Improving archaeological field training through collaboration with cultural resource management companies (AKA Fraternizing with the enemy to save one’s soul)

Magic_Wand_John_thenounproject“The more common sense denies that all action is motivated solely by the attempt to use the structure of the social field to increase symbolic capital, the more the scientist sees evidence of the necessity of preserving the illusio in order for the system to work.” (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1999, pg. 41)

My life as a PhD grad student can be summed up with the following run-on phrase, “wake up-read-feed kids breakfast-read-go to work-read-come home, eat dinner-read-kiss children good night-read-pass out while thinking about readings. Rinse. Repeat.” (the word “read” actually translates into “anthro theory overload delivery system”). Many of you intimately know about this. It’s not really that bad, but it is grueling.

However, ever so often a kernel of interesting, useful information passes through my brain as I read my weekly sustenance. This weekend, surprisingly, a reading on Pierre Bourdieu delivered the above quotation that made me think a lot about the present-day academia/cultural resource management archaeology dialectic. In comments on my previous posts about how college training prepares or does not prepare graduates for careers in CRM, more than one archaeologist noted/discussed/questioned the reality of this division (You can read these volatile posts here and here and here and here). Doug Rocks-MacQueen went so far as to say the CRM/academia divide doesn’t even matter. We can debate the value of the perceived divide between CRM and academic archaeology until we’re blue in the face, but we cannot deny the fact that practitioners believe there is a division between the two genres of archaeological investigation.

In their homage to Pierre Bourdieu, Dreyfus and Rabinow lit upon several concepts that are relevant to my ongoing crusade to improve CRM training. The authors discuss Bourdieu’s concept of “illusio”, which is basically the delusion most of us maintain in order to make sense and rational decisions within the societies in which we live. Illusio is what makes us invest in 401k’s and work 40-hours each week. Illusio is what motivates the Arizona state legislature pass anti-gay, anti-everybody laws. Illusio is also what makes us believe that there is a division between archaeology as it’s practiced in universities and how it’s practiced in cultural resource management companies.

Breaking down the wall in order to save the building

The perceived differences between academic and CRM archaeology have been counterproductive to say the least. We all begin our careers as academic archaeologists. We go to college. Get degrees. In these early days, most of us work on university-administered projects (i.e. field schools). But, following graduation, the majority of us end up working at for-profit cultural resource management firms. Our goals may change from doing archaeology as a grant-funded learning experience to doing archaeology as a means to pay our student loans, mortgage, and put food in our kids’ stomachs. But, our techniques, theories, and methods (should) remain the same.

I’m among a long list of archaeologists that believe collaboration between university anthropology departments and cultural resource management firms is the best way to prepare students for careers in contract archaeology. Last week, I participated in the recording of Episode 28 of the CRM Archaeology Podcast, an interview with Steve Hackenberg of Central Washington University. It was truly enlightening to hear a university professor say many of the things I’ve discussed on this blog, especially that he believed universities SHOULD prepare students for a range of professional careers. This runs counter to the individuals that believe universities have no obligation to teach technical skills.

Hackenberg explained that Central Washington has been very successful in preparing their graduate students for careers in CRM, government agencies, and with tribal governments. Anthropology students at Central Washington, both undergraduate and graduate, are given real-world experience by working on CRM project contracted through the university’s contract archaeology department. Classes include the traditional theory, but these classes are included in a student’s study plan along with other courses that cover issues commonly encountered in CRM. By the end of the graduate program, archaeology students at Central Washington have at least a few months of CRM experience. Many also have experience working with Native American tribes.

Central Washington isn’t the only university in the United States that gives anthro students opportunities to work in CRM while still enrolled in classes. I’ve already mentioned the unique situation at the University of Idaho’s anthropology department (which, Hackenberg was aware of and endorsed on the podcast). Hackenberg also endorsed the anthropology programs at several other universities because of their emphasis on preparing students for careers after graduation, including Northern Arizona University and the University of Montana in the United States and Simon Frasier University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. (I’d also like to add the University of South Florida).

Social capital and archaeological practice

The key difference between degree programs at the aforementioned universities and the archaeology programs in large research-oriented anthropology departments is their feelings about amassing the “social capital” noted in the Bourdieu quote at the beginning of this post. (The following words are probably going to piss off some of the professors at the nation’s most prestigious anthropology departments. Please understand that, if you’re serving your students the best you can, I’m probably not talking about you. And, if I am addressing you, perhaps you should look yourself in the mirror and ask, “Why am I doing archaeology? For myself, for the communities in which I work, to further the field, and my students? How do these objectives generate social capital? Through the success of my students? Political or financial gains for the communities I work in? Or, is most of this social capital generated through NSF grants I’ve landed and articles I’ve written?  ???).

Of course I’m generalizing, but it seems to me that the most prestigious, research-oriented anthropology departments are more interested in boosting their collective social capital than they are preparing students for careers after graduation. This is not necessarily true of individual professors, although the “office culture” at these institutions (not to mention the tenure system) serves to condone and perpetuate this type of behavior. I know the vast majority of professors are sincerely invested in helping their students finish college. Many of these professors also help their students land jobs after graduation. But, between grant proposals and article drafts, these hard-working, dedicated professors do not have time to learn the ins-and-outs of CRM archaeology. Thus they fail to instill these skills into their students.

The fact that our nation’s overworked professors aren’t learning more about CRM is not their fault and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t propose they start learning CRM because they don’t need to. Top archaeology researchers need to stay in their positions and keep writing the articles we all cite in our research. Universities can teach CRM by simply hiring CRMers as professors. Why not harness the knowledge of folks that have worked in cultural resource management for decades?

Almost every mid- to large-sized municipality has a wealth of skilled, experienced cultural resource managers with PhDs that could set aside a few hours a week to teach courses that would help prepare students for the real world. The University of Arizona where I’m currently enrolled has a CRM class taught by two professionals that have been working as contract anthropologists for decades. It was the best university CRM class I’ve ever taken. UArizona also has a Heritage Conservation Certificate that is composed of historic preservation courses also taught by preservationists with decades of experience. The conservation classes also provide real world experience by preparing site forms, recording historical buildings, and writing local historic preservation plans. While more could be done, these courses are definitely a step in the right direction (For instance, the Heritage Conservation Certificate course could be integrated into UArizona’s anthropology PhD to create a degree specialized in historic preservation and cultural resource management. Or, cultural resource management and tribal law classes in the Law School could be cross-listed in the School of Anthropology. Just sayin’).

Breaking through the divide between academic and contract archaeology is one of the most important issues for the current generation of archaeologists. Maintaining this separation is counterproductive because CRMers are unable to disseminate what they know to university archaeologists. Conversely, college archaeos feel like they’re directly competing with CRMers who are constantly out in the field interacting with publics, sites, agencies, and clients. This creates some weird feelings of inadequacies and defensiveness among academic archaeos that is unwarranted. In the end, it’s the students who are the real losers. Academic and CRM archaeology are different, but they serve many of the same constituencies and, ultimately, have the same goals—furthering our knowledge of human pasts. It’s time to overlook these cosmetic differences and come together for the betterment of our profession.

Bourdieu also said that illusio only works as long the participants believe in it. It’s time to stop believing in the division between academic and CRM archaeology. Let’s end the illusio.


Dreyfus, Hubert and Paul Rabinow

1999       Can there be a Science of Existential Structure and Social Meaning. Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Blackwell Publishing, UK. Pgs. 35—44.

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