What is the ‘process’ in cultural process and in processual archaeology? (b)

(being continued from 13/03/17)

The programmatic literature produced by processual archaeologists during the 1960s
and 1970s gives the impression that earlier archaeologists were doing descriptive history
and were not interested in cultural processes (e.g. Binford, 1968a, 1968b; Flannery,
1967; Judge, 1982; Watson et al., 1971). Even pre-processual archaeologists occasionally
stated that this was indeed the case: ‘Americanist studies over the last thirty years
have been largely preoccupied with historical rather than processual objectives’ (Willey,
1953: 362). Willey (1953: 369) also noted that ‘the processes by which, or through
which, cultural continuity and change are maintained or accomplished have not received
the study and reflective thought commensurate with the way these concepts have been
invoked by American archeologists’. But pre-processual archaeologists – those usually
referred to as culture historians who worked prior to the 1960s – were indeed concerned
with cultural processes. The family of processes they focused on, however, was the
standard historical one involving cultural transmission. What Willey (1953) and others
in the 1950s and 1960s had in mind was the other family of cultural processes – the one
involving the synchronic functional operation of cultures.
Steward and Setzler (1938: 6–7) noted that archaeology ‘can shed light not only on
the chronological and spatial arrangements and associations of [cultural traits], but on
conditions underlying their origin, development, diffusion, acceptance, and interaction
with one another. These are problems of cultural process, problems that archaeology and
anthropology should have in common’. Although the terms differed from author to
author between about 1920 and 1960, the cultural processes Steward and Setzler listed
were the standard historical ones.
McGregor (1941: 49) stated that the archaeologist is ‘interested in three sorts of
relationships: a local series of genetically, or developmentally, related events; the influence
which this series had on other regions; and the influence outside areas had on its
development’. Here, ‘influence’ can be loosely glossed as ‘pathways or modes of cultural
transmission’. McGregor’s graph (Figure 1) illustrates well the basic transmission modes of evolution: lineal, known in modern evolution as phyletic or anagenetic (1a); fusional,
or reticulate, with two variants (1b, 1c); diversifying, or cladogenetic (1d); and replacement,or extirpation coincident with immigration (1e). A decade later McGregor (1950) noted that a cultural tradition depended on persistence created by continuous transmission
– the American standard definition of a cultural tradition (Thompson, 1956;
Willey, 1945).
Meggers (1955: 117), another student of White’s, implied that what would today be
called cultural transmission was a generic cultural process that could take the form of
diffusion or migration. It is a stretch to perceive in Meggers’s (1955) discussion the
implication that invention and innovation are cultural processes, but I doubt that she
would disagree. In her view, archaeology deserved pride of place among anthropological
subfields because it was ‘shorn of the complicating and confusing psychological reactions
of numbers of unique human personalities [and thus] cultural processes emerge in a stark
and clear light’ (Meggers, 1955: 129). Like many of her contemporaries, Meggers apparently assumed that everyone understood that the family of processes involved cultural transmission. The family of processes of interest was, however, changing.
Taylor (1948: 108) stated that ‘cultural processes are the dynamic factors involving
cultural traits; they . . . comprise the relationships between cultural traits’. Cultural traits
for Taylor were mental, ideological, conceptual. He explicitly identified the cultural
processes of ‘diffusion, culture contact, and acculturation’ and implied that there were
others (1948: 108).


He insisted that archaeologists determine prehistoric ‘cultural
contexts’, defined as the ‘associations and relations of [cultural traits], of the balance
between them, [and] of their relative quantitative and qualitative positions within the
[cultural] whole’ (1948: 110). Study of artifact types that represented cultural traits

within a cultural context would, Taylor (1948: 36) argued, reveal ‘the nature of culture,
of cultural constants, of processes, or regularities, and of chronological development’.
This sort of archaeological research was, in Taylor’s view, equivalent to cultural anthropology and what he called historiography. It involved the study of the ‘statics and
dynamics of culture, its formal, functional, and developmental aspects’ (Taylor, 1948;
see also Taylor, 1972).
Taylor’s insistence on the importance of cultural context means that he was interested
in studying the synchronic operation of a culture. The ‘chronological development’ of
those contexts was, apparently, to be discerned by ‘comparative study of the nature and
workings of culture in its formal, functional, and/or developmental aspects’ (Taylor,
1948: 41). Taylor (1948) did not indicate the role of cultural processes in such studies.
Despite the fact that Taylor’s A Study of Archeology is sometimes said to anticipate the
processual archaeology of the 1960s and 1970s, Taylor (1948) said little else about
cultural processes, and he did not (Taylor, 1972) complain that processual archaeologists
had ignored his discussion of cultural processes. He could not do the latter as there was
little concerning cultural processes for the processualists to ignore.
Caldwell (1959: 304) claimed that ‘the new American archeology’ contrasted with
the earlier culture history approach, which had focused on ‘writing a history of
material culture’; the new approach was ‘tending to be more concerned with culture
process’. Although he implied that culture processes included diffusion, innovation,
and migration, his discussion suggests that by ‘culture process’ Caldwell meant in part
the interrelations between natural environment and culture – the functional adaptational
processes. He, like others at the time (e.g. Griffin, 1956; Thompson, 1956),
noted variation in the ‘rates and magnitudes of changes in cultural forms’, and that
the rate could be zero or equivalent to stasis (Caldwell, 1959: 304). Caldwell
concluded with the hypothesis that ‘behind the infinite variability of cultural facts
and behind the infinite and largely unknown detail of historical situations we shall
discover the workings of a finite number of general cultural processes’ (1959: 306).
Mimicking the disciplinary standard (e.g. Hawkes, 1954; MacWhite, 1956; Meggers,
1955; Rowe, 1959), Caldwell did not distinguish the two families of processes or the
processes within each.

Willey and Phillips (1958: 4–5) were interested in ‘processual interpretation’ of
cultural chronologies. ‘Processual interpretation’ was a rewording of what Phillips (1955:
248) had termed ‘functional interpretation’. Willey (1953) had earlier equated the two.
Willey and Phillips (1958: 5) indicated that by ‘processual interpretation’ they meant
‘any explanatory principle that might be invoked’. They emphasized that processual
interpretation was ‘explanatory’ and that their favored agents of change were human
groups because of the latter’s ‘social reality’ (1958: 6). Willey and Phillips (1958) distinguished the family of processes responsible for the synchronic operation of a culture from the family of processes responsible for the diachronic evolution of a culture.
Adams (1956, 1960) mentioned ‘processes’, ‘processes of growth’, ‘historical
processes’, ‘agencies of change’, and ‘social forces’, but did not indicate what these might
be. Adams was following Steward (1949) and Willey (1950: 223), the latter of whom
was referring to ‘cultural growth and development’ when he posed the question ‘To what
extent can we reconstruct the determinative factors which are responsible for these
vertical [that is, temporal] patternings?’ Willey (1950) was no more explicit than Adams when he listed various processes. He did, however, attempt to indicate how they interrelated when, in the last paragraph of his discussion, he stated the interaction of technology and environment gives terrific impetus to the culture;
and this impetus, mounting snowball fashion, carries the society along in its
momentum. Sooner or later historical forces concur to smash or disarrange these
dynamic patterns. The result, cultural death, deflection, or a new integration,
depends to a great extent on the rigidity and velocity with which the original cultural
growth has been molded and propelled toward its fate. (Willey, 1950: 242)
Pre-processual archaeologists called upon various cultural processes to help explain
variation in the archaeological record that corresponded with the passage of time. Not
surprisingly, the processes they referred to were the standard ones of historical ethnology.
By the 1950s, other sorts of processes were being mentioned, and these likely originated
in the shift in anthropology generally from historical ethnology to the
evolutionism of White and Steward, along with doses of structuralism and functionalism
from Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The shift began to crystallize in archaeology
in the 1960s with the emergence of processual archaeology. It has been said that
processual archaeology ‘placed [emphasis] upon the explanation of change or stability
with a view to the understanding of general cultural processes’ (Sterud, 1978: 295). But
the key concept – cultural process – was rarely discussed in detail.

(to be continued)

R. Lee Lyman
University of Missouri-Columbia, USA


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