[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

2.0 In Theory

2.1. Human action: agency at the intersection of landscapes and taskscapes

Among other things, human action involves the reproduction of internal socio-cultural ideas, as embedded in physical, psychological, socio-economical and cultural structures, into a particular activity. It is related to experience, to socially constructed, negotiated and transformed personhood, and to agency (Barrett 2000, 65-66; Berggren 2000, 39-41; Dobres and Robb 2000, 8-11; Moore 2000, 260; Barrett 2001, 141-42). Definitions of agency are contentious (cf. Dobres and Robb 2000, 3-4). I use agency mainly to refer to the importance of unique human involvement in, and associated socio-cultural influence on, action. In short, agency is considered here as the ability to intervene in and come to terms with the world by the construction of diversity and difference (Robb 1999, 4). It represents unique viewpoints based on material culture and landscape (structure – spatial dimension) and specific history (narrative – temporal dimension). Through agency, human choice and action reproduce a connection between a physical environment and a socio-cultural past (Fig. 1).

Flow chart showing relationships
Figure 1: Theoretical framework for land use and translation within GIS analysis

A natural environment provides a basis for what people can do. To give a simple example, people living within a heavily wooded area would logically have different lifestyles when compared to people living in a steppe. However, the same physical environment does not guarantee the same landscape for all people living within it, as landscapes are also very much human constructs. People do not (re)act purely on the basis of the physical components within their surroundings but rely on the relationship between these material elements and human cognition, social rules and cultural ideas, most possibly historically developed. Landscapes and the actions within become what they are through complex behavioural processes, including perception, affordance and agency. It is specifically argued here that it is the effects of human agency that structure human landscapes and that can clarify the interpretations of these dynamic surroundings (Fig. 1).

Perception represents the combination of two inherently connected behavioural processes. Firstly, it is a physical and purely biological reflex in which one interprets different types of stimuli from a natural and social milieu. Secondly, it is a cultural and historical impression, which – I believe – holds the key to the final interpretation made. Put simply, even if two different people are physically perceiving the same object or environment, their personal perception of it could still differ according to their past and present experience. Just like agency, perception involves a particular connection between physical properties and cultural ideas at a specific moment in time and space and plays its own significant role in how people interact with their landscape.

Affordance refers to the qualitative properties of the relationship between organism and environment, generated through direct perception (Gibson 1979, 147-68). Gibson (1979, 232, 236) assumed that human behaviour is influenced by these affordances, thus controlled by rules which are unspoken but present within the relationship between human and environment. Affordance is not 'naturally given or culturally constructed'; it does not belong to the 'operational description of the physical world' or to the 'cognised system of cultural representations' (Ingold 1992, 48-50). Rather, it is created by the intersection of space and society at particular points in time and interweaves the individuality of human volition with the uniqueness of an environmental context. In its original, Gibsonian, sense, affordance is perceived as part of a set of predetermined evolutionary human abilities that enables people to interact and engage with surroundings in certain ways, as part of an evolutionary hard-wired and unconscious act. It is 'picked up' by the perceiver in a context of practical action and results in meaningful behavioural patterns without the need for cultural learning processes or social interpretations (direct perception of affordances; cf. Gibson 1979, 10, 138-39, 143; Bruce and Green 1985, 199, 247-48; Ingold 1992, 42-52).

This leads to a view in which inherent rules govern human behaviour and unique experience, history and socio-cultural change have no significant roles to play. Even though psychological research has recently emphasised that not all human behaviour is consciously controlled (e.g. Binsted and Carlton 2001; Norman 2001), memory and socio-cultural rules do play their part. A combination of genetic human competence and socio-cultural experience lie at the basis of human action. It is thus suggested here that although the concepts of perception and affordance might provide a relationship between human agents and their worlds, it is not perception and affordance themselves but rather their interpretation as part of human agency, including its dialectic with structure and narrative, that is crucial for human action (Fig. 1).

Over time, the accumulation of human action creates habitus. Also, places that are frequented at different rates at different times will unavoidably become associated with distinct experiences. Habitus and human experience feed directly into the concept of taskscape (Fig. 1). Ingold (1993, 158) defined taskscape as 'the entire ensemble of tasks, in their mutual interlocking', as 'an array of related activities', generated through socially experienced time. Taskscapes are dynamic spheres of human understanding, built upon the uniqueness of human action and social agency. Their concept emphasises that spatial patterns of human practice are not static and meaningless on a socio-cultural level, but contexts reflecting back on past activity and possibly even predicting future behaviour.

Taskscapes only exist while people are engaged in dwelling (Fig. 1). Dwelling is about turning abstract space into a meaningful place through particular actions and their immediate conscious experience (Ingold 1993, 155-56), bringing to bear 'lived in landscapes'. If taskscapes can only exist through people's dwelling actions and dwelling is one way to 'construct' a human landscape, the latter can be seen as an embodied or collapsed taskscape, as activities in feature form. Habitus and taskscapes are thus embodied within, but not necessarily immediately observable from, archaeological landscapes. Even so, as the way people use their surroundings is very much informed by social opinions and cultural frameworks, these spheres of understanding (taskscapes) are necessary to include in the explanation of landscapes resulting from human action. Within my research, the focus has been on the landscapes emerging from the specific human action of economic land use (sections 2.2 and 3.4).

[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue16/5/2.1.html
Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004