The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Perceptions of the Archaeological Mainstream

There is one fact that keeps coming up in my conversations with people about archaeology, and that is the perception that people who do cultural resource management (CRM) - that is, the sort of consulting work that I do - are perceived as being a small, specialized, and marginalized faction within archaeology. That is, we're not the mainstream, we're the off-shoots.

This perception is understandable when I speak with non-archaeologists. After all, most of the archaeologists who have the time to address the general public via the media are associated with a university or museum, and so it makes sense that most people would simply assume that most or even all archaeologists work in these places.

It is less excusable when I speak with university faculty members, however.

According to a 2001 book by Thomas Neumann and Robert Sanford, the vast majority of member of the Society for American Archaeology are CRM archaeologists. When one considers that most CRM archaeologists never join the SAA (to the best of my knowledge, I am one of six people who works for my company that is a member), it becomes rather clear that, in terms of sheer numbers, university and museum archaeologists are just a tiny sliver of the archaeological community in North America.

However, if you speak with the faculties of many universities, CRM is brushed off as something of a side-bar, a deviation from real archaeology. I once had a conversation with the former editor of American Antiquity, the largest and most respected archaeology journal in the Americas, in which it became clear that he was under the impression that CRM archaeologists were relatively few in number and eclipsed by our university brethren. He was visibly shocked to hear the actual statistics on CRM vs. university employment.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. Some university programs have geared themselves towards CRM. For example, Sonoma State University has a Masters Degree program that is geared towards producing CRM professionals, and they are not the only university doing this. Likewise, my advisor at UC Santa Barbara was very familiar with CRM and actively encouraged his students to get experience with it. Nonetheless, university faculties being ignorant of CRM is common in my experience, especially at the large research universities.

The reasons for these perceptions are varied. A small but annoying number of professors turn their noses up at CRM because it is perceived as "too utilitarian" and therefore not worthy of those with lofty goals - a snobbery that is not limited to anthropology professors and is not uncommon at research universities. More often, faculty have heard about the methodological and ethical shortcomings common in early CRM projects - primarily those of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, but including the CRM scene of the late 1960s through early 1980s, when professional qualifications and standards were still being worked out and best practices still being determines. However, CRM has changed radically since then, as evidenced by the vastly different quality of reports produced and fieldwork done now as opposed to those done as recently as the early 90s. Sometimes this is due to the fact that most of the methodological and theoretical advances within the field come from research institutions, and are then applied in CRM, as as such the folks at the research institutions are disproportionately represented in the journals (which is fine, as that is part of their job). More often, the faculties simply were trained in an environment where their own instructors were unaware of what was going on in the broader field of archaeology outside of the research institutions, and as a result the current faculty is equally unaware.

The end result is that there is one line of work, CRM, in which there are ample jobs and many opportunities, and many students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are either not being made aware of it, or worse, being discouraged from getting involved.

Things are, of course, changing. Most of the graduate students that I have known, even those intending to go into academics, have done at least some CRM work, sometimes for the experience, sometimes because it is the only work available. As a result, a larger number of the incoming generation of faculty have a solid and realistic knowledge of CRM. However, it is still annoying to run across my colleagues who assume that I am a member of a marginal faction within archaeology when, in fact, they are.

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