizes the importance of social relations and the meditative quality of cultural transmission.  Contributors to this session will address and develop the utility of “situated learning” and communities of practice in archaeological contexts. How can the situated learning literature help in studies of technical practice in a wider social context? How might communities of practice be delineated through (pre)history and across wider regions? Can the concept address issues of culture change important to archaeologists such as innovation, power, and structural change?  How does the concept compare with other approaches to technical practice such as chaîne opératoire and agency theories?  Papers from any period or place are invited, but each contribution should seek to engage with concepts from the situated learning literature.


Situating Learning in Archaeological Research

Andrew Roddick, University of Victoria, aroddick@uvic.ca

Archaeologists have had a long-standing interest in the historically dynamic process of learning.  In this introductory paper I examine the relationship between archaeology and the interdisciplinary learning scholarship. I begin with a brief overview of archaeological research that has benefitted from theories of learning, paying particular attention to recent research on situated learning. I then briefly discuss my research in highland Bolivia which applies fine-grained methodologies to elucidate the social processes within particular communities of practice. I end with a discussion of the requirements for object-oriented approaches to archaeological studies of communities of practice.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation within Communities of Potters in the American Southwest

Patricia Crown, University of New Mexico, pcrown@unm.edu

Among southwestern populations, children participated in the division of labor as household members, with everyday access to potters within a community of practice.  The paths to full participation in potting practice are documented in historical records and autobiographies, and these paths are largely, but not entirely, reflected in the pre- Hispanic vessels.  Legitimate peripheral participation in communities of southwestern potters varied over time and across space.  Variation in the sequences of mastery reveals important differences in access to resources needed for learning that may have implications for sequences of change and suggest variation in relations of power within communities of practice.

Communities of Practice and Colonialism: A Study of Spanish Missions and Social Boundaries in La Florida

Elliot Blair, University of California, Berkeley, elliot.blair@berkeley.edu

This paper will examine the ways in which situated learning theory can contribute to archaeologies of colonialism by allowing researchers to explore social boundaries not tied to the linguistic, socio-political, or ethnic identifications of colonial administrators.  Looking specifically at the site of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale in Spanish Florida, I will consider how a study of multiple communities of practice—of both production and consumption—have the potential to provide another means of avoiding the problematic colonized/colonizer dichotomy. I will argue that the “single-ethnicity” Mission Santa Catalina community was actually characterized by a complex social network of diverse learning communities.

Archaeological Applications of Situated Learning and Agency Theories in World-View and Identity Studies of Southeastern Native Americans

Christopher Bolfing, Texas State University, cb1414@txstate.edu

Overlapping mythology and cosmology, represented in iconography, demonstrate that modern descendants of Mississippian peoples share a world-view with their ancestors that allows for upstreaming. Situated learning theory provides a way to compare how modern and prehistoric Southeastern peoples inculcated their shared cultural world-view. Agency theory, rather than being a competing theory incompatible to situated learning, is actually complementary, accounting for the myriad of possible individual identities that exist within a shared world-view. The use of these two theories when analyzing archaeological evidence provides a means by which to better understand how these peoples made, and still make, the world around them meaningful.

Situated Learning and Object Meaning

Scott Van Keuren, University of Vermont, svankeur@uvm.edu

Lave and Wenger’s theories on learning offer new ways to consider object meaning. When talking about the latter, archaeologists focus on messaging or pose questions about what objects actively signified. The notion of “learning as participation” shifts attention away from what things communicate to how they are engaged through the flow and transformation of knowledge. These practices are at the core of meaning-making in social worlds. Using painted objects from the US Southwest, I explore how such meanings emerge in the complex ways that crafting-knowledge was (re)created within past communities of practice.

Bridging Disciplines: Combining Psychology, Experimental Archaeology and Communities of Practice Paradigms to Investigate the Social Learning of Knapping Skills

Hilary Duke, University of Toronto, duke.hilary@gmail.com

My research investigates modern expert knappers and novices in the social learning of knapping techniques by combining paradigms from both Experimental Archaeology and Cognitive Psychology. Previously, I focused on the observation of gestures and speech used by knappers in social learning scenarios and created a coding scheme that characterized their communicative actions. I will discuss how the use of two different theoretical paradigms, from both archaeology and psychology, poses challenges to the creation of an appropriate experimental design in a continuation of the project. Finally, I will discuss how the communities of practice literature will contribute to this investigation.

The Potter’s Wheel in the Bronze Age East Mediterranean: Innovation, Learning and Communities of Practice

Carl Knappett, University of Toronto, carl.knappett@utoronto.ca & Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University

During the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC the potter’s wheel appears in many locations across the east Mediterranean. How this innovation is taken up locally, though, is highly variable. What might account for this variability? We suggest that the divergent patterns in its adoption result from the different kinds of social contexts through which pottery techniques are transmitted and learnt across this large region, and argue that the notions of ‘situated learning’ and ‘communities of practice’ are extremely useful in helping to explain innovation dynamics.

Metaphysical Community and Material Practice in the Bronze Age Black Sea

Alexander Bauer, Queens College, CUNY, alexander.bauer@qc.cuny.edu

The Black Sea region has long been neglected in archaeological research, and as a result is considered a backwater dividing better-known inland regions around it. Using my research into pottery-making practices of the coastal regions, and drawing on the concept of “communities of practice” and a semiotic view of culture as emergent from social relations, I argue that from the end of the 4th–early 3rd millennium BCE, a distinct and shared “Black Sea culture” developed across the region both as a result of increased social interaction and in response to larger interaction networks involving the region at that time.

(Thinking Through) Intersections of Gender, Learning and Political Economic Process in West Africa

Ann Stahl, University of Victoria, stahlann@uvic.ca

Ethnoarchaeological studies of apprenticeship practices and the transmission of technological style have proved useful in discerning communities of practice in archaeological contexts. Notably, however, studies often focus on a single technology and gender. Given the prevalence of multicrafting in archaeological contexts, we should consider how varying scales of gendered interaction may have shaped the learning communities of men and women and how these were conditioned by political economic processes. How did periods of political economic dislocation (slaving, warfare) affect gendered scales of interaction? With what implications for the transmission of technological practice? I explore these issues through West African examples.

Pottery Dynamics in Southern Niger: Reshaping a Theory of Social Materializations
Olivier Gosselain (Université libre de Bruxelles)

In a 2000 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, I proposed to view pottery traditions as technical aggregates whose various components had the ability to inform about different facets of social identity. Fashioning techniques were said to reflect deeper parts of identity -such as language or socio-professional affiliation-, while decorating techniques and motives were associated with more superficial and situational facets of identity. Although allowing making sense of the spatial distribution of potting techniques observed at various scales across the African continent, the model poses several problems. In particular, its explanatory framework centres on the intrinsic properties of technical actions (low vs. high visibility on finished product; specialized vs. unspecialized gestures) at the expanse of the social context of activity. In terms of cultural dynamics, it also highlights transmission upon practice. Exploiting data collected in Southern Niger between 2002 and 2010, and relying on the concepts of situated learning and communities of practice, I will show that a different explanation may be offered. In deep analysis of potters’ behaviour and changing relations within their social world of activity shows indeed that individuals are fully aware of the relationships between “doing” and “being”, and act upon their technical repertoire accordingly. As the meaning given to technical action arise both from the early modalities of learning and the social trajectory of practitioners, techniques may be reproduced, transformed, or replaced, irrespectively of their intrinsic qualities. Potters, in other words, shape the destiny of their own traditions, and, through it, their own destiny. Such perspective does not only provide a more satisfying way of explaining the relationship between social identity and technical actions. It also compels us to pay more attention to the content and dynamics of technical repertoires at every step of the manufacturing process. Key elements in that regard are the interconnectedness of the environmental and social milieus, as well as the geography of individual contacts.