"From the particular, one can carefully and boldly move up to the general;
from general theories, there is no way of looking at the particular."

Leopold von Ranke

Microarchaeology is a tool-box of concepts and perspectives developed as a conscious and coherent approach to this complex set of issues. In order to make archaeology a viable means for addressing social theory and the complexity of social life, it is important to retrieve more detailed and complex information from the fragmented sources. We must, simply, be better at exploiting the potential information content of our sources. This can only be achieved by detailed small-scale studies. Microarchaeology is thus a “from the bottom up” approach rather than a “from the top down approach” (see fig below). Instead of departing from large scale pre-given entities (cultures, ethnicities etc), microarchaeology work with the material circumstances from the local setting. The approach focuses on materiality and social practice, or bundles of material articulations, mediating between the particular and the normative and general. Such bundles (or assemblages) constitute more relevant points of departure for comparisons with phases of other sites.

A schematic illustration of the traditional top-down perspective and the microarchaeological approach. Left: The dotted arrows refer to the lesser impact of individual sites on the general idea of a culture, time period or region. Right: new and old information from individual sites are equally important for the continuous reconstruction of a general fiction (i.e., image, idea or preconception) of a time-space section.

The theoretical basis for social microarchaeology is a combination of strands of thought, most notably the flat ontology of Bruno Latour, Sartre’s theory of serial action, Foucault’s ‘archaeology’, Homi Bhabha’s concept of hybridization and Slavoj Zizek’s notion on ideology. The theoretical foundation is thus neither processual nor postprocessual in character, but has more in common with anthropologies of the 'Ontological turn' and new materialism in general. The focus on materiality and practice allows us to override static notions of structural constraints versus individual experience. To a certain extent, the so-called “postmodern” phenomenon has stressed the particular, and today there are some tendencies towards a renewed interest in the big scenario. However, from a relational ontology space is not really hierarchical; the local and the global, the big and the small, are rather intertwined in rhizomatic networks at the same ontological level.

The methodology of social microarchaeology is to critically examine the relations between practices performed at a locale. This grounded perspective is essential here, that is, not to study the archaeology from concepts and general knowledge, but "to see what there is to see." In order to achieve that, a first step is to establish relations between events in order to get at the internal development at each site. We need to find some sort of relational chronology of events in order to establish difference and change. By doing this, we can trace changes and internal variation on a much more detailed scale than by the traditional approach. Microarchaeology must not, however, be confused with particularistic studies of the unique. The aim is not to define specificity, but rather to employ detailed analyses in order to trace their relations with large-scale processes. For more detailed discussion on the theory and method of microarchaeology, see e.g.:

  • Fahlander, F. 2013. Sherlock against Lestrade: A study in scale.
  • Fahlander, F. 2012. Mesolithic Childhoods: Growing up and dying as a hunter-fisher in South Scandinavia
  • Fahlander, F. 2008. Differences that matter: Materialities, material culture and social practice.
  • Fahlander, F. 2003. The Materiality of Serial Practice. A microarchaeology of burial.