5. Structure, Agency and Practice as a Knowledge System

One source of these problems is the tendency for palaeolithic archaeologists to think in terms of behaviour, rather than practice. 'Behaviour' carries ethological overtones and the implication that the rationale for a human being's actions derives from a realm external to their own being as a knowledgeable subject, whether that realm be selfish genes, the adaptive culture system, normative cultural values or a disposition to act according to a universal, rationalising formal logic that applies to all people at all times and all places. Practice, on the other hand, refers to human action 'carried on by knowledgeable agents who both construct the social world through their action, but yet whose action is also conditioned or constrained by the very world of their creation' (Giddens 1981, 54). Individuals are born into social environments that pre-exist them and into which they are socialised and enculturated through practical life experience and active engagement. They thereby internalise knowledge of and expertise in the repertoire of structuring principles for action (skills, techniques, values) already present in the social environment. Knowledge in this context can be habitual rather than conscious, learned through and expressed in routines of gestures and other bodily deployments (Gosden 1994), and the term as it is used here should be understood in that sense. Also the world of things (artefacts, animals, natural features etc.) is always acting back on agents (Gosden 2010) as they engage with it and is an active participant in agents' cognitive worlds, not a mere backdrop to them. The properties of things underwrite predictable regularities in their relations with people, knowledge of which is also incorporated into structuring principles of action. Social individuals are therefore nodes in a social mesh through which a dynamic body of knowledge and expertise, derived from practical immersion in a world that is simultaneously and inseparably both social and material, is distributed.

Socialised knowledgeability equips individuals with a rationale for action, to be realised in real encountered circumstances. But the world they encounter is itself in constant flux so that, despite predictable regularities, no particular set of encountered circumstances is ever identically repeated. Consequently the application of received knowledgeablity in practical life is always creative (Gamble 2012), and the possibility of novelty is always present. And just as individuals acquire their knowledgeability through active practical immersion in their environment, including other agents and their actions, their own actions form part of the environments in which others are practically immersed. Received knowledge therefore has no separate existence independent of its practical application by knowledgeable agents; indeed it is only manifest in, and reproduced by, the practices it informs. So these two domains of knowledgeability (received knowledge residing in a social realm and pre-existing individual agents, and knowledgeable practices enacted by agents) are mutually constitutive (Hopkinson and White 2005). Since the possibility of novelty is immanent in practice, then new practices, if transmitted between social agents, can produce and reproduce new socially-distributed structuring principles of action, thereby transforming the social repertoire of knowledgeability. In Giddens' terms, practice is structurated in that received structuring principles are both the medium for and the outcome of practice (Giddens 1984).

Here lies the heart of the modernity problem. If structuring principles, distributed in social fields as received knowledge, are always liable to transformation by their own manifestations in practices enacted by knowledgeable agents, then how is the transience of novel practices in the earlier palaeolithic, and the acceleration in the rate of cumulative innovation in the later palaeolithic, to be explained? And how are we to explain the Upper Palaeolithic/LSA proliferation of symbolically loaded artefacts and practices? The key to these problems lies in the conception of human social and practical life as a knowledge system organised on multiple scales.

For current purposes, it is possible to identify three scale domains of human knowledgeability:

  1. Socially incorporated knowledge. This refers to what is discussed above in terms of socially received and distributed knowledge, or structuring principles. It encompasses repertoires of knowledge that pre-date and transcend individuals, which orientate them in the world and provide them with principles for practice. Persistence and change in socially incorporated knowledge operate on relatively long historical time scales — and in the Middle and, especially, the Lower Palaeolithic, on time scales approaching the geological. In some respects it corresponds to the sociological notion of structure, but in an archaeological context also invokes the anthropological and archaeological concepts of the culture or tradition.
  2. Knowledgeable action refers to instantiations of practice by knowledgeable agents in real-world contexts. It is informed by, and expresses, socially incorporated knowledge; that expression is always creative, and might be novel or innovative. It operates on short time scales ranging from a few seconds (for example, striking a single flake from a stone core) to perhaps a few days (such as a sortie to procure exotic stone raw material). It corresponds to the idea of the task and implicates embodied individuals, though it should not be equated with individual action since all action is social.
  3. The construction of social personhood operates on time scales intermediate between those of socially incorporated knowledge and knowledgeable action. The term social personhood is deliberately chosen to distance palaeolithic personhood from the historically specific individualised sense of personhood typical of much contemporary Western, and especially Anglophone, culture. Personhood is here understood in Fowler's terms:
    Personhood…refers to the condition or state of being a person, as it is understood in any specific context. Persons are constituted, de-constituted, maintained and altered in social practices through life and after death…Personhood is frequently understood as a condition that involves constant change and key transformations to the person occur throughout life and death…Personhood is attained and maintained through relationships not only with other human beings but with things, places, animals and the spiritual features of the cosmos. Some of these may also emerge as persons through this engagement (Fowler 2004, 4).
    The social construction of personhood emerges from practice and is therefore conditioned, as is practice itself, by the mutual relation between socially incorporated knowledge and knowledgeable action. As a constant process of engagement it encompasses the knowledgeable negotiation and maintenance of relationships and alliances within and between groups of social persons, and within and between subpopulations within a metapopulation. It meshes with social and developmental landmarks in the life cycle such as adolescence, forming reproductive social relationships, parenthood, injury and the diminution of physical capacities, and death. The construction of social personhood involves strategies that employ social resources and which are informed by modes of personhood (Fowler 2004, 4) that are themselves socially incorporated knowledgeable values. The social construction of personhood operates on broadly biographical time scales, and perhaps longer, insofar as social positioning is conditioned by relationships into which one is born.

Following from the discussion above, these scale domains of knowledgeability should be understood as mutually constitutive and interdependent; none possesses phenomenal reality in its own right in isolation from the others. The process that links them, that permits individuals to imbibe knowledge that has been incorporated into the social field and then become sources of that knowledge for others through practice, and which provides a medium for the construction, negotiation and maintenance of personhood relationships, is the social transmission of knowledge. Without the dissemination and transfer of knowledge the whole edifice of human knowledgeability and sociality collapses. And as we have seen, the demographic approach to the emergence of modern human behaviour has demonstrated that the rate at which the social transmission of knowledge operates (i.e. the likelihood and speed with which novel practices disseminate through social fields structured as metapopulations and subpopulations) varies through the palaeolithic with factors such as subpopulation size and density, territorial range and migration levels. This raises the possibility that the enhanced social transmission of knowledge underpins modern human behaviour not directly through promoting the adoption, persistence and spread of novel practices, but because changes in the rate of knowledge transmission transform the relationship between scale domains of human knowledgeability.


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