SCRAP Reading Group, Week 27: Quality of Life

Well, after two months of summer break, we were back at our biweekly reading group on Thursday. This week’s reading was a study about Quality of Life in the ancient community of Altar de Sacrificios. The article was chosen by the newly PhD’d Dr. Adrian Chase, and involved a lot of discussion about the use (and abuse…) of the Gini index in archaeology, as well as more philosophical musings about what it meant to live a good life in ancient Maya times. We also welcomed a new reading group member, Mr. Myron Medina, who is a Belizean mathematician and is finishing up his PhD in Education from the University of British Columbia. See below for a summary of this week’s article and some of the topics for discussion.

Munson, Jessica and Jonathan Scholnick. 2021 Wealth and Well-being in an Ancient Maya Community. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

Munson and Scholnick provide a modern overview of inequality analyses using burial data from Altar de Sacrificios to showcase archaeological use of the Gini index within a Quality of Life framework. The Gini provides a single measurement of inequality (where a value of zero indicates full equality and a value of one indicates complete inequality), and it has often been used with residential size (or materials) as an indicator of residential or household wealth. However, the authors use multiple metrics and measures of wealth and disparity for a multi-faceted perspective.

Some topics for Discussion:

  • How does the quality of life (QOL) approach – focused on well-being around individual needs and how society meets them – synergize with existing archaeological investigations of “wealth” that tend to use metrics like house-size?
  • How well do the three categories of material wealth, social well-being, and embodied well-being encompass the full range of archaeological investigation of disparity/inequality in the past? Are there other types of “wealth” that we should investigate, and do these three categories capture a complete QOL inquiry into the past?
  • In what ways does the use of “disparity” (in text used to differentiate social and embodied well-being from material wealth) enhance discussions of potential inequalities? Since disparity implies only a difference in a given distribution, what are some linking arguments that a measured disparity translated into perceived inequality?
  • What are the archaeological units by which we measure inequality/disparity? How often do we analyze individuals and their quality of life versus multi-generational household assemblages? How well do these units line up with larger research interests in inequality and its change over time given the partial nature of archaeological samples?
  • What issues are there in representing a complex idea like inequality or quality of life with a single number? Table 3 provides a wealth of data, but it is not as easily digestible as a single three-digit Gini index. Given its simplicity, how can the Gini index be used or misused, and what essential information does it leave out?
  • How can we account for categorical identities in discussions of inequality and QOL? For example, how should practices like dental modification be considered and measured – as material, relational, or embodied wealth? Others (Tiesler 2020: 114) suggest other factors at play; “That said, no technique or dental silhouette was exclusive to any biological sex or social class, making dental practices look more like personal or family choices than social requirements.”