The Case of Political Correctness by Meg Conkey



[00:00:00] If you are doing research on gender, does this merely produce a politically correct archaeology? First of all, I don’t think we even really know what “politically correct” means. To some people it might mean all of the downtrodden are going to be given their due, and this of course includes women. Well, women are not the only ones with gender. Gender is a relational construct. Your notion of who you are in terms of your intersection between your biological sex and your social constructions and performances of who you are, which you might call your gender, is determined in relationship to other people—other men, women, other gendered forms. And so gender isn’t something that you are born with. It’s always a negotiation.

In the past we have shown everything has been done by men. Women weren’t visible in the archaeological record, they weren’t visible in the stories we told, they weren’t visible in our interpretations. And if we just now suddenly replace this and say, “Oh no, no, no. It wasn’t men that did it, it was women. They were the real ones that held the social fabric together and everything,” that’s not what goes on in gender archaeology. It’s not a matter of taking one totalizing, essentializing view of the past and inverting it and replacing it with another.

What gender archaeology has been arguing is that archaeology is not good archaeology if it just tries to present single, homogenous, essentialized views, because life is more complex than that. History is more complex than that; gender is more complex than that; and archaeology is more complex than that.

To get into a discussion about “gender research as merely politically correct” is a diversion. Archaeology offers us the possibility to reframe, redefine, renegotiate, re-everything about the present. It offers a way to challenge the present.

So, yes, we’ve gotten more interested in gender. Yes, some of that comes from our own culture. But everything we’ve always done in archaeology has come in some part from where we are situated historically, what issues matter to us. We are part of a culture. We can’t abstract ourselves from that. So, I say let’s learn from what contemporary research has to say about gender that we didn’t really know about it ten, twenty, thirty years ago, and use that in archaeology.

Is Gender New?

[02:22:00] There are a number of different ways to study gender in the past, and while archaeologists might say this is a new kind of study in archaeology, actually archaeologists have always had something to say about what men and women have done in the past. It is a matter of being more explicit about what we are doing. It’s a time in which we are able to imagine gender, whereas before we didn’t really talk about it. And as a result, since we didn’t talk about it very much, we tended to project culturally limited notions we had about who men were and who women were onto the archaeological record as if they were straight-forward, unquestionable.

What we’ve come to see through the explicit engagement with gender as a topic is that we can be better archaeologists. It may be the case that people in the past had comparable gender systems to the ones that we live with today. But then again, ours are changing so rapidly right around us that it is hard to say that there is any one way of being gendered in the world that we can automatically, unquestionably apply.

So studying gender in general is not new in archaeology. It is, however, as an explicit concept, one that needs to be problematized rather than assumed, and one that may not be something to ask of every set of archaeological data. We’re not a bunch of gender maniacs running around trying to turn every stone tool into a gendered artifact.

Many of the kinds of archaeological sites that have been preserved in Mesoamerica, or any other place, are locations within which something like gender might well have been at work. If you are excavating households where you have people of different ages and different genders and different other kinds of social roles and categories interacting and so forth, gender was probably at work or at play. What men and women did, what children did, what elderly people did, what other genders—and this is something we have to certainly address and deal with—are very much going to be part of what most archaeologists are excavating.

The research on gender is really important in a number of different ways. For one thing, we’ve always done research that has had something to say directly or indirectly, about men or women, and now we’re doing it better, more refined with more explicit questions. This is just making for better archaeology. It’s more informed, it’s more thoughtful, it’s more careful.

Secondly, archaeology has had a tendency to try and talk about the big processes, [e.g.] the intensification of agriculture, as if things like that happened on their own. They happened because of the labor of people and the social relations of production. A focus on gender has made archaeologists much more aware of the idea that these are not just grand macro-processes sweeping us along some predetermined trajectory of human culture, but they are actually real people, with real hopes and dreams, frustrations, anxieties, relationships, and all the other kinds of things that complicate our own lives.

Gendered Artifacts

[05:11:00] Now how do you go about studying this when you can’t see men and women? The way that lots of people feel most comfortable is to try and link specific identities, like men or women, with specific artifacts. “This kind of artifact is clearly a man’s kind of artifact.” Now the problem with that is that many of our ideas about what constitutes a man’s artifact or a woman’s artifact come from our notions of what’s proper for men or women to do. So, for example, if you find a sword or whatever, you look around your own life and you say, “Ah. Who carries swords? Men. Therefore this must be a man’s weapon.” Well, maybe it wasn’t always the case. Maybe weapons of certain sorts were more symbolic of certain social categories in which women played a large role. So we have to be very careful about the assumptions we make about what makes a male artifact or a female artifact, even at this sort of simple notion of artifact linking—what we call “gender attribution.”

The ways in which gender tends to get played out is oftentimes in the use of space. When we excavate, we can see how certain kinds of spaces are used, are structured, and to what extent those might have traces of remains strongly linked to women’s labor or men’s labor.

The “smoking gun” of gender research is where you have human burials, and you can identify whether the individuals are male or female, and that they then tend to be treated in certain ways, with certain patterns, and with certain artifacts. You can begin to pick up some of the symbolism of what it is to be a male or a female in a certain society. One of the problems with all of that is that once somebody dies, they don’t have any more say in how they get treated, and it may not be really telling you much about the person in their life. But it will probably tell you a lot about what people who go on living think the world is all about, and what they think is proper for a person of this status.

It is well known that people tend to—well, maybe not lie—but sort of cheat with social reality through things like mortuary treatment. And so you have to be very careful. We cannot just read off directly, “Oh, this is how somebody is treated in death. Therefore, this is how they were in life.”

The other “smoking gun” of identifying men or women—something that Mesoamerica has got an embarrassment of riches of—is actual artistic depictions. Visual representations—whether in the form of statuettes or in the murals or the paintings or the decorations on pots—are where we can begin to pick up very interesting variations in clothing, in posture, in who’s situated in an image with whom. In contexts that are as rich as many Mesoamerican ones, you can really begin to make some in-roads on what being a certain kind of female in a certain kind of context might have been all about, in certain Mesoamerican societies.

It’s rare in archaeology that you are ever going to get one piece of confirming evidence. We are always using fragments of evidence and putting them together. The best stories are told in archaeology with converging lines of evidence that tend to point more and more securely toward a particular interpretation.