July 12, 2003

Why ideofact?

When I studied archaeology as an undergraduate, I came across the terms sociofact, technofact and ideofact. I think I can explain them better with an example, but the distinctions run something like this: a sociofact is something that helps establish social order; a technofact is a tool that provides for basic needs (food, shelter, and so on); and an ideofact is something that speaks to the unknown -- an artefact with religious implications. I remember a tale of anthropologists who studied a Pacific Islander culture; the well-meaning Westerners noted that the natives used stone axes, which were very rare on the island -- apparently, there was a shortage of stone suitable for knapping into an axe-head. The anthropologists left them as a gift some mass produced, metal-headed hatchets, and chaos ensued.

As technofacts -- as tools -- the new hatchets certainly did the job better than the old stone axes. But the number of stone axes was limited, and possessing one implied a certain amount of social stature. The elders of the tribe had the limited pool of stone axes, and in order for an axeless man to borrow one, he had to pay a certain amount of respect to the elder. The possiblility that one would not have access to a stone axe acted as a break on one's behavior. The introduction of the metal-bladed hatchets destroyed this social structure, displacing a sociofact.

The islanders also believed that the stones used in the axe heads were one of the gifts with which their gods had blessed them. In their eyes, the gods had provided them with a sizeable bounty of axes; the introduction of the hatchets suggested that the gods were not all powerful, or had deprived the islanders of a bounty. The stone axes had been a comforting symbol of the gods' favor; the hatchets, which displaced the ideofact, made them doubt their idols.

For the most part, I concentrated on archaeology. With an ancient, isolated, extinct, preliterate culture, there is no way to determine what among the flotsam and jetsam they left behind -- stone or metal implements, clay pots, the occasional luxury item like a gold pin -- were sociofacts or ideofacts. Archaeologists used the term "epiphenomenal" to refer to ideologies and belief systems -- they were flabby adjuncts to culture, and in and of themselves could not explain cultural change. I never quite bought into this notion, but as a student I played the game by the rules. Ideofacts were, for me, the bits that didn't quite fit.

And so, this site is devoted to my not altogether consistent or intelligent ramblings on those bits that don't fit. I make no pretense of having any insight to them.

For simplicity's sake, I have made three categories of posts: Essays, which should be self-explanatory, Apocryphas, which are writings of dubious authenticity on religious themes, and Ephemera, which is just about everything else.

Welcome to the new Ideofact.

Posted by Ideofact at July 12, 2003 12:17 AM

nice digs :) and great philosophy! let me know when its safe to update my blogroll to the new url!

and wow, what a luxury, comments on Ideofact at long last!!!!!


Posted by: Aziz at July 12, 2003 04:52 PM

Great site. And love the fact that I can comment now.

Guess all that's left is for you to import your Blogger entries and for us to change your URL on the blogroll.

Posted by: Zack at July 14, 2003 04:27 AM

I'm not waiting to blogroll your new address... just hope that your server can stand the traffic!

Posted by: Michael Gersh at July 14, 2003 07:19 PM

Thanks for the kind words. I can already see a major drawback to having comments: It means I'll have to write more.

Posted by: Bill at July 14, 2003 11:47 PM

Congrats on your declaration of independence!
I've just updated the blogroll at Cronaca.

Posted by: David at July 15, 2003 09:59 AM

congratulations, finally, comments :) and MT flexibility.

the case for me to switch is becoming stronger every day.

Posted by: ubaid at July 16, 2003 01:58 PM

The main drawback of MT is that it lacks the bright "Publish" button that Blogger had. It's a little disconcerting to scroll through a popup menu to post.

Still, it's been fun so far, although my suspicion about comments so far is correct -- they mean more work.

Posted by: Bill at July 16, 2003 11:19 PM