Chaîne opératoire (French for “operational chain” or “operational sequence”) is a term used throughout anthropological discourse, but is most commonly used in archaeology and sociocultural anthropology. It functions as a methodological tool for analysing the technical processes and social acts involved in the step-by-step production, use, and eventual disposal of artifacts, such as lithics or pottery. This concept of technology as the science of human activities was first proposed by French archaeologist, André Leroi-Gourhan, and later by the historian of science, André-Georges Haudricourt. Both were students of Marcel Mauss who had earlier recognised that societies could be understood through its techniques by virtue of the fact that operational sequences are steps organised according to an internal logic specific to a society.
The chaîne opératoire was born out of the need to explicitly describe the methodology of lithic analysis in archaeological scholarship. It allows archaeologists to reconstruct the techniques used and the chronological ordering of the different steps required to produce an artifact. By understanding the processes and construction of tools, archaeologists can better determine the evolution of tool technology and the development of ancient cultures and lifestyles. Artifact analysis has undergone several changes throughout its history, shifting from an orientation as a natural science of prehistoric humans to a social and cultural anthropology of the production techniques of prehistoric societies. From this perspective, a chaîne opératoire can be understood as a social product, as it calls for an interdisciplinary approach to artifact analysis (the integration of associated disciplines: archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and anthropological linguistics), which offers a multidimensional view of a society, and demonstrates how chaînes opératoires cannot operate independently of the society that produces it. Consequently, the study of the technique - or chaîne opératoire - enables one to better understand not only the society in which the technique originated, but also the social context, actions, and cognition that accompanied the production of an object.
Criticism of chaîne opératoire
Critics of chaîne opératoire argue that it is subjective because it is based upon the analyst's personal experience and intuition. They further claim that it is not a replicable or quantifiable approach to data collection. A second objection is that chaîne opératoire claims to be able to identify the intentions and goals of prehistoric knappers, including the "desired endproducts" of knapping sequences. However, what archaeologists select from an assemblage as 'end products' may not match what people in the past thought worthwhile to select for transport and subsequent use elsewhere in the landscape. A third major problem with the chaîne opératoire approach is that there is severe inconsistency in the application of definitions by lithic analysts. For example, since the publication of Boëda's definition of six nondisassociable criteria for Discoidal debitage, numerous variants have been proposed, and many authors have argued for the presence of Levallois concept even when those six criteria were not met.
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