Call for papers

Theories of the middle ground:

New perspectives on an old problem

  • Date: April 18th 2016
  • Deadline abstract submission: December 15th 2015

Marxism, Structuration, Darwinism. When explicitly discussing theory in archaeology we almost invariably discuss big overarching theories. Without exception these are borrowed from other disciplines. While it is perfectly acceptable, indeed advisable, to discuss the merits of what others are doing, it is odd that the truly archaeological theories are rarely discussed. We seldom seem to get to the point in the discussion of what a theory developed within, say, sociology would look like for archaeology.

Perhaps it is because Binford spoiled the term ‘Middle range theory’ that archaeologists have shied away from the middle ground between grand theory and method. Perhaps we all realise it is very difficult to come up with our own theories and are feverishly discussing an ever expanding range of grand theories so that we do not have to face the fact that we do not quite know how to translate our theoretical finesses into practice.

By failing to do so we are not only hampering communication between ‘theorists’ and ‘non-theorists’ by providing the latter with reasons for claiming that theory is too esoteric and never touches the ‘real’ archaeology, we are also selling archaeological theory short. By only discussing others’ theories and neglecting the archaeological dimension we fail to contribute to the wider discussion from our unique archaeological standpoint and end up doing sociology (or other disciplines), but poorly.

At the upcoming Archaeology and Theory symposium Stichting Archaeological Dialogues hopes to initiate a frank and honest debate about the need for, but also the difficulties of, these “theories of the middle ground”. How should grand theories be studied or implemented archaeologically? We invite papers to reflect on these issues in the following three sessions:


Religion is an almost traditional theory topic. High on Hawkes’ ladder of inference (1954, 162), difficult to get at ‘common-sensically’, it is perfect for archaeological theory. However, as highlighted in the general section above, there is little archaeology in the discussion. How do we avoid becoming a handmaiden to religious studies? For this session we invite contributions that reflect on bridging the gap between archaeological data and bigger theories.


There is not a single theoretical term that has been so widely discussed (or at least thrown about) in the recent archaeological literature as ‘identity’. When reading the literature cited in the discussion, one cannot escape the emphasis that is placed on the fluidity, multiplicity and situational nature of people’s identit(y/ies). However, we see little engagement with these potentially major problems for the archaeological study of past identities. Instead, we often see that once some of the theoretical debate has been touched upon, little is changed archaeologically. This session’s aim is to discuss, or to reflect on, ways to get beyond the point of providing poor illustrations of others’ theories.


Economy is a topic that many of us approach not quite as warily as we would, for example, religion. We seem to assume that economic processes are more straightforward to trace archaeologically. Yet, with theories that are developed in modern market economies and strong disagreement between proponents of different schools in studying the current economy, perhaps we should be more careful. For this session we invite contributions that show how specific economic theories can be applied to archaeological research.


  • Date: April 18th 2016
  • Location: University of Amsterdam, Library, Singel 425, Amsterdam
  • Room: Doelenzaal
  • Submission Deadline: December 15th 2015
  • Please send abstracts via email to archaeologicaldialogues(at)gmail(dot)com
  • Archaeological Theory in 1988, by Simon James (in Johnson)
    Archaeological Theory in 1988, by Simon James (in Johnson 1999)