Uneven Fields: Transnational Expertise and the Practice of Andean Archaeology

My doctoral dissertation, Uneven Fields: Transnational Expertise and the Practice of Andean Archaeology (pdf), follows the co-production of experts and expert knowledge in transnational archaeological communities, from the local to the global scale. Specifically, it examines the creation and warranting of archaeological knowledge in the context of collaborations between archaeologists from the US, Canada, Chile, and Bolivia in the Bolivian Andes and Chilean Tarapacá desert.

While archaeologists have embraced a postcolonial critique that focuses on their relationships with indigenous communities, it is taken for granted that ‘archaeology’ itself is a universal set of epistemic and social practices that can be reliably translated across national and cultural borders.

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

In Uneven Fields I argue, firstly, that archaeology does not have a single, shared community of practice or a single epistemic culture; and secondly, that when the universal commensurabilty of people, practices, and epistemic objects is uncritically expected within transnational North-South collaborations, there is a tacit assumption that the ‘global’ standard is that which comes from the North rather than the South. As a result, Southern archaeologists face difficulty being recognized by their Northern colleagues as equal experts.

Rather than see this as a matter of personal prejudice or misunderstanding, in this dissertation I explore the broader machineries of knowledge production that make this a plausible or inevitable framing. Specifically, I describe this as a form of ‘supranationalism’: an expectation that scientists from the North (and particularly the US) are able to transcend their national and cultural contexts and speak to a decontextualized, global, supranational public sphere more readily and naturally than scientists from the South.

The first half of the dissertation explores the micro scale of excavation sites in Bolivia and Chile. Through attention to how implicit hierarchies of gender, race, and nationality interpolate only certain individuals as ‘able to know’ archaeologically, I trace the micro-social practices that constitute archaeological data, ‘the field’ as a specific kind of epistemic and social space, and archaeologists as themselves experts.

Tools being cataloged and cleaned, on the first day of excavation. Bolivia, 2008. (Photo: M. Leighton)

The second half of the dissertation follows the same conceptual problems on a larger scale by paying attention to the broader national and international contexts within which archaeologists work, and specifically the neoliberalization of universities (as sites that structure scientific practice as a form of labor and/or vocation, and spaces in which scientific communities reproduce themselves through the training of students) in both continents.

Through the example of Chilean archaeologists’ struggles to maintain academic autonomy during both the dictatorship and the contemporary democratic era, I show how the debates about universalism, standardization, and meritocracy described in the first half of the dissertation ‘scale up’ at the national and transnational level.

Uneven Fields thus weaves together three related theoretical concerns: how appeals to disinterested scientific rationality are grounded in claims to speak to/for an imagined supranational scientific community; the construction of the South as perpetually ‘local’ in comparison to an inherently more ‘global’ North; and the means by which facts are warranted and made to circulate, when they are produced through the embodied expertise of raced, gendered, and nationally-localized scientists.