Dismantling Oppression with Archaeology: Concepts of Paulo Freire

Just like any other academic discipline, archaeology is not immune to the ills that have plagued the past and continue to infect the future. When applying Western analysis to a separate culture, there is an inherent power structure that devalues that culture in comparison. Attempts to view indigenous societies, both modern and historical, from the seat of the oppressor serves to further perpetuate bias. The question becomes, how can we accurately understand the history of a culture without placing it on the Eurocentric cultural continuum of the West?

Recife, Brazil (Freire’s birthplace)

Paulo Freire’s work on popular education illuminates the possibility of understanding the past without the prejudicial frameworks used previously. Using participatory research, Freire worked to empower the locals in his homeland of Brazil (Atalay 298). Participatory research involves communication and active involvement of the culture being studied, which is a stark contrast to the traditional method in which the researcher makes observations without necessarily engaging those being studied. He particularly engaged in dialogue that targeted sections of society often missed in research, ultimately increasing awareness of the situation of those living in the margins.


Freire stressed informed action and continuous dialogue. In other words, Freire is a good example of how outside researchers need to leave behind their own opinions and questions, and incorporate the voice of the oppressed group in question. In Freire’s studies, action was centered on collaboration with the colonized and oppressed. After all, power is not merely given away; it must be taken by active demand by the oppressed. Focus finally shifts to allowing the groups in question to explore their own history and social situation, and in doing so, enables the researcher to understand the cultural reality of those being studied.


By combining popular education and collaborative research, Freire was able to show indigenous groups and academics alike how powerful indigenous archaeology can be. Indigenous collaboration in archaeology gives a clearer, less biased picture of the present and sets the stage for a more egalitarian future. Enabling groups to examine history on their own terms increases communal sharing of the past, as well as helping rewrite inaccurate narratives, and finally by spreading agency to those who previously lacked it. Expanding the audience also serves to overthrow injustice caused by years of biased education. Freire worked to correct past wrongs through solidarity and inclusion during the research process. Ultimately, he was able to answer questions of and for the society of which he was studying. Thus, archaeology and the knowledge it provides can be used for more than just understanding the past. Considering how influential the past is upon the future, archaeology can be used as a tool for empowerment and as means to fight oppression in the present day.



Indigenous archaeology:

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice.” The American Indian Quarterly 30.3 (2006): 280-310. Print.

Paulo Freire’s biography:


Freire’s contribution to popular education:


Freire’s concepts in social justice:



-Kathryn Marshall ’16

1 thought on “Dismantling Oppression with Archaeology: Concepts of Paulo Freire

  1. Freire’s work in Brazil seems to be a good example of “subaltern studies,” a branch of post-colonial studies that examine segments of a population that is marginalized both in their own society and by “traditional” academia. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher and Marxist, introduced the idea of the “subaltern” in his seminal work Prison Notebooks (Quaderni del carcere in the original Italian). His book came from the over 30 notebooks he filled between 1926-1935, when he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist government for his political activities. His rumination on cultural hegemony, or the domination of a diverse population by a single ruling class, seems important here – for what is ethnocentrism in archaeology but a dominant class (well-educated European males, in anthropology’s case) imposing their value system on a less powerful group, such as those marginalized by colonialism, racism, and sexism?

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