Review of ‘Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M. Shanks and C. Tilley

26th May 2014

Gosden Book Review Cover 1991‘Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M. Shanks and C. Tilley, 1987, Oxfird: Polity Press, ISBN 0-7456-0184-7 (pbk)

Review by Chris Godson

Consider the problem. Since the beginning of this century philosophers and social theorists with a philosophical bent have been obsessed with problems of language. Disparate philosophers such as Russell, Ayer and Wittgenstein all consider the structure, status and social use of language to be central to our understandings of ourselves as human beings. In the post-war period Saussure’s synchronic view of language as a structured set of differences became the central metaphor for structuralists in a range of disciplines. While in the last twenty years post-structuralist thought has been reacting against this particular linguistic view of human activity and has replaced it with other, although still linguistic, metaphors which give a more central place to history, the ambiguity of meaning and the role of the analyst. By contrast, those interested in our relations with the object world, such as economists or human biologists, have deliberately excluded all social factors from consideration.

These broader trends of thought have left archaeology in a dilemma. Anyone interested in a social archaeology, which concentrates on the relations between people and things, confronts the asocial theories of economists and others, who are also supposed to be interested in such relations. The alternative is a temptingly rich and tantalising obscure body of social philosophical theory, the core concern of which is language. Two choices derive from this dilemma. The first, and by far the hardest, is to develop a rounded theory of material culture and its use in the long term, which makes a break with language-based philosophies. The second, easier, choice is to borrow wholesale from language-based theory in the hope that some of it will be applicable to archaeology. Social Theory and Archaeology represents one outcome of the second choice. Other outcomes can be seen in a number of recent articles by Hodder, viewing the archaeological record as text, in which the linguistic metaphor could not be more clear.

Consider the second problem, internal to archaeology. On both sides of the Atlantic there is tremendous dissatisfaction with archaeology as it is currently practised and there are glimpses of what archaeology could be: a discipline whose unusual database could disrupt our common sense view of the world. The paths taken to realise this vision go off in opposite directions. The American response is to develop new, more sophisticated methodologies which will allow us to understand the disturbing palimpsests of the archaeological record; whilst the British (or some of them) are looking for new and subversive lines of theory which will cause a general re-evaluation of the archaeological project. This book forms part of the spearhead of the British theoretical approach, which is against method, against common sense and against most of archaeology as it is currently practised.

Shanks’ and Tilley’s books are becoming difficult to review as it has been done so often, bringing out a range of responses from applause to vilification. It seems to me that any book which can upset so many people cannot be all that bad. The question is, however, ‘is it all that good?’ The answer to this must be a qualified ‘no’. Here are the reasons for my opinion.

Firstly, the book is characterised by cliché rather than originality. It is easy at present to pick books from a range of disciplines off bookshop shelves and know in advance the authors they will refer to (eg Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan), the topics they will tackle (agency, discourse, history, meaning, practice, text) and the language they will use. This book follows these well-worn formulae, often with little discussion or justification. For instance, a major debate within history, sociology and anthropology at the moment, particularly written by those using Marxist theory, is how to incorporate and allow for the actions of individuals within an analysis of social structures as a whole (see Callinicos 1987). This subject is taken up by Shanks and Tilley but without adequate justification as to whether the terms used to discuss this problem within other areas of social sciences are appropriate to archaeology. Does Foucault’s discussion of the manner in which people have been made subjects over the past few centuries, or Lacan’s critique of Freud’s views of the individual have direct relevance for the manner in which we can fit individual agents into our understanding of prehistoric social structures? If such discussions cannot be transplanted root and branch, then the suspicion must arise that they have been included because they are found in many similar books found within other disciplines and that Shanks and Tilley are writing to some sort of formula rather than considering their particular subject matter deeply.

If consideration of the individual sneaks in without proper announcement and justification, then other subjects which are obviously central to archaeology are not given full or critical attention. The chief of these is material culture. Material culture is seen by Shanks and Tilley as a form of communication, as the process of signification and as a play of meaning and signs. Although its relationship to language is viewed as problematical, the material world plays a similar role to that assigned to language in post-structuralist thought. Language for the post-structuralist is an arena of meaning where writers, speakers, readers and listeners negotiate and positions in society, their access to social resources and to forms of power. Shanks and Tilley see this field of meaning constructed through thought and language as being reified and reinforced through material culture. There is no acknowledgement given to the possibility that material culture may operate in a manner quite different to that of language, and material things, simply because they are material, may interact with social forms over long timescales, just as language is given over to transience and the insubstantiality of meaning.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, language is central to so much of twentieth century thought, that if we ignore insights drawn from its analysis we must also give up many areas of ready made social analysis. This is a lonely theoretical position to adopt. However, if archaeology is the study of long term social change through material objects it may be that we have no option but to turn our backs on much current social theory and to develop our own. Such theoretical development necessitates having a long term plan and critically evaluating other areas of social theory, instead of incorporating them straightforwardly into archaeology.

This is a hastily written book, containing a small number of useful insights and an awful lot of well-known social theory better discussed by others. It ends with a call for a morally committed archaeology; relevant to the problems of the present which I find sympathetic and for this reason I thought that the last chapter was the best. Archaeology can provide insights into long term structures underlying human societies that other disciplines can not. Exactly how we are to arrive at an understanding of these structures is not clear from this book. Social Theory and Archaeology thus provides us with a future direction to travel in, but no reliable means of transport, the conveyances of other disciplines being unsuited to the particular road we are on.


Callinicos, A. 1987 Making History. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Godson, C.
Review of 'Social Theory and Archaeology’ by M. Shanks and C. Tilley
June 1991
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