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2.1 Agency and community

How we explain the past has also affected the way in which we see the nature of how people conceptualise ideas and behaviours. An empiric-correlative statistical approach is by its very nature focused on large-scale community decision-making, since predictive ability and large datasets are required to develop explanations. A contextual approach is much more likely to focus on small scale individual cognition since it is more easily conceptualised in the minds of modern day archaeologists as contributing to the postulated behaviour. A logical causality based model may have the ability to bridge that gap.

An agent-based approach to addressing archaeologically-related cognitive phenomena explicitly (or at least implicitly) assumes that the individual is the focal point of cognition. Decisions are made by individuals for the community. Landscapes of perception are conceptualised by individuals, and cultural, ethnic, group, family, and gender identities dynamically alter those conceptions. Our interpretations of those conceptions are themselves a product of our own individual cognition.

A viewshed, for instance, speaks directly to our understanding of an individual conception of space (see Wheatley and Gillings 2000 for a stimulating discussion on the applicability of viewsheds in assessing past cognition). We can see, often literally, how one person may have conceived of a landscape in the past. It is somewhat more difficult, though, to attach viewsheds to what we assume were dynamically moving individuals, or to understand intentionality as a reflection of individual decision-making. Instead, we often attach very simple dichotomous viewsheds to site locations, such that the site becomes the important observation point for the generic community member regardless of their role or interactions with others. Straightforward visibility/invisibility then becomes the crucial determining factor to cognitive behaviour. This reaches its most common application in assessing visibility from and between presumed important observation points (such as henge-type monuments).

In contrast, viewsheds are seldom employed in predictive models because the goal is not to address individual perceptions, but to assess community reactions to external variables (Church et al. 2000 136-41). Sites are still used as focal points of settlement, but environmental variables are used to provide a communal assessment of energy extraction or expenditure. In a typical predictive site location model, although cognitive decision-making is implied, no actor or decision maker is ever specified. It is generally left unsaid that someone was evaluating the data on hand and choosing the site location, at least subconsciously. The cultural group of individuals is treated as a single cognitive unit, always thinking and deciding in unison or by consensus. Since there is no emphasis on agency, there is little understanding of how much our own perceptions have created the correlations being observed. It is often assumed instead, that the statistics speak for themselves and that we are observing an 'organic' representation of past human landscape usage.

Diagrammtic representation of perceptions
Figure 1: Perceptions of cognition

The contrast between these two perspectives can be seen as one of an almost emic/etic dichotomy, where an agent-based approach emphasises an internal emic perception of space, while a communal approach is external, etic and impersonal. Perceived cognitive units would be individual for the first case and composite for the second (Figure 1). Clearly, though, neither approach is always correct, nor should they be seen as mutually exclusive. Some aspects of an agent-based interpretation lend themselves to a particularly enriching discussion of social identity, gender roles, and other individual cognitive processes, while a communal approach to explaining cognition may provide insight into large-scale adaptation, risk management, and external group relations. The key is to develop a means to address cognition in archaeological contexts which excludes neither, but allows a greater understanding of how the cognitive processes on the scale of the individual contribute and influence larger scale decision-making in the group. Since actual cognition (i.e. neural activity) is not visible in the archaeological record, we have to learn to identify and evaluate the empirical phenomena which may reference it instead. This can be simulated by using proxy variables.

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Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004