Conceptions of agency in archaeological interpretation

Matthew H. Johnson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


The history of archaeological concern with the individual social actor is traced, and a divergence between emphasis of human agency in theory and ignorance in pratice is noted. Three studies are critiqued in this light: Shanks and Tilley's (1987a, Reconstructing archaeology, Cambridge University Press) study of contemporary beer can design in England and Sweden, Leone's (1984, In Ideology, power and prehistory, pp. 25-35) interpretation of the William Paca Garden, and Hodder's (1982b, In Symbolic and structural archaeology, pp. 162-177) analysis of the Dutch Neolithic. The reflexive relationship between social structure and human agency is then examined empirically with reference to the domestic architecture of sixteenth century Suffolk, England. Medieval houses are interpreted as expressing an ideology legitimating "feudal" social relationships. Changes in spatial organisation and architectural detail of the 1500s are linked, through specific houses and owners, with individuals and groups actively pursuing social goals and expressing varied sets of ideas through the form of their dwellings. The intended and unintended consequences of these changes are seen as leading in turn to a wider social and economic transformation, and ultimately to the "rise of capitalism." Finally, some implications of the study for future work on this problem are suggested.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-211
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Anthropological Archaeology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1989

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Archaeology
  • History
  • Archaeology


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