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master narratives

During the 1970s and 80s theorists developed a critique of so-called 'master (or meta-) narratives' (see Adorno 1974; Foucault 1980; Lyotard 1984; Bourdieu 1990). Master narratives encompass human nature, history, knowledge and law. The questions asked are far from superficial and perhaps not for the faint-hearted. Initially, at least, they focussed on such dualist oppositions as universalism and relativism; knowledge and the nature of being; subject and object; mind and body; individual and society; western and non-western; sciencific and 'humanist' values.

Foucault and Bourdieu question the notions of a 'self' having any existence other than as a material body or, more specifically, the way the individual is 'embodied'. Others challenge the intentionality of human behaviour, and the supposed distinction between the 'mental states' of individual subjects and an object world 'out there' (Said 1993; Gero 2000). Yet others look at human capacities to act voluntarily (or to 'behave otherwise') (cf. Barnes 2000).

The kernel of these questions asks how humans react to – and transform – cultural constraints. Recognising discrepancies between how things are and how things can make a difference to particular events, and, cumulatively, to the 'bigger picture'.

These approaches to master/meta-narratives have, in recent years, been absorbed by slightly wider (but still deeply theoretical!) approaches to so-called 'human agency'. So far I have not ventured very far into this territory. These remarks (especially the bibliographical sources) are based on an email by Andrew Gardner and Stephanie Koerner sent to the ARCHTHEORY list on 11 Nov 2002.

bibliographical references:

ADORNO, T., 1974, Minima Moraia: Reflections from a damaged life, Verso.
BARNES, B., 2000, Understanding Agency: Social theory and responsible action. Sage.
BORDIEU, P., 1990, The Logic of Practice, Polity Press.
FOUCAULT, M., 1980, Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977, Pantheon.
GERO, J., 2000, 'Troubled Travels in Agency and Feminism'. In M. A. Dobres and J. Robb (eds), Agency in Archaeology, Routledge.
LYOTARD, J.F., 1984, The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge, Manchester UP.
SAID, E., 1993, Culture and Imperialism. Chatto and Windus.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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