1.2 Defining the themes: some general considerations

ScARF panels aim to undertake a critical review of past work and to produce a strategic framework for future research in their field.  The aim is neither to detail past scholarship exhaustively nor to circumscribe future research too closely, but to inspire research and provide a structure within which individual research initiatives can be understood.  This document seeks to provide answers to the question: how can individual research initiatives articulate produce knowledge and understanding of modernity?

The panel has adopted certain themes to structure the framework.  The starting point for these themes was a review of the approaches taken by other archaeological research frameworks[4] and by other ScARF panels.  This review identified some common types of theme, including:

  1. Chronological themes, structured by sub-period with divisions reflecting narrative changes perceived to be of particular importance (e.g. pre-industrial and industrial sub-periods, split at c.1750);
  2. Classes of material, with themes focusing on particular categories of evidence (e.g. ‘urban settlement’, ‘textile mills’, ‘vernacular architecture’);
  3. Specialisms.  Here, the framework is broken down to prioritise established research traditions (e.g. ‘industrial archaeology’), perpetuating and ghettoising those traditions as a result; 
  4. Historical processes (e.g. ‘economic change’, ‘industrialisation’);
  5. Social and cultural themes (e.g. ‘living and  lifestyles’, ‘belief’, ‘identities’).

Some of the themes adopted in previous frameworks for this period provide useful models and highlight relevant concerns, but many are highly problematic because:

  1. they are vague (e.g. ‘urban’) and do not provide sufficient focus and direction;
  2. conversely, they are too narrow (e.g. ‘textile mills’), often separating out one aspect of the evidence or the concerns of a particular interest group. A contrast might be noted here with the research themes which have dominated discussions in Historical Archaeology in recent years, such as; colonialism; capitalism; slavery and racism; consumer behaviour; the nature of institutional power; the relationship between individual lives and longer-term processes or between localities and the wider world; the meaning of the recent past for present-day communities; and others (see e.g. Schuyler 1999; Orser 2010; and collections of papers such as Hall and Silliman (eds) 2006; Hicks and Beaudry (eds) 2006).
  3. they entrench existing divisions between research traditions.

The Modern Panel has chosen to adopt ambitious themes which provide clear routes to a knowledge and understanding of modern Scotland.  There is no suggestion that detailed, in-depth investigations of particular issues or classes of material have no value, but such investigations are not the ultimate goal of research and have not been enshrined here as high-level, strategic research themes.  This framework seeks to articulate where particular strands of research might lead and it is structured so that discussions of particular issues are linked to wider concerns.

The approach here is to see the research framework as an architecture within which priorities can more easily be identified and within which significant research initiatives can be developed.  The themes are open enough that they provide a common focus for diverse interests and do not constrain debate unduly.  They are specific enough that discussion is not directionless.    

In defining the themes, the Panel returned to first principles:

  1. Archaeology is a humanistic discipline.  It is not so much the study of the past as the study of humanity in the past (and, for this panel, the present too).  In most definitions of the subject, archaeology is defined as the study of what it meant to be human (i.e. archaeology’s subject is society, culture, ways-of-life etc.).
  2. Archaeology is a materially focused endeavour.  Definitions of archaeology commonly focus on one aspect of this point: archaeology studies past societies through their material remains (from artefacts to archaeological landscapes, and including human, environmental and other tangible remains). This is relevant and archaeology can be defined, in part, by the material character of its evidence.  However, there is another way to consider this point: archaeology is the study of materiality, of the relationships between people and their material worlds.  Archaeology studies the mutual dependence of people and the material world, the ways in which one makes and re-makes the other. 

    (This point is particularly important in the present context: it follows from it that anthropologists, documentary historians, environmental and materials scientists, art and design historians, and many others can ‘do’ archaeology, because questions about people-material relationships can also be addressed using documents, maps, art, environmental evidence, process residues, oral history and other sources.  A research framework for the ‘archaeology’ of the modern world thus needs to address a range of disciplines and to consider the many ways in which material histories can be written.)

  3. Archaeology is a relevant practice.  The study of the past is never undertaken in a vacuum.  Archaeology is a practice through which people construct pasts which are meaningful to them in the present and through which they seek to shape the future. 

The Modern Panel themes are ones of strategic significance for understanding the humanity, materiality and relevance of the modern past.