Diversity and Difference in SHA

In 2012 the SHA has been active on a number of fronts, and this month I want to examine two of those that I think are exceptionally important to the SHA in the coming years: one revolves around the diversity of the discipline in general and SHA in particular, and the other is the representation of archaeology in popular media.  Both are sufficiently complicated to deserve a posting of their own, so this week I take on the former and I will discuss the latter in my next post.

The Questions in “Diversity”

This year I have reported several times on the SHA’s effort to make diversity an increasingly articulate part of the SHA mission and our collective scholarly practice (compare columns on Global Historical Archaeology, Historical Archaeology in Central Europe, and Diversity and Anti-Racism in SHA).  There are a cluster of practical questions raised by “diversity”:

  • - What does it even mean to be “diverse”?  Many of us have become somewhat wary of the term “diversity,” so this demands some concrete definition;
  • - Why might we or any other discipline or professional society desire diversity?;
  • - What access barriers face various archaeologists and SHA members across lines of difference?;
  • - What are the international implications of diversity when we step outside the familiar lines of difference in America?

Many of these questions are to some extent rhetorical in the sense that they have no satisfying answer with utter resolution, but the honest, reflective, and ongoing discussion of all of them is critical.  The most recent discussion on these issues came in a Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Panel at the 2013 conference in a session that included Carol McDavid (Community Archaeology Research Institute) and Maria Franklin (Texas) as Chairs, with panelists Whitney Battle-Baptiste (UMass), Chris Fennell (Illinois), Lewis Jones (Indiana), and Michael Nassaney (Western Michigan).  They were joined by Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) and Bob Paynter (UMass).  Some of the issues are familiar to long-term members, but Board of Directors’ goal is to produce increasing clarity and concrete action.  These thoughts are simply my own as an audience member in the session and a Board Member who is committed to an inclusive SHA.

Welcoming Diversity in SHA

The GMAC session revolved around, to paraphrase GMAC Liaison Carol McDavid, making SHA a welcoming environment to a variety of voices.  This is perhaps a more difficult thing to measure than mere demography of the membership, because it fundamentally defines diversity as a shared social and emotional sentiment.  Nevertheless, it is an absolutely worthy goal that consciously embraces curiosity about and acceptance of people unlike ourselves across time, space, and every conceivable line of difference.

A “welcoming” professional home ensures that colleagues with distinctive experiences and scholarly voices can have significant impact beyond little circles of specialists.  We should not underestimate the influence of even a single thoughtful voice, and SHA should be absolutely certain that such a voice feels welcome and supported and can secure a firm and fair foothold in our midst even if we disagree with their scholarly conclusions.  I very strongly believe that since the moment a group of 112 people gathered in Dallas in 1967, the SHA has been fundamentally committed to casting itself as a democratic, international scholarly organization, and we have long taken pride in archaeology’s capacity to “give voice” to historical agents who have been overlooked by other scholars.  I do not believe that this means SHA is not a “welcoming” professional environment, but some of our members are reluctant to become part of some scholarly discourses or SHA governance, so we need to systematically ask how we can create comfortable places and roles for all our members.  Many of the measures to fashion such an environment are apparently modest mechanisms that we can do now, and I have three general thoughts that came out of the GMAC session and broader discussions in Leicester and over the previous year.

Feeling and Being Diverse in SHA

First, I fundamentally agree that in North American historical archaeology in particular the absence of people of color inevitably risks compromising our scholarship.  Many of us self-consciously sound the mantra that the meeting seems aesthetically homogenous, which is an inelegant way of saying we are overwhelmingly White and do not appear to reflect society.  I am not in disagreement with this observation as much as I hope we can push it to some substantive action.  I do not personally think that any scholarly discipline actually “reflects” society in an especially substantive way:  that is, scholars gravitate toward the academy, academic production, and particular disciplines because we have specific sorts of creativity, experiences, and personalities.  Nevertheless, even within that aesthetic of homogeneity there are a breadth of class, ethnic, international, or queered voices who come to SHA through a rich range of paths, and a vast range of us partner with community constituencies.  During the GMAC session Tim Scarlett suggested that it may well be that one thing we need to do is more assertively tell our unacknowledged stories of difference to encourage others that their voices matter in scholarship and SHA governance: that is, being an SHA member is a mechanical act of paying dues, but feeling that we are each an important part of the SHA discussion may be different for our colleagues who feel most marginalized because of race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, or myriad other factors.

International Diversity

Second, a question sounded in Leicester was what constitutes diversity as we move beyond the confines of North America?  As we grow and become a truly international, wired organization connected across increasingly complicated lines of space and difference, SHA needs to assertively work to advocate for all our members and the diverse worlds in which we all live.  Our international membership provides a rich way to confront Americans’ distinctive experiences of lines of difference, so I hope we will cast diversity in the most complex social, historical, and international terms that are compelling to all our members and make all of us feel welcome in SHA.  We are an international organization in a transnational moment in which many of us are increasingly threatened by the decline of jobs in the private sector, agencies, and the academy alike, and for many of us SHA provides a refuge and a voice for our collective scholarship.  We must always assertively and self-critically assess shifting lines of difference, so I do not believe what we call diversity will ever settle into a few neat categories.

Diversity as Good Scholarship

Third, like all scholars, we will continue to have standards of scholarly rigor we are all held to regardless of our demography or identity.  Some of our work will always be somewhat particularistic and descriptive, and not every project or research context needs to be focused on inequality or public engagement: lots of us need to do the fine-grained artifact and documentary research that makes historical archaeology so compelling in the first place.  Respect for scholarly rigor and difference alike breeds civility and personal humility that encourages talent and makes for good scholarship: multiple and often-dissentious voices constantly destabilize normative methods and narratives, while homogeneity simply reproduces itself and is at best boring scholarship and at worst socially reactionary.  It is absolutely true that we are all part of employment and educational contexts that have a variety of structural inequalities that risk yielding social and intellectual homogeneity.  We should be prepared to acknowledge when some standards hinder our colleagues, and in SHA I think this means always pressing to be transparent, respectful, encouraging, and clear about the scholarship, service, and communication done in our collective name.  We remain committed to diversity simply because a welcoming and creative intellectual environment produces the best scholarship.

Diversity as an SHA Value

Will SHA resolve all those questions I posed at the outset of this blog?  Of course we cannot resolve structural inequalities that took a half-millennium to develop and now have a rich range of international faces.  SHA is one professional organization, and while we advocate for a rich range of scholars and our members touch the lives of countless people beyond our membership, our mission remains focused on encouraging the scholarly study of the last half-millennium.  Nevertheless, in recent years the Board of Directors has undergone diversity training, a Gender and Minority Affairs Travel Scholarship has been created, and we have begun to examine the concrete ways we can invest the organization from top to bottom with an embrace of difference.  Now we need every SHA Committee to ask itself what its stake is in this discussion on diversity: If these moves are going to create genuine change in SHA, then diversity needs to be on the agenda for all committees and not simply the GMAC.

At the 1968 SHA meeting in Williamsburg, Kathleen Gilmore, Dessamae Lorrain, and Judy Jelks were among a very small number of women at the conference, which apparently included no people of color at all.  Today our membership is nearly evenly split between men and women and our Presidents have included 12 women, including 11 of the last 24 Presidents.  We continue to work to ensure that we are the best possible advocates for all our members because we carry an important role, and we should never underestimate the many lives each of us profoundly touch, sometimes without even knowing it.  While we will not resolve the inequalities that hinder access to the academy or scholarship, we can place these issues in discussion, embrace them as our core values, and persistently press to be a good example of inclusion, respect, and acceptance.  I truly believe SHA members have always been committed to a truly democratic scholarship, and I think in many ways we are simply continuing to articulate the values of many scholars before us.  It is important to keep articulating those values and doing all we can to move this discussion to the heart of SHA’s culture.