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Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Perspective Author(s): Michael Brian Schiffer Source: World Archaeology,

Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Perspective Author(s): Michael Brian Schiffer

Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 4, Debates in World Archaeology (Dec., 2004), pp. 579-


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technological change:




Behavioral archaeology contributes a framework of premises, models and heuristic tools

that archaeologists - of any paradigmatic persuasion - can employ for studying

change in diverse societies. This paper enumerates several behavioral


premises and, by means of a case study on lighthouse illumination in the nineteenth century, illustrates the utility of the performance matrix for investigating processes of technology adoption (LaMotta and Schiffer (2001) present a detailed introduction to behavioral archaeology).

Several behavioral premises

Human behavior consists of activities, which can be aggregated by the investigator to

create analytic units at many scales. Virtually every activity consists of interactions among people and one or more technologies. Along with technologies for procuring raw materials and preparing food, there are, for example, religious, social, recreational and political technologies, which enable people to interact with plants and animals, other people, and, as Walker (2001) has pointed out, even supernatural entities. If technologies are part of every activity (and every analytical unit), then all questions about human behavior must implicate technologies. Indeed, questions about political power, ethnogenesis, symbols and meaning, gender, class conflict, and social identity -

phenomena seemingly remote from mundane people-technology

rigorously researchable until formulated in behavioral terms. This assertion receives support from the demonstrations that all modes of human communication involve technologies (Schiffer and Miller 1999a) and that one can build a behavioral theory of meaning (Schiffer and Miller 1999b). An activity's constituent interactions are enabled by behavioral capabilities termed 'performance characteristics'. In addition to familiar performance characteristics that affect mechanical, thermal and chemical interactions - e.g. the strength of a weight lifter, a storage pot's heating effectiveness, the corrosion resistance of copper - we can delineate

performance characteristics related to human senses. It is precisely sensory performance characteristics that permit certain objects to interact appropriately in specific activities, such as the American flag at a football game (visual), a roast turkey at Thanksgiving (visual, olfactory, gustatory) and the first clarinet in a concert (acoustic). Clearly, sensory performance characteristics help us to formulate behavioral questions about symbolic and other cognitively based phenomena (Schiffer and Miller 1999a).

interactions -

are not



Taylor &Francis Group

World Archaeology Vol. 36(4): 579-585

Debates in World Archaeology

C 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online DOI: 10.1080/0043824042000303755

580 Michael Brian Schiffer

Performance characteristicsare defined contextually in

relational, activity- or

interaction-specificterms; they are not intrinsic properties of people or technologies

propertiesobviously influence many performance

characteristics). At the nexusof concrete interactions,performance characteristics play an

important role in explanations of technologicalchange. In organizing studiesof technologicalchange, behavioralistshavefoundthe life-history

frameworkto be a occurringduring a

through manufacture, use and reuse, to deposition and archaeologicalrecovery and analysis. A life historyexpressed as a sequence of such majorprocesses is a 'flowmodel' (Schiffer1972), whereasa 'behavioralchain'is a fine-grainedsequence of specific activities (Schiffer1975). Flow modelsand behavioralchainsareinvaluablefor inferring how past technologies work, but additional life-history constructs are needed for studying technologicalchange. To wit, such questions can be posed in relationto processes of invention,design, replication(or commercialization) and adoption (e.g. Schiffer 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002; Schifferet al. 1994; Schifferand Skibo 1997; Schifferet al. 2003; Skibo and Schiffer 2001). Explaining the operation of each process - inventionor replication or adoption - requiresprocess-specific theoriesandmodels (Schiffer et al. 2001).Thus, at a study's outset one ascertainswhich process is involvedso thatthemost appropriate theoriesandmodels can be applied or developed. To explaintechnologicalchange, some archaeologists borrowtheoriesandmodelsfrom other disciplines. In contrast,behavioralists,followingPlog (1974), stressthat archae- ologists can fashion originalprinciples and heuristictools because, with access to the archaeological and historical records, we study changeprocesses that played out over decades, centuries- even millennia. Regrettably, we presently lack maturebehavioral theories of adoption processes. Thus, the lighthouse example merely showcases the performancematrix, a heuristic tool developed by behavioralistsfor investigating instancesof technologyadoption(e.g. Schiffer 1995,2000; Schifferand Skibo 1987).

(although material and biological

handy heuristictool. A life history is simply the sequence of activities technology's entire existence, fromthe procurement of raw materials,

A case study

The case study, abstractedfroma workin preparation, is aboutthe adoption of electric- arc lamps in nineteenth-centurylighthouses, a process that enduredfor about four decades.An arc lampproduceslight fromthe gap betweentwo carbonrodsconnectedto a sourceof high-currentelectricity - i.e. a battery or electrical generator. Generators put in motion by steamenginespowered the are lampsinstalled in lighthouses.

Lighthouses enjoy iconic status in electrical history because they represent the first 'practical' application of electric lighting (e.g. King 1962). However, beyond calling attention to the earliest adoptions in England and France during the 1860s, previous histories neither describe the entire adoption process over time and space nor attempt to explain it. I found that the arc lamp actually displaced few oil lamps in established lighthouses; and, in the hundreds of new lighthouses built in the decades after the early 1860s, the vast

Studying technological change


majority had oil lamps. Thus, as of 1896, most nations had no electric lighthouse; a few nations, including the United States, had just one or two (Findlay and Kettle 1896).


electrified about one-third of its first-order lighthouses - these were the brightest lights,

spaced widely along the coast at prominent locations. And England had seven electric

lights, also in first-order lighthouses. After the mid-1890s, the number of lighthouses with arc lamps declined. (When other electric lights eventually became dominant in the

twentieth century, they were based on different technologies.) This is an intriguing pattern of differential adoption that calls for explanation, particularly since the electric lamp furnished by far the brightest, whitest light. Adoption decisions, in the present case vested in governmental or quasi- governmental lighthouse boards, embody the interplay of myriad contextual factors - utilitarian, economic, political and so forth. The performance matrix (along with the life-history framework) lays a behavioral foundation for identifying these potentially relevant causal factors and for evaluating their probable influence on adoption decisions. A performance matrix is a table with which the investigator can visually compare two or more competing technologies - in this case oil and electric arc lamps - in relation to a set

of behaviorally relevant performance characteristics. Employing the expansive definition of

performance characteristics presented above, one can compare seemingly incommensur- able factors - qualitative and quantitative - from symbols to dollars and cents. In this way the archaeologist can handle the multifactorial nature of adoption decisions and seek

patterns that implicate past behavioral realities. Using a performance matrix involves no a priori assumptions about whether decisions were based on optimizing any specific performance characteristic(s). Indeed, the performance matrix merely makes evident any major and minor patterns in the performance characteristics of competing technologies. On the basis of these patterns, the investigator can construct explanations that invoke any number or kind of causal factors. On the other hand, a performance matrix could also be used deductively in testing a hypothesis drawn from a theory or previous explanation. The life history framework guides the search to identify behaviorally relevant performance characteristics and also organizes the performance matrix. I divide the life history of the competing illuminating technologies into three gross processes: (1) acquisition and installation of components; (2) functions - utilitarian and symbolic - during use; and (3) operation, regular maintenance and repair. For each process, the investigator delineates the activities and social groups involved and assesses the relevant performance characteristics. Needless to say, these research activities require the archaeologist to draw upon diverse lines of evidence.

France and

England together had

around twenty.


France had

In general we expect social groups, especially those participating in different activities in

a technology's life history, to have different performance preferences (McGuire and Schiffer 1983; Schiffer 1992; Schiffer and Skibo 1997). For example, lighthouse keepers might prefer lights that are easy to operate and require few repairs, whereas mariners would favor lights that permit navigation in conditions of limited visibility. Every technology has a unique mix of performance characteristics; usually no one technology can achieve every group's preferences. Each adoption decision, then, potentially entails

582 Michael Brian Schifer

trade-offs or compromises, in that some groups' performance preferences can be realized at the expense of others. After all potentially relevant performance characteristics have been identified and assessed, the investigator constructs the performance matrix. There is no fixed format: one may employ numerical values, presence/absence notations or, as in the case at hand, a plus

or minus sign indicating which technology does ( + ) or does not (-) perform at an adequate level. In this latter form, the performance matrix can easily encompass utilitarian, symbolic and even economic performance characteristics. Moreover, the strongest patterns should stand out visually when the rows are judiciously ordered by life- history processes (Table 1).

Acquisition and installation


lighting equipment and

accessories, and the lighthouse boards, which decided on the system and arranged for its

installation. Insofar as availability is concerned, manufacturers had commercialized the

relevant social

groups are manufacturers, which sold

Table1 A performance matrixfor lighthouseillumination, c. 1880-95

Acquisitionof the components, and installation of the system

Easeof acquiringsystemcomponentscommercially

Ability to


Affordability of a system's 'firstcosts' Ability to employexistingexpertise for designing and installingsystem

install system in install system in

lighthousesanywhere existinglighthouse structures



during use

Ability to produce the brightest, whitest light Can producesufficientlysteadylight Can avoid long outages



avoid castingconfusing shadows producelight of adequatequality in fairweather

Can avoid blinding mariners

Ability to symbolizespecial concernfor the safety of ships and sailors Ability to symbolizemodernity Ability to symbolizescientific/technologicalprogress

Operation, regular maintenanceand repairs

Operable with traditionalstaffof keepers Operable without completeback-upsystems

Ease of repairing breakdowns

Affordability of operatingexpenses

Ease of administration









































Studying technological change


components needed for electric lamps; and oil-lamp systems were readily available in the marketplace. However, electric lighting systems were much more expensive. Installation activities also highlight the electric light's performance deficiencies, for much roofed space was needed to house the generators, steam engines, fuel and water, and extra workers. Clearly, the 'first costs' of an electrical system were vastly greater than those of oil lights

(Elliot 1874).

Functions during use

The relevant social group is the mariners, whose views were usually represented by

scientists, engineers, and navy men on the lighthouse boards. The electric light did penetrate farther than oil lamps, but it sometimes cast misleading shadows. In addition, a well-designed oil lamp could be seen even at the horizon in clear weather. From the mariner's point of view, neither light seems to have had a decisive performance advantage. Beyond the utilitarian function of helping mariners find their locations and avoid obstacles, lighthouses had symbolic functions during this era of intensified international rivalries. Nations that wished to advertise their concern for shipping interests and the safety of sailors could turn to the brighter and whiter electric light, for its visual performance characteristics were distinctive, and thus easily identified at sea. Moreover, electric lighthouses were also places where new, science-based technologies could be

conspicuously displayed. Indeed, electric lights had a special cachet as an electrical technology at a time when the telegraph and other such technologies were

transforming, or promising to transform, daily life. Although its benefits to mariners were equivocal, the electric light's stunning visual performance rendered it a potent symbol of a nation's scientific and technological prowess; it was, I suggest, a beacon of


Operation, regular maintenanceand repairs

Lighthouse keepers and engineers along with men who manned the tenders and the lighthouse board were the relevant social groups. In this process electric lights did not perform well in relation to oil lamps. To make a long story short, electrical systems were very complex, added to the administrative chores, required more workers and backup systems, were costly to operate in some places and were potentially difficult to maintain and repair. The major pattern in the performance matrix is painfully clear (see Table 1):only in use- related functions was the electric light at all competitive. As an aid to navigation, the

electric light was with few exceptions adequate and, under some conditions, excellent. But in all other performance characteristics, especially those concerning costs and the

unquantifiable 'hassle' factor, the electric light dimmed in comparison to oil lamps. Thus, the failure to adopt electric lights for general application was a decision apparently based on a host of financial and utilitarian performance characteristics. (The only social groups



electric lighting





were manufacturers of

584 Michael Brian Schiffer

Yet Franceand England electrifiedmore than a token numberof lighthouses, and a handfulof nations adopted one or two, evenafterthe electric light's serious performance deficiencieshad become widely known.The minor pattern in the performance matrix-

electric lamps excelledin symbolicperformance characteristics- helps us to

these costly adoptions. As a beacon of modernity the electric light could advertisea nation'scommitmentto safe maritimecommerceas well as its expertise in cutting-edge scienceand technology. Nations with only one electric lighthouse had at least a token of technologicalprogress that could be readily identifiedat sea by merchant sailors,navy men and well-heeled passengers on excursions. Francehad beenthe acknowledged leaderof lighthouseilluminatingtechnologyduring the nineteenth century(Heap1889). The adoption of someelectric lights,beyond the early demonstration projects,perhaps wouldhaveunderscoredFrance'scontinued preeminence in that arena, and advertisedher leadership role in electricalscienceand technology at a timewhenother nations,including her traditionaladversaries Germany and England, as wellas the United States, hadbecome significant and prolific contributors. England added severalelectric lighthouses,investing in a few conspicuous emblemsof national pride,

perhaps to keeppace with the French. Althoughpatterns in the performance matrixof lighthouse illuminationare unusually clear cut, investigators could erect varied narratives upon this behavioralfoundation. However, the major pattern is highly robust, and so constrainsthe constructionof

alternative explanations: utilitarianandfinancial factors, evidentin the

seemto have held sway in the vast majority of decisions.In contrast, the minor pattern

invites many alternative interpretations, for the meanings of symbols are always

contestable- in the past and in the present.Although we may not agree on the meanings

of the electric lighthouse to various past groups, it is likely that adopting nations,

especiallyEngland and France,employed arc lights as a politicaltechnology to symbolize national pride in scienceand technology andto elicit foreign admirationin an increasingly


competitive internationalfield. The arc light's visual distinctiveness-

brightness and whiteness- renderedit idealfor performing such symbolic functions. The lighthouse case study has indicated that the performance matrix (used in conjunction with the life historyframework) is a useful tool for comparingcompeting technologies in studiesof adoptionprocesses. The kinds of performance characteristics potentially relevantfor making such comparisons are limited only by availableevidence

and by the investigator'sknowledge,experience and creativity. Thebehavioralframework seems capable of handling well the entire range of factors that processualists and postprocessualists, for example, invoketo explaintechnologicalchange.


majorpattern, do

Department of Anthropology, Universityof Arizona, Tucson


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