The Representation of Interpretative Knowledge in Cultural Heritage Research

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is about how knowledge is made and shared in cultural heritage research. It explores the use of digital tools and media for knowledge making and the challenges and opportunities which these bring to the research ideals of transparency, reflexivity and multivocality. Working from within a constructivist paradigm, the thesis asks whether cultural heritage research projects can share their outputs in modes which properly reflect the interpretative aspects of their findings and the situated nature of their authors' knowledge, and considers whether the affordances of digital tools make them compatible with such perspectives. Archaeological research is taken as the object of study because of its ties to both scientific disciplines and the humanities, and its need to deal with the uncertainties caused by incomplete evidence.

Research practice is analysed via semi-structured interviews with archaeology professionals and the observation of a documentation project over a period of eight months, using theoretical perspectives including Latour's Actor Network Theory and Star's accounts of categorisation and boundary objects. Particular attention is paid to uncertainty, interpretation, the translation of evidence into documentation and how this is mediated by digital tools. These processes are then studied in the context of academic journal articles.

Based on these studies, I argue that there is a mismatch between some of the ideals of post-processualist archaeology, for example reflexivity and multivocalism, and the standard forms for documenting and sharing research, which tend to be representative of a positivist-empiricist worldview. I conclude that there are obstacles to pursuing goals such as reflexivity and transparency in archaeological research, variously due to a lack of epistemological clarity in research programmes, the requirement to construct authoritative knowers alongside plausible knowledge claims, and the context of a 'computing turn' which emphasises certain affordances of digital research tools over others.

I therefore set out the proposal for a perspective on research practice which I have called ‘Epistemological Modesty’, inspired by accounts which emphasise the situated nature of knowledge, including Lakoff and Johnson's linguistics and Collins' account of tacit knowledge. I describe the development and testing of a digital research notebook tool which was designed to embody the ‘epistemologically modest’ approach. Based on a series of feedback sessions with students, I conclude that digital archaeology needs to be as much a social, networked practice as a technology-based one, if it is to be successful in taking into account the implications of situated knowledge; and that web-based collaboration and publication has the potential to be a good fit for this.

My findings show that engagement with the particularities of local knowledge—embodied practices, negotiations related to uncertainty, the affordances of technologies, the influence of the researcher’s voice and the full range of other agencies—is vital for transparency and the meaningful reuse of data. Such an approach can arguably help to foster a research landscape which is more self-aware, more multivocal, and better able to bring questions of epistemological validity into focus.
Date of AwardMar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorMark Erickson (Supervisor), Roger Evans (Supervisor), Michael Selway (Supervisor) & Edmund Lee (Supervisor)

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