Social archaeology is a discipline of archaeological study that focuses on the bigger picture, rather than the individual object or person, by attempting to put each of those things into context. In other words, it attempts to build a model of what a society may have been like by determining the roles of the individual artifacts found. Once that is accomplished, it is easier to see why a certain item may have been manufactured or used. While the discipline does have a number of advantages, researchers must also be careful not to let individual or cultural biases influence their interpretations.
Colin Renfrew founded social archaeology in the 1970s, and expanded the concept in the early 1990s. He is a British archaeologist who spent a great deal of his academic career at the University of Cambridge. He published a major work on the importance of social archaeology, but has also made many other contributions to the field, including being focused on preventing looting at major historical sites around the globe.
The benefits to social archaeology are numerous. It can help distinguish and identify cultures and people who may have been found in the same area. It can provide a context for when those people may have lived, and how they may have lived and interacted at that particular time. This type of archaeology may even identify the time period of the society without the benefit of radiocarbon dating.
Social archaeology goes far beyond simply identifying artifacts found at different sites. It explores human culture, and seeks to make the archaeological record into a historical narrative that tells humans a little something about the relationships, classes, and governments that may have preceded them at a given location. The more objects or artifacts found together, the easier it may be to determine what type of society had lived there.
In order to tell that history, social archaeology seeks to combine the artifacts and other evidence at a site with what is already known about history at that location. Ultimately, some interpretation must take place because a direct observation of what a culture or person used an object for is not possible. Therefore, this type of archaeology may introduce a modern bias in some cases, as it attempts to explain a society through a modern perspective. Archaeologists must guard against such bias, but it may be impossible to eliminate completely. Likewise, some hypotheses may be impossible to ever conclusively prove.