1 housework and domestic craft production: an introduction

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  • 1Housework and Domestic Craft Production:An Introduction

    Kenneth HirthPenn State University

    Households are,without question, themost important so-cial units in human society. They are interactive socialunits whose primary concern is the day-to-day well beingof their kith and kin. Households reproduce themselves andprovide their members with the economic, psychological,and social resources necessary to live their lives. Althoughhouseholds vary enormously in size and organization, theyare the fundamental social settings in which families are de-fined and cultural values are transmitted through a range ofdomestic activities and rituals. Despite their many functions,it is the range and productivity of their economic activitiesthat determine the success, survival and well being of theirmembers. Households are the primary production and con-sumption units in society and provide the vehicle throughwhich resources are pooled, stored, and distributed to theirmembers. Survival and reproduction is their business andthe work they do determines their success.

    This volume is about prehispanic households and thediversity of work that their members engaged in both forthemselves and the household as a whole. It focuses onone of archaeologys most visible dimensions of house-work, how craft production was incorporated into the workregimes of ancient Mesoamerican households. Our interestin this subject stems from the strong disjuncture that ex-ists between ethnographic and archaeological research onhouseholds. While archaeologists have a long-standing in-terest in the household and household archaeology (Ash-more 1981; Blanton 1994; Lohse and Valdez 2004; Sheets1992; Tourtellot 1988; Webster and Gonlin 1988; Wilk andAshmore 1988), households are often treated as stable andunchanging domestic entities because of the way we are

    forced to study them methodologically. Nothing, of course,could be further from the truth.

    Recent ethnographic research has demonstrated thathouseholds are highly dynamic and plastic social units thatcan change their composition and work regimes quickly(Wilk 1984; Wilk and Netting 1984). Robert Netting (1989,1993) has shown that households are flexible, motivated, andinnovative social units that can intensify production on theirown initiative when economic conditions permit or requirethem to do so. While archaeologists recognize that house-holds were important social institutions, they usually are notseen as a source of innovation or long term social change(but see Lohse and Valdez 2004). Archaeologists often turnto models of political economy to explain economic inno-vation and change (Brumfiel and Earle 1987; DAltroy andEarle 1985; Earle 1997; Freidel et al. 2002; Rathje 1972,2002). Archaeology as a discipline has been slow to recog-nize the dynamic nature of household production for tworeasons. The first is the long recognized inability to studyhouseholds in short-term temporal segments that can becorrelated with meaningful episodes within the domesticlife cycle (Haviland 1988; Hirth 1993). Without the abil-ity to see the household in short time (Smith 1992) itis hard to evaluate how households respond to new condi-tions as flexible adaptive units. The second is the absenceof a dynamic theoretical model of domestic economy andhousehold behavior that archaeologists can use to interpretmaterial remains. It is this second issue that this volumeseeks to address.

    The dimension of domestic economy examined here isthe role of craft production in household work strategies.

    ARCHEOLOGICAL PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION, Vol. 19, Issue 1, pp. 112, ISSN 1551-823X,online ISSN 1551-8248. C 2009 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1551-8248.2009.01009.x.

  • 2 Kenneth Hirth

    Domestic production in its simplest form is the productionof goods for self consumption. This type of ad hoc do-mestic production is not the focus of this volume. Instead,we are interested in the production of craft goods intendedfor exchange and consumption outside of the householdswhere they were produced. This form of activity is oftenreferred to as specialized craft production (Clark 1995; Fladand Hruby 2007; Rice 1981; Wailes 1996). It is special-ized in the sense that craft goods were produced for a spe-cific purpose beyond the household ranging from exchangeand gift giving, to meeting broader social, political or ritualneeds. While craft production can occur in a range of do-mestic, public, and special purpose contexts it is only theformer that supplies information about the household econ-omy. In general, archaeologists identify specialized craftproduction in domestic contexts when production residuesfrom the goods produced exceed what would be expected forauto-consumption and internal use (Clark 1995:279; Clarkand Parry 1990:297; Costin 1991, 2001; Inomata 2001:322;Schortman andUrban 2004). Thismicro-view is a useful andpractical way of identifying the production of craft goods indomestic settings that are intended for export.

    It is important to consider the broader behavioral di-mensions of domestic craft production. What does craftproduction reflect about the internal economic strategiesof households and the wider patterns of household inter-dependence? A working assumption of this volume is thatmuch of the specialized domestic craft production found inMesoamerica provided important economic contributions tohousehold subsistence budgets. While craft production mayalso have provided social status and meaning for individualcraftsmen (e.g. Helms 1993), that is not the dimension ofcraft production explored here. The raison detre of this vol-ume is to bring this economic dimension into sharper focusand explore how craft production for exchange contributedto, and was incorporated into, normal household subsistenceactivities.

    The production of craft goods for exchange was animportant and specialized activity within the householdswhere it was practiced. Nevertheless, few of the authors inthis volume use the terms specialized or specialization todescribe it. The reasons for this are varied, but in the ecolog-ical and evolutionary literature specialization is often usedto describe the focused exploitation of a narrow suite ofresources and/or the intensification of economic activities.While domestic craft production certainly reflects the in-tensification of work it does not represent a narrowing ofeconomic activities from the perspective of individual pro-ducers. In Mesoamerica, craft production was often addedto domestic work regimes without changing its other sub-sistence activities. As a result its appearance often reflects

    an intensification, amplification and diversification of do-mestic work schedules rather than a narrowing of economicactivities within the household.

    In a recent publication on craft specialization Flad andHruby (2002) distinguish between what they call the pro-ducer and product views of specialization and this dichotomyis especially appropriate here. If domestic crafting for useoutside the household is examined from the producer view,then its place as a specialized activity remains murky sinceit is often only one of several economic activities used tosupport the household. However, if it is viewed from theproduct perspective then its role as a specialized activityis clear. The product perspective is concerned with wheregoods are produced and how they circulated throughout soci-ety. The presence of a few households producing and supply-ing craft goods for the society as a whole certainly qualifiesas a specialized activity from the perspective of commoditycirculation. It reflects a level of economic interdependencebetween households that Durkheim (1933) characterized asorganic solidarity.

    Conceptual issues aside, what is examined here is theintensification of domestic crafting for purposes of exchangeand its effect on the economic wellbeing of the individualsand households that practiced it. It is a specialized activityfor the products produced, but in most cases was only one ofa suite of economic activities contributing to the householdsoverall economic wellbeing.

    The Volume Goals

    The contributions in this volume all focus onMesoamerica (Figure 1). That is a practical matter because itis an area with excellent information on domestic craft pro-duction. Domestic craft production appears in some areas ofMesoamerica coincident with sedentary agricultural com-munities (Boksenbaum et al. 1987; Clark 1987; Balkanskyet al. this volume) and continues as themainmode of produc-tion through the development of ranked and state level soci-ety.While the analysis of craft production employs examplesfromMesoamerica, the discussion of the domestic economyis applicable to most ancient sedentary societies in both theNew and Old Worlds. Small scale domestic craft produc-tion for exchange is one of the hallmarks the Mesoameri-can economy (Feinman 1999). This is because a range ofsurplus production including craft goods was bought andsold in marketplaces across many areas of Mesoamerica.This gave households a ready outlet to sell small quantitiesof craft goods and other resources to consumers at the re-gional level. Even though households are fully capable ofdistributing craft goods through trade networks outside the

  • Introduction 3

    Figure 1. Regions inMesoamerica discussed in this volume. 1) Tarascan region, 2) Basin ofMexico, 3) Tlaxcala, 4) Morelos, 5) Valley of Puebla, 6) Mixteca Alta, 7) Valley of Oaxaca,8) Gulf Coast Region, 9) Motagua Valley, 10) Copan region

    marketplace (Longacre and Stark 1992; Stark 1992), themarketplace concentrated demand and made it easier forproducers to reach potential buyers. While a number ofresearchers have associated the development of craft pro-duction with the appearance of cities and urban markets(Braudel 1986


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