Interpretation for Archeologists   6. Issues of Sensitivity   Distance Learning

Personal and Unconscious Bias

Audiences, interpreters, and archeologists all bring personal and unconscious bias to an interpretive moment. Unconscious biases are the attitudes and perceptions that people grow up with and carry with them; they are unconscious because they seem normal and regular to the person or people holding them. These biases can seem out of line, offensive, or ignorant to another cultural group. They can also be a way that a group of people finds cohesion through their values. Interpreting archeology can be a powerful way for audiences to confront bias and encourage personal insights about cultural behaviors.

Our life experiences shape how we learn to define and adapt to color, language, age, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. We learn and define our perceptions by observing differences and similarities among people and by absorbing the spoken and unspoken messages about those differences. Many of these experiences, in turn, are shaped by the privilege and power that is part of the social structure in which we live. Both subtle and overt forms of prejudice and bias have a profound influence on our developing sense of self and others.

It is important for interpreters and archeologists to recognize the biases in their interpretive products and remove or qualify them. Removing bias cannot be done simply by being sensitive. It must be done systematically, by understanding the methods used in archeological research and analysis, and through applying ethnographic and ethnohistoric study and analysis. Removing and controlling this bias promises substantial payoffs. It increases the likelihood that audiences to NPS sites will have a positive interaction with the resource. These current and potential audiences will thus have greater access, both mentally and physically, to meanings and relevance of our park stories.

Try It Yourself

Self-Awareness and Bias (NPS Common Learning Portal)
Review the competency description for interpreters, "gaining self-awareness and understanding bias." Interpreters and educators do not practice in a vacuum. They bring to their work personal experiences, values, and biases. Interpreters and educators also work for an agency and a public with their own values and biases. By becoming more critically self-aware, interpreters and educators can develop a range of more inclusive, inviting, and accurate interpretive opportunities through personal services and media products.

For Your Information

Contemporary archeologists investigate the impact of bias on the interpretation of archeological data:

Atalay, Sonya
2006 "Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice". American Indian Quarterly, vol.30 no 3&4, pp. 280-310.
Battle-Baptiste, Whitney
2011 Black Feminist Archaeology. Routledge, London and New York.
Spector, Janet D.
1993 What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN.

MJB/EJL