PhD Dissertations: Heinz Walter Pyszczyk, 1988

Economic and Social Factors in the Consumption of Material Goods in the Fur Trade of western Canada

This thesis develops a model that treats material culture as a means of communication, capable of carrying social information about conditions in society. These concepts are applied to documentary and archaeological data recovered from a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century fur trade sites located in the interior of western Canada. The major focus of the study is to examine how certain forms of material culture were used to consciously express differences in social inequality in fur trade society. The aim of the study is to describe the consequent patterning in material culture, as it was related to inequality, as well as to discover whether the quantitative structure of material goods, carrying social information was similar to the structure of language, as postulated by concepts of information theory.

In the second half of the thesis, alternate theories that could possibly account for differences found in the consumption of material remains, evident between the social ranks in fur trade society, were evaluated with the data. Foremost among these were variability in income, tariff rates, and the cost of goods. These factors accounted for a large proportion of differences in consumption and living conditions in the fur trade ranks. But, there were also social circumstances in the fur trade which resulted in an increase in the consumption of status goods even when differences in income, tariffs and the cost of goods remained the same or decreased.

The investigation of consumption patterns in the fur trade indicated that a number of goods, associated with expressing social distinction or values held by members in society, were consumed in proportionally different quantities by the officers than the servants. It was also evident that differences in the consumption of these goods, between the two ranks, increased throughout the fur trade era, especially after the 1860s, even though the income inequality between the strata decreased. It is my contention that the social tensions created by this change in inequality and in a decrease in status crystallization, resulted in a marked use of material goods to symbolize social affiliation in the upper fur trade ranks.

Finally, those attributes of artifacts used to carry social information were compared to artifact attributes that served a purely utilitarian function. The comparison was intended to determine whether the quantitative structure of these former attributes was similar to the structure of language, according to information theoretical principles. The results of the analysis of historic clay pipe attributes indicate that the quantitative structure of three non-utilitarian attributes differed considerably from the states of three utilitarian attributes. The structure of the non-utilitarian attributes resembled more that of language which has a considerable diversity of choice (entropy) and also redundancy (predictability). The implications of these results to the general theory of style in material culture and archaeological inquiry were further outlined.