Thursday, November 12, 2015

What is my research all about?

For a variety of reasons, I have been doing some soul-searching recently, trying to identify the patterns and big issues that bind my research interests and projects together. Part of the rationale comes from having to start doing private fund-raising for the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory. To communicate research to the public and to donors, one has to be able to describe it clearly and in terms that people find interesting and important. Part of the impetus comes from some collective soul-searching with my unit, the School of Human Evolution & Social Change. We are ten years old now, and we are launching a publicity and scientific outreach program. I just got an email asking me to encapsulate my research in one sentence. If you think that your work is far to complicated and nuanced for such a brief treatment, my response is, "F*** Nuance!"

Another reason for working on these big issues is that I have always admired the way sociologist Robert Sampson does this. Sampson has a paper where he articulates three "theses" that guide his research and make sense of it scientifically (Sampson 2009). When he came to ASU as a consultant for our urban project, he gave a public lecture, and he used the same three points to organize his research for a public audience. It was a very effective device and a great lecture. For the past five or six years I have periodically wondered about my own three theses or questions.

So, here is my initial stab at my three big research questions. After several years, this is the first time I have tried actually defining these questions. This is a provisional attempt, subject to amendment and change. OK, enough caveats:

1.                  How did people in the distant past form communities and cities that were able to thrive and prosper for many centuries?
2.                  How did the interaction of local, bottom-up forces and governmental, top-down forces, generate and shape human society and action in cities and communities?
3.                  What are the regularities of human settlement size and organization—in the present and the past—and how can these patterns help us understand social life and institutions?

The first question is somewhat post-hoc. I didn't start out excavating Aztec households to show how prosperous or successful they were. In fact, I thought their residents were probably poor and downtrodden. But after several excavation project and lots of analysis, my conclusion is that these people were remarkably well off. I explore this situation and grapple with ways to explain it in my new book, At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Daily Life (due in Feb, 2016, I am correcting proofs right now. NOTE: I did NOT set the price! Sorry.). But now, as my research interests turn to Teotihuacan, I am finding a parallel bit distinct pattern of successful urban life for many centuries: see my post on this in Wide Urban World.

The second question owes a lot to the change in my thinking after first reading Blanton and Fargher (2008). My work on neighborhoods, open spaces, and urban services fits with this broad question. It is hard to steer a reasonable course between these two poles. Traditional models in anthropological archaeology are very top-down in the way they depict states and complex societies. The basic idea for decades was that kings and states controlled everyone and everything, and we now know differently. But the complexity scientists often write as if everything is generative and bottom-up with no central control, which errs in the opposite direction (as in modeler Joshua Epstein's creed, "If you can't grow it [with an agent-based model], you haven't explained it.")

My third question reflects more recent activity on the scaling of human settlements. I've been astounded several times: first in seeing the regularities of scaling relationships in modern cities; and second, in finding that some of these same regularities work for premodern cities, and even for village societies. Working with physicists, economists, and archaeologists, this project has not only been great fun, but it is somewhat awe-inspiring to think that we are uncovering some basic fundamental regularities in human behavior, things that have not been though about in anthropology or archaeology for many decades.

I apologize for indulging in such navel-gazing here. But stepping back to think about the big picture and how one's own research fits with big ideas is useful in two ways. First it helps you understand your own work, its importance, and its links with broader ideas and domains. This can help you improve your research and writing. Second, this kind of thinking allows you to more effectively communicate with the public, and with scholars in other disciplines. We need more thinking on a grand scale. The "Grand challenges for archaeology" was a step in the right direction (Kintigh et al), but on a personal level, for individual scholars, I encourage everyone to go one step further and really nail down one's own research interests and domains at a broad and easily understandable level.


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher
2008    Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright, and Melinda Zeder
2014    Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79 (1): 5-24. 

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder
2014    Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122: 879-880.

Sampson, Robert J.
2009    Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621: 260-280.

Smith, Michael E.
2016    At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic Life. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Monday, October 12, 2015

How to make stronger arguments

My paper "How can archaeologists make better arguments?" has recently been published in the SAA Archaeological Record. While this is just a short paper in a non-peer-reviewed newsletter, I think it is one of my more important publications. Many aspects of contemporary archaeology -- particularly the archaeology of complex societies -- annoy and depress me. I use this blog to blow off steam about issues of data, theory, empirical adequacy, quality control, and such. I have come to the realization much of my dissatisfaction with publishing today revolves around the low quality of the empirical arguments in much of the literature today. People draw conclusions that are not warranted by the data, and then those results become enshrined as facts for future research and publishing (they are published! by a well-known archaeologist! they must be true!). Yet they are not facts at all; they are speculations with little empirical content.

I did some sniffing around the internet for my graduate theory seminar last year. I found that the topic of making arguments, like other epistemological topics, was rarely covered in graduate theory classes in the U.S. This surprised me at first, but then it made sense. If graduate students weren't getting training in how to make a rigorous argument -- how to test models with data, how to use theory to construct causal arguments -- then this helps explain the sorry state of archaeological argument. The alternative to rigorous empirical epistemology is philosophical, abstract theory, without much empirical content.

It seemed to me that rather than just ranting and raving about theory and epistemology in this blog, I should write a clear and direct guide to empirical arguments in archaeology. Some of the intellectual background is provide in my 2011 urban theory paper, but the new article is short and direct. So, if you haven't seen it yet, please download the paper and read it. And then please follow the advice. I want you to have a clearer view of archaeological epistemology, and I want you to make better arguments. This is not altruism on my part; instead, this advice comes from my distress at the state of archaeological knowledge today. If everyone were to make better arguments, the whole field would be vastly improved and perhaps I could stop being embarrassed when I have to explain away sloppy archaeological papers to my colleagues in other disciplines.

Smith, Michael E.    2015    How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15(4): 18-23.

Smith, Michael E.    2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 problems

I am unable to upload the new published version of a paper to They don't answer my email queries (after I spent a lot of time trying to find their email question system), so I don't know the source of the problem. Maybe it is their new page style, which I dislike. I uploaded a dummy paper just fine, but when I tried to "edit" it and change the attached file, it stalled, just as with my other paper.

The paper I was trying to post is:

Smith, Michael E.2015    How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4): 18-23.

I had a draft version posted. I managed to delete the file somehow (in preparation for uploading the published reprint), but when I try to upload the new file, the site does not respond. I've tried it from different computers, over the past week. Nothing doing. Is unaware of the problem, or do they know about it but just not bothering to tell anybody? Neither is an attractive possibility.

I stopped updating my home page a couple of months ago, mainly because was easier to use for posting. But I did put a copy of the argument paper on my home page.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Against nuance

I can't find enough good epistemological work on comparative scientific archaeology, so I have to get my kicks elsewhere. I just read a fantastic paper by a sociologist, titled "F*ck Nuance." (thank you to Colin Wren for sending me a link). The author is Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University. His basic point is that when someone calls for more nuance, the result is typically the complexification of ideas and theory to the point where theorizing and comparative analysis suffers. Comparison requires simplification ("abstraction" to Healy), and this is prevented by nuance.

      “Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance i mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it. I shall argue that, for the problems facing sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that in intellectually interesting, empirical generative, or practically useful.” (p.1)

This paper has been discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and heavily downloaded from Healy's website.

Healy identifies three "nuance traps":
  1. Nuance of the fine grain: “the ever more detailed, merely empirical description of the world ... It is a rejection of theory masquerading as increased applicability or range.”
  2. Nuance of the conceptual framework: “the ever more extensive expansion of some theoretical system in a way that effectively closes it off from rebuttal or disconfirmation by anything in the world ... It is an evasion of the demand that a theory be refutable.”
  3. Nuance of the connoisseur: “the insinuation that your sensitivity to nuance is a manifestation of one’s distinctive ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and flow of social reality itself ... It is mostly a species of self-congratulatory symbolic violence.”
The paper is discussed briefly (and posted) on the Crooked Timber blog. Comment # 24 uses the nuance concept to contrast development theories of Jeffrey Sachs with those of Acemoglu and Robinson. Very interesting.

The paper closes with:

·         “Given the current state of theory in some field, the question is—should we be trying to increase the supply [of nuance], or reduce it? My context is theorizing in American sociology at the time I am writing. We are glutted with nuance. I say, fuck it.” (p.11)

Check out the paper. I especially like the abstract: "Seriously, fuck it."

My sentiment, exactly.  See my paper on arguments later this month in the SAA Archaeological Record for a discussion of parallel ideas in archaeology.

Healy, Keran    2015    Fuck Nuance. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings.  .

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why was my paper rejected ?

Just got a tip from Retraction Watch for this paper:

Phillips, David
    2015    Who gets published? Comparative Education 51(3): 303-304.

Phillips present a list of common reasons for the rejection of manuscripts from journals in the field of education research:
  1. ·         wrong journal;
  2. ·         too long/short;
  3. ·         journalism;
  4. ·         extract from report/dissertation unadapted;
  5. ·         no clear topic;
  6.          too little context;
  7. ·         too little theory;
  8. ·         clear gaps in literature;
  9. ·         polemical;
  10. ·         research not fully explained;
  11. ·         failure to relate findings/conclusions to aims/theory/literature;
  12. ·         language/style not checked;
  13. ·         text not proofread;
  14. ·         not situatedin comparative education [or in the appropriate discipline]
  15. ·         plagiarism/legal issues.
My first reaction was, "I'm not sure how helpful this is." Anyone who is a graduate student or a professional ought to know these things. They are taught in graduate seminars, they are taught in the professional socialization that goes on in graduate programs and academic departments. They should be pretty obvious. But then I thought about the most recent paper I have reviewed for a journal. It was the second-worst paper I have reviewed in over 30 years of reviewing manuscripts. This paper had defects #: 2, #5, #6, #7, #8, #10, #11, and #14. So perhaps lists of factors like this do have some value.

So, why are MY papers being rejected these days? Not counting rejections from Science or Nature (see discussion here), I have have a bunch of rejections over the past 3 years, compared to only a single rejection (that I can recall) in the rest of my career. I don't think the quality of my work has declined. A major reason for the rejections is that the work is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. My colleague Sander Van Der Leeuw warned that as I got into transdisciplinary research, I might have trouble getting papers published. Most journals are disciplinary in focus, an orientation that is reinforced by the reviewers they use. The metaphorical disciplinary silos are alive and well in the world of academic journals.

 I had two papers rejected by American Anthropologist. In both cases I was using methods and concepts from  one or more (non-anthropological) disciplines, and made the point that perhaps anthropologists might want to pay attention to these other fields. Well, maybe not..... (click here for my intellectual dissatisfaction with the discipline of anthropology). One paper was resubmitted to the top journal in the field of Urban Studies (with a higher impact factor than AA. Ha!), and it is now published. The other is still being revised. An interdisciplinary paper that I think is important and exciting has now been rejected by three journals. Maybe fourth time around is the charm.

While I hate to admit this, the lesson here may be that younger scholars should refrain from publishing transdisciplinary papers. It's much easier to get a straight archaeology paper published than a paper that mixes archaeology with disciplines that might seem unlikely (e.g., economics, political science, sociology). Some of my recent (published) transdisciplinary papers have had graduate student co-authors, though, so perhaps the lesson is for younger scholars to avoid transdisciplinary single-author papers. Think about getting a senior co-author for anything out of the ordinary. I do make a bigger effort to get rejected papers with student co-authors into print elsewhere right away; I have less urgency for papers with faculty co-authors (yes, I feel very guilty about one particular paper..... Sorry!).

BUT, you can't get a paper accepted OR rejected if you don't submit it. If you are a graduate student in archaeology and you haven't published a paper yet, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What is wrong with abstract social theory?

A lot of archaeologists like to use high-level, abstract social theory. I think that such theory is not only a waste of time, but harmful to archaeology. It is harmful because such theory does not explain variation and change in past human societies, and it diverts attention away from the kind of middle-range theory needed to explain past social developments in a causal framework. I am NOT talking about Binford's concept of middle-range theory; I refer instead to the standard social-science meaning as described by Robert Merton). See Smith (2011) for discussion.

Here is a passage from Smith (2011):

“High-level theoretical schemes describe how the social world works on a very abstract, philosophical level, and as a result their utility in the analysis of particular empirical cases is rather limited (Ellen, 2010). In the words of [sociologist C. Wright] Mills, grand theory is “so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts” Mills, 1959:33). In their empirical studies, archaeologists who enjoy high-level theory typically cite such authors in their introductions, and perhaps again in their conclusions, but rarely during the course of their analyses of data"

Abstract social theory, "grand theory" in Mills's terms, is fine for archaeology IF:
  • If one conceives archaeology as more in the humanities than the sciences.
  • If one is and idealist and not a materialist.
  • If one is only interested in particular sites/cultures/regions, but not interested in comparisons with broader spatial and social contexts.
  • If one is not concerned with creating a body of reliable empirical knowledge about the past.
  • If one has no concern for causality and explanation of past social patterns and changes.
  • If one thinks that archaeology constitutes the total relevant scholarly universe, and thus one is not interested in other disciplines.
  • If one doesn’t care whether scholars in other social science disciplines find archaeological data useful or not.
  • If one thinks that archaeological findings have no relevance to understanding, explaining, or solving the problems of the contemporary world.

 I've written a lot about this topic previously. Check out my urban theory paper (Smith 2010), or a paper due out in the SAA Archaeological Record next month (Smith 2015). Or look at some of my prior posts in the blog:

"How would you know if you are wrong?"

"How do archaeologists make arguments?"

"Why do I dislike archaeological theory?"

"Do grad students have to know social theory?"

"Problems with Bourdieu? We can help! Call now"

"Why don't archaeologists talk about causality, explanation, and epistemology?"

"Theory, theory theory. What do we mean by theory?"

Ellen, Roy
    2010    Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:387-404.

Mills, C. Wright
    1959    The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
    2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.

    2015    How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments. The SAA Archaeological Record (in press).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

An article that isn't very memorable


I think I fired off the following post to hastily. I took the time to actually read/skim the paper in question, and its really not too bad! In fact, I think it does a good job in synthesizing quite a bit of material on state formation in Postclassic Mesoamerica. So I have posted the paper in case anyone is interested.

I'll leave the post unchanged below. I think it points out an issue about scholarship and publishing that doesn't get discussed too much: the emotional side. I am emotionally invested in my research and publishing. I am a scholar. This is what I do, and I have strong emotions connected with my publications. Most of these are positive. But sometimes when there are unpleasant experiences associated with writing or producing a written work, I end up with a vague negative feeling about that work. In the present case, an unpleasant experience with the edited volume (which tapped into long-standing resentments about how Old World scholars ignore the New World), led me to almost forget about a paper I wrote just a couple of years ago. Hence the post below.

Having a strong emotional investment in one's research is usually a positive thing. It spurs one on, keeps one interested and working, even when rewards are small and obstacles are large. But such emotion can also be a negative force, if a scholar gets so strongly invested in a particular idea or interpretation, a pet theory, that he or she is willing to cut corners and even commit academic fraud to support the notion. Just see the blog Retraction Watch for some of the fraud that goes on in the sciences. So as scholars we need to be constantly vigilant to not let our biases or emotions get in the way of our scholarship.  Well, enough rambling. Here is the initial post:

.      We've all seen papers that don't seem interesting or useful. They look boring and superfluous, and you don't want to read them. I have better things to do!  I just came across such a paper, a book chapter saved as a pdf on my server. I looked at it and tried to figure out why this was published and why I should care. The odd thing is, I am the author! I read the title of the paper and thought, "Yes, this is something I might have written." So I paged through and tried to remember writing this paper. I figured it must be 10 or 15 years old, and that's why I had forgotten. But then I looked it up in my  Endnote file, and found that it was published in 2015! Oh yes, now I recall.

Here is the paper:

Smith, Michael E.
2015    Mesoamerican State Formation in the Postclassic Period. In Expanding Webs of Exchange and Conquest, 500 CE - 1500 CE, edited by Benjamin Kedar and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, pp. 598-624. Cambridge History of the World, vol. 5. Cambridge University Press, New York.

I tend to black out negative experiences. I don't remember them as well as more positive experiences, and I think this is probably a normal psychological strategy. When I was invited to contribute to this work, I was honored, because historian William McNeil was involved. He is a big shot in the field of world history, and the author of one of my favorite books of comparative history, Plagues and Peoples. The volumes are organized by time period. Each volume has one or more prominent editors, and each sponsored a conference to get the authors together. Norman Yoffee edited an earlier volume, which had a bunch of chapters on early cities. He had good authors (many archaeologists), and he did some innovative things with his conference and volume structure. I am jealous of the authors in that volume!

I was not familiar with most of the authors in my volume, all historians. But when paper drafts were circulated, I was appalled. A number of the chapters were syntheses of themes that were supposed to cover the entire world for the target period (topics like education, migrations, demography, gender, courtly culture, and the like). The authors were European historians who either ignored the New World entirely, or else wrote mostly about the Old World with some bad coverage of the New World thrown in. (This seems par for the course in many textbooks in "global history" or "world history") One paper draft had silly, inaccurate, and demeaning descriptions of a New World culture, and the main cited sources were elementary school curriculum materials posted online! I am still astounded that a professional scholar could even think that such a source was acceptable for a publication (particularly when there is in fact a published literature on the topic in question among New World societies in that time period).

I fired off a letter of complaint to the editors, and threatened to withdraw my paper if they couldn't do better than that. Perhaps I should have followed through. When I was invited to their conference, in a nice foreign city I wanted to visit, I turned down the invitation. These were not people I wanted to hang out with. I went ahead with my chapter, and then the book came out I saw that at least the worst problems in the comparative chapters had been fixed. I guess I had my chapter scanned (it turns out it was only a month or so ago), and now I am wondering if it is worth posting online with my other publications.

I should probably read the paper and decide whether to post it or not. My hope is that the chapter is not too bad, and that my negative associations have to do with the volume itself, with the early chapter drafts I saw, with my reservations about "world history," (see prior posts here,   here,   and here) and with my jealousy for not being in Norm Yoffee's volume. Maybe it will turn out to be a memorable paper after all.