Honoring Ambiguity/Problematizing Certitude

Abstract

In this paper I argue that the practice of archaeology over-emphasizes and over-rewards unambiguous certainty in our interpretations, even though our conclusions are usually drawn from necessarily partial, underdetermined and complex evidence. I argue that full or partial erasure of ambiguity from our data and from our interpretive assertions does not serve the long-term interests of the discipline; that a feminist practice aimed at more nuanced understandings of the past and open to more subtle, multivalenced notions of reality, must accept ambiguity as a central feature of archaeological interpretation. After I review familiar strategies that are used to obscure troubling areas of uncertainty in archaeology, I urge feminist practice to resist employing these “mechanisms of closure” in our work. It is only by openly recognizing and preserving the ambiguity that resides in messy data arrangements today that we stand any hope of fuller and richer understandings in the future.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Clearly, issues surrounding uncertainty and ambiguity are neither restricted to archaeology nor distributed homogeneously throughout archaeology. British archaeology may suffer less from the exaggerated certitude we recognize in North America, related, perhaps, to North America’s greater pretensions to archaeology as a rigorous science. Community and indigenous archaeologies are similarly tempered by a deliberate attention to alternative sensibilities and sources of knowledge. At the same time, I am reminded of a vibrant literature from computer science on such issues as representational authorship and accuracy (cf. for example Ryan 1996, and Gillings 2000).

  2. 2.

    Issues of underdetermined conclusions raise the closely related problem of equifinality: that equally satisfactory interpretations can be drawn from the same observations.

  3. 3.

    Many of these ambiguity-reducing strategies are also in use in other science disciplines but I am concerned here specifically with their applications in archaeology.

  4. 4.

    The ambiguity we confront when we are making sense of data is guided by a large archaeological literature covered under the topic of “inference”. Archaeologists are aware of and attentive to the leaps of faith involved in inference, and the stabilization of interpretation at this level is not ignored. In fact, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology, the study of formation processes, the direct historical method and the application of analogies are all methods developed to deal with archaeological inference. Nevertheless, the argument I am making—that archaeologists regularly overstate their confidence in their inferred meanings—still holds.

  5. 5.

    Motivations for asserting certitude and authority clearly differ in different scholarly contexts. Presentations to the public, for instance, demand their own voice of clarity and disciplinary authority (archaeology can deliver!), while presentations to granting agencies must sound confident because money will be given to people and projects that are seen as having the greatest chance of definitive success.

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Acknowledgements

Profound thanks to Meg Conkey and Alison Wylie for their long years of loyal struggle to bring these papers to publication, and to all the members of the April Collective for the stimulating seminar we shared at SAR; thanks to the School of American Research for their gracious accommodations. Special gratitude is due, overdue and double-due to Meg Conkey for constantly reiterating the courage to keep at these ideas and for being a model of dignity and compassion through it all. I appreciate the extremely thoughtful comments from anonymous reviewers which doubtlessly improved the paper, but I also accept responsibility for all areas where the paper is still flawed. Finally, I thank Stephen Head for his steadfast support in allowing ambiguity to be.

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Correspondence to Joan M. Gero.

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Gero, J.M. Honoring Ambiguity/Problematizing Certitude. J Archaeol Method Theory 14, 311–327 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-007-9037-1

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Keywords

  • Feminist practice
  • Theory
  • Epistemology
  • Ambiguity