Grand Challenges for Archaeology of Gender and Sexuality

Posted on January 31, 2016


A few years back there was a survey of archaeologists to determine the 25 Grand Challenges that archaeology could help solve…That survey was pretty specific about what they considered ‘Grand Challenges’:

‘The Web survey defined grand challenges to be fundamental problems in science and explicitly excluded “disciplinary challenges with respect to the practice of archaeology, such as changes in financial and legal frameworks.” Nonetheless, about 40 percent (77) of the responses related to this excluded class…

40% of responses excluded!

I agree with Doug… if 40% of the people responding thought archaeology’s grand challenges had to do with the practice of archaeology, maybe we should pay some attention to that.

Sure, I could say that the archaeology sex and gender needs to “solve” how to identify different sexes unambiguously. Or maybe, we need to identify when women came to be excluded from power. Or why men are wired to have multiple sexual partners while women are not.

Except I not only don’t see those as “grand challenges”, I see them as errors in fundamental thinking. If you start by assuming that sex is an unambiguous (usually, binary) attribute that remains stable for all human societies (let alone in a person’s own life) then you might be able to find some very narrow way to define “sex”. But sex/gender is more variable, fluid, and contextual than that. So knowing who “really” was male or female wouldn’t automatically unlock the gates to some great insight into human nature.

And all those propositions that take the binary of male/female for granted and propose that “men are…” or “women have always been…” are just crying out to be falsified by the glorious richness of real human histories.

And that is what I think is the Grand Challenge for the archaeology of sex and gender. How can we get our actual knowledge out there, both to our colleagues, and to the broader public? How can we get compelling news stories told that don’t rest on tired cliches that reinforce ideas about gender hierarchy, about sexuality, about sexual identity?

Even when the researchers say that their work debunks stereotypes, news articles lead with headlines using words like “surprising“. Even when research actually shows that sex or gender is not the primary basis of differences between human groups, media coverage seizes on an easily-understood (because assumed to be universal) binary division between male and female.

My own approach has been to use humor about the stereotypes that often lead news coverage of research, and then branch to what the researchers actually said and how that might change the stereotypes. But as blogger Jason Antrosio noted in a comment on one of my funny blog posts, perhaps our greatest worry should be the supposedly serious media coverage in places like the New York Times:

In some ways, I prefer the screaming headlines about ancient men holding babies to Wade’s approach, which seems to most emphasize male dominance and hierarchy. This Wade sentence seemed particularly disturbing: “The joint ancestor of chimps and humans lived about five million years ago and is often assumed to have had a chimplike social structure, with a male hierarchy, promiscuous mating by the females and all-out war between neighboring bands.” I’m not a primatologist, but I think Wade is amplifying some very dated and debated assumptions.

I agreed, and wrote about the issue in more detail, as part of my commitment to potentially changing the way the media talks about our field– and especially, in this case, about sex and gender and human personhood in the past.

But things really haven’t changed. The same stereotypes frame news coverage.

So what can we do?

Among other things, use multiple media to engage. I have advocated using twitter and blogs to get our take on research, especially as presented at conferences, out there.

And be media-available. Even if you know that it is likely that your work will be boiled down to “it’s an exciting discovery“, there is that possibility of (in my experience) twice-in-a-lifetime uptake by science reporters who actually get it.

And be media-appreciative. Identifying good coverage is as important as calling out the wildly stereotypic.

There is a limit to what any individual person can do. But we are not alone. That’s what it means to be part of a discipline. And here, the news is, I think, incredibly promising. After a long period during which anthropology and archaeology mainly reacted to popular press, we finally have our own popular website aimed at intervening in debates: Sapiens.

Lots of archaeologists there, and an open invitation to consider contributing. And also a challenge: Sapiens will work as a platform only if all of us working independently continue to create rich content and develop audiences that want to know more.

At this point, it is clear to me that our greatest challenge is not writing the next book about archaeology of sex and gender. (Although there are great new books coming down the line, especially dealing with queer theory.) Nor is it getting students to take classes about this content. We are out there teaching courses across the country and the globe, and students are there engaging and debating the latest research and challenging how we talk about it.

No; our greatest challenge is shifting the public debates. If we can intervene there, we can change minds. We can get archaeologists recognized as experts whose views merit publication as Op-Ed pieces. We might even move archaeology from cable channel comedy talk show fodder to network late night feature.

As long as our 7 minutes 7 or 44 seconds of fame don’t come at the expense of the complexity of what we know, then archaeology will have met its greatest challenge.