Theorizing Anthropological Methods: epistemology in archaeology and ethnography

Archaeologists and Aymara archaeological field technicians. Bolivia, 2008. (Photo: M. Leighton)

I have an on-going interest in methodology and epistemology in anthropology; specifically how knowledge-making practices in both ethnography and archaeology are embodied, in that they are reliant on the tacit and affective skills of individual scientists whose bodies become tools.

Archaeologists as my primary research subjects; my own methodology is ethnographic. I have not yet had the chance to explore the other two fields in anthropology — but I would be excited to collaborate with other researchers who work in these fields!

Archaeological epistemology

My work in this area includes a paper on how British archaeologists (including field archaeologists, museum curators, forensic anthropologists, and osteoarchaeologists) conceptualize human remains as ‘people’ or ‘objects’ (PDF). I have an as-yet unpublished follow up on this work, that is based on similar interviews with other European archaeologists, and archaeologists from North and South American.

Excavating in the Tarapaca desert. Chile, 2010. (Photo: M. Leighton)

Additionally, I have published two pieces to date on archaeological epistemology in Andean Archaeology; one of which compares Andean Archaeology to British Archaeology (PDF), the second looks at the political and epistemological significance of employing indigenous field technicians in Bolivia (PDF).


Collective ethnography

In Uneven Fields I studied how archaeologists transcend the contradictions of an embodied practice of knowledge-making in a team-based discipline; in the Mexican Exposures coding lab I am interested in how this same contradiction is tackled when there are a team of ethnographers analyzing someone else’s field notes.

As the manager of the Lab I reformulated the protocol established by Liz Roberts and Camilo Sanz, to incorporate undergraduate researchers directly into an on-going ethnographic project. As Roberts and I expand the lab, we are experimenting with collective ethnographic analysis.

Field notebooks, fiercely guarded. (Photo: M. Leighton)

The collective analysis process has highlighted some intriguing methodological issues. Ethnographic field data typically serve as a mimetic device, reminding the ethnographer of knowledge gained through first-hand embodied experience in the field.

Notes are usually highly personal and never intended to be read in their raw form by other people, much less made available for others to pore over, critique, and use. However, having a group rather than an individual work with the research material opens up possibilities for ethnography as a collective enterprise, even as it remains an embodied and experiential form of knowledge making.


Critical Empathy

I am currently bringing these parallel projects together into an article on ‘Critical Empathy’, which I posit as a means of theorizing the embodied nature of making knowledge about human lifeworlds, across archaeology and ethnography.