Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Lemonnier and Technology

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Outside of the Museum, in the UK the study of technologies in anthropology became more unusual as the twentieth century progressed. However, in France it continued to have importance. Marcel Mauss' work in that field was pre-eminent but it has continued until the present day with people like Pierre Lemonnier who continuing to use the study of technology as an integral part of anthropological discourse.

In 1992 Lemonnier suggested that all techniques have five related components:

1. Matter - the material, including one's own body, on which a technique acts (e.g. clay, water, iron, sweet potatoes, aluminum)
2. Energy - the forces which move objects and transform matter
3. Objects, which are often called artifacts, tools, or means of work. These are "things" one uses to act upon matter: a hammer, hook, steam-roller, or artificial salt-pond. It must be noted that "means of work" includes not only things that can be held in the hand; a factory is as much a means of work as is a chisel
4. Gestures, which move the object involved in a technological action. These gestures are organized in sequences ...
5. Specific knowledge, which may be expressed or not by the actors, and which may be conscious or unconscious. This specific technological knowledge is made up of "know-how" or manual skills. The specific knowledge is the end result of all the perceived possibilities and the choices, made of an individual or a societal level, which have shaped that technological action. I call these possiblities and choices social representations. Some examples of social representations which shape a technology or technological action are: (a) the choice to use or not use certain available materials; (b) the choice to use or not use certain previously constructed means of action on matter (a bow and arrow, a car, a screwdriver); (c) the choice of technological processes (i.e. sets of actions and their effects upon matter), and the results of these processes (e.g. a cooked meal, a house, or recently killed game); and (d) the choice of how the action itself is to be performed (a conception that it is the woman's role to cut firewood, or the man's to make fances for gardens). [Lemonnier, 1992: 5-6]

He further argues that:

Technological systems may be discussed at three different levels. First, we can discuss how the five components delineated above interact with each other to form a technology. Thus, .. a change in tools usually involves a change in technological knowledge and gestures ... If one of the components changes, in most cases the four others will have to change as well.
Second, if we now consider all of the technologies in a given society, it can easily be shown that most are interrelated. For one thing, a given technique often uses as raw materials the results of other techniques ... Technologies in one society may also be related because they share the same actors, the same places, the same artifacts, the same materials, the same sequences of gestures, or the same technological processes. ...
The third level of discussion is the relation between technologies and other social phenomena. [Lemonnier, 1992: 8-9]

Although this is written by a French anthropologist, it is highly relevant to the work at the Pitt Rivers Museum between 1884 and today. Each of these aspects has been examined, to a greater or lesser extent, by museum staff when working on specific techniques and technologies, especially when preparing their publications. Because not all of the technologies discussed on the site where examined, or published, in the same detail, the results have to be described as patchy. Stone tool technology is the best described and examined (though you could argue that Lemonnier's fifth point is only partially considered).

Very relevantly for a museum collection, Lemonnier also argues that 'Artifacts should be taken for what they are - only one part of technology'. [Lemonnier, 1992: 6] Although the Museum usually uses its extensive collections of artefacts as the central focus for its research, it can be argued that when technologies were considered, they were only one of the foci; consideration was also given to experimentation, model-making, reproduction, fieldwork and discussion with practitioners.

Further Reading

Lemonnier, Pierre. 1992 'Elements for an anthropology of Technology' Anthropological Papers Museum of Anthropology University of Michigan No 88 Ann Arbour Michigan

 Technologies & Materials