Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is bad research unethical?

Suppose I were to decide to fudge some data in a publication. Maybe I refrain from reporting some

inconvenient data that don't support my argument, or perhaps I push my pet interpretation hard and don't bother to acknowledge counter-arguments or contrary data. Are these things unethical?

I refrain from this kind of activity. These activities seem deeply problematic and against my fundamental beliefs. I will usually make a stink if I catch such activities by colleagues or students. They are certainly against the standard ethical canons of science (see On Being A Scientist, something I often assign in graduate seminars). But I can't find anything suggesting they are against archaeological ethics. There is nothing in the Society for American Archaeology's Principles of Archaeological Ethics about this kind of scientific misconduct. The various collections of articles on archaeological ethics on my bookshelf don't say much about these problematic research practices. I would guess that the SAA journals would not accept papers with problematic methods like those I mention above, but the SAA style guide does not mention this at all.

This all seemed pretty normal until this afternoon. While reading up on rational choice theory, I found a reference to "post hoc theorizing" as something considered very negative in political science. Because I've been on the lookout for a concise description of what Binford called "post hoc accommodative arguments," I followed out some citations. Binford accused a lot of authors of this sin, but he never describes it in detail, or precisely what is wrong with it. I have always tried to get students to avoid this practice, but I've been looking for help from the published literature.

So I found some work on the problems of post hoc theorizing (see sources below). The main difficulty is that this practice prevents testing of one's hypothesis, since the interpretation is dreamed up after the data are gathered. It makes it difficult to know when an interpretation might be wrong. Post-hoc theorizing also opens up one's interpretations to random variation: the results are more likely to be due to chance. But then I was surprised to find these authors suggesting that this practice is also unethical.

“Graduate students in psychology are routinely taught the importance of delineating one's hypotheses in advance (i.e., prior to collecting data). Established researchers continue to regard it as questionable and possibly unethical to theorize after one's empirical results are known." (Baumeister and Leary 1997:313).

Post hoc theorizing jeopardizes the experimental method of psychology (and of much political science), and this is evidently considered an ethical lapse in that field. But I have never heard anyone suggest that the use of post hoc accommodative arguments was an ethical lapse in archaeology. Why not? I am no expert on ethics, but my guess is that the lack of a well-established methodology of data analysis in archaeology is the reason. We have canons of proper excavation technique, and if I were to screw up a dig and damage a site without proper documentation, it may violate archaeological ethics (I'm not really sure here; does incompetent excavation violate the principle of stewardship?). But my interpretation of Binford's critiques of post hoc accommodative arguments is that he was criticizing methodologically bad science, not unethical practices.

Should faulty argumentation, or other stronger cases of scientific misconduct, be considered violations of archaeological ethics? I'm not sure about this, in part because I haven't bothered to think much about it before this afternoon. But I admit that I have to admire the field of psychology if faulty experimental methods are considered an ethical breach. Perhaps archaeology needs stricter codes of ethics.

NOTE: I added this following material April 7, partly in response to Robert Mahaney's query.

Here is Kerr's (1998) list of the problems with HARKing ("Hypothesizing After the Results are Known"):

  • Translating Type I errors into hard-to-eradicate theory
  • Propounded theories that cannot (pending republication) pass Popper’s disconfirmability test.
  • Disguising pot hoc explanations as a priori explanations (when the former tend also to be more ad hoc, and consequently, less useful).
  • Not communicating valuable information about what did not work.
  • Taking unjustified statistical license.
  • Presenting an inaccurate model of science to students.
  • Encouraging “fudging” in other grey areas.
  • Making us less receptive to serendipitous findings.
  • Encouraging adoption of narrow, context-bound new theory.
  • Encouraging retention of too-broad, discomfirmable old theory.
  • Inhibiting identification of plausible alternative hypotheses.
  • Implicitly violating basic ethical principles.

 As for the ethical issue, Kerr notes that this practice is not mentioned in the codes of ethnics of the American Psychological Association, or the National Academy of Sciences. But he continues (p. 209):

·         “I think a case can be made that HARKing violates a fundamental ethical principle of science: the obligation to communicate one’s work honestly and completely. Albert Einstein states this principle well: ‘The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.” HARKing can entail concealment. The question then becomes whether what is concealed in HARKing can be a useful part of the ‘truth.’ ... The content of what is concealed or misrepresented in HARKing is undoubtedly less crucial than what is misrepresented when results are fabricated, but the damage done by widespread and recognized HARKing to mutual trust among scientists may be qualitatively the same.”  (p. 209)

Baumeister, Roy F and Mark R Leary  (1997)  Writing narrative literature reviews. Review of general psychology 1(3):311-320.

Green, Donald and Iam Shapiro  (1994)  Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Kerr, Norbert L.  (1998)  HARKing: Hypothesizing After the Results are Known. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2(3):196-217.

Leung, Kwok  (2011)  Presenting Post Hoc Hypotheses as A Priori: Ethical and Theoretical Issues. Management and Organization Review 7(3):471-479.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why do I dislike archaeological theory?

Archaeological theory, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. I am planning a graduate seminar in theory for the fall, so I have theory on the brain. Ugh, I'd rather think about other things! Like basketball and beer. Will I root for Cindy's alma mater, the Florida gators, or for the Wisconsin badgers for Big-10 solidarity? Maybe they won't both win Saturday.

Reason 1: Archaeological theory is boring, the same old, same old. I did some checking with other graduate archaeological theory courses around the country, and they are pretty much the same old historical perspective. First came the discovery of chronology, then culture history, then Binford and the New Archaeology, then Schiffer and the post-processualists, then all kinds of high-level abstract social theory, with some other things. Yadda yadda yadda. These courses follow Abend's Theory type 4 (the words of the great masters, the history of thought). Check out my comments on Abend here (Abend will be the first paper assigned in my seminar). I don't know how to discuss theory without Abend. But archaeological theory is boring, boring, boring. First, this approach focuses more on ideas about ideas, rather than ideas about what people did in the past. Second, students can read the history of theory on their own if they are interested; I would rather spend my seminar time helping students learn how to USE theory to answer archaeological questions. Knowing what Binford said in 1968 won't help much for that.

Reason 2: Discussions of theory and epistemology have been hijacked by the post-processualists. How many political economists or epistemological science-types are writing about archaeological theory? Not many. Do you want my historical speculation for the reason? Binford and the processualists climbed up the wrong branch when the sided with Hempel's covering law model, which was recognized as not applicable to social science BEFORE they started touting it! Read the philosophy of science. This left scientific archaeology without a valid explanatory epistemology. The post-processualists had a field-day, making fun of the bad science of covering-law explanations, while the scientific types (like me) just hunkered down and did our work, not making much epistemological noise. So nearly all of the publications on archaeological theory after Binford were by post-processualists! No wonder so many students got off on the wrong foot.

Reason 3: Non-theory is thrown in with theory. Why should topics like ethics, descendant communities, and heritage concerns be included in books (Hodder 2012) and courses on archaeological theory? Is this what archaeological theory now consists of?

Reason 4: Post-processual theory is deficient in social science. If you follow Hodder's ideas of theory, then I don't do archaeology at all. Or perhaps I do weird things that don't rate inclusion in his scheme of archaeological theory. Maybe I do non-theoretical archaeology. Check out the diagram from Hodder's intro chapter from his theory reader, 2nd edition:

Hodder (2012), intro to Archaeology Theory Today, 2nd ed, p. 7
So, what is wrong with this figure? Well, the dominant social science theoretical approaches are not included! A recent collection on the philosophy of social science includes a chapter for each of the "social science paradigms" (Jarvie and Zamora-Bomilla 2011). Here is the list, with an indication of whether these are  included in Hodder's diagram or not:

  •   (1) Rational choice theory  -  NO

  •          (2) Game theory  - NO

  •          (3) Social networks  - NO

  •          (4) Normative criteria of social choice  - NO

  •          (5) Analytical sociology  - NO

  •          (6) Institutions  - NO

  •          (7) Evolutionary approaches  - YES

  •          (8) Functionalism and structuralism  - NO

  •          (9) Phenomenology, hermeneutics, and ethnomethodology  - YES

  •          (10) Pragmatism and symbolic interactionism  - ???

  •          (11) Social constructionism, postmodernism and deconstructionism  - YES

  •          (12) Theories of culture, cognition, and action  - YES

  •  (13) Communicative action and critical theory  - NO


Since I work with networks, analytical sociology, institutions, and rational choice theory, I guess I'm not part of the realm of Hodder's world of "archaeological theory."

But maybe that's ok. I don't really want to be part of the post-proceessual archaeological world. As I've expressed in the blog before, I now read more theory (and more articles and books in general) in the non-anthropological social sciences than in archaeology or anthropology.

So, how can someone who hates archaeological theory teach a graduate seminar in theory? The answer is that this will not be a course in "archaeological theory" but rather a class on "theory in archaeology." That is, theory that archaeologists use, or can use, to understand and explain the past. We will dispense with the usual content of the archaeological theory courses in about two weeks, and get on to epistemology, causality, explanation, the structure of argument, comparative methods, and then some useful theories, from collective action to human behavioral ecology to political economy. If you want an idea of what I mean, check out my paper on empirical urban theory.

Hodder, Ian  (2012)  Introduction: Contemporary Theoretical Debate in Archaeology. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by Ian Hodder, pp. 1-14. 2nd ed. Polity Press, Oxford.

Jarvie, Ian and Jesús Zamora-Bomilla (editors)  (2011)  Sage Handbook of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Sage, New York.

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why haven't you read Blanton & Fargher (2008)?

The book, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States, by Richard Blanton and Lane Fargher, is the most important work published on ancient and premodern political dynamics for several decades. I just realized that I have yet to write a post on the book. I have mentioned it often in this blog since its publication in 2008, but now it is time to focus on it more directly. I will give just two reasons why all archaeologists concerned with states need to read the book and take its findings into account; there are lots of subsidiary reasons (such as, it is full of great historical details on 30 premodern states).

1. Blanton and Fargher have come up with a new and rigorous analysis of key dynamics of ancient state governments.

They start with a branch of collective action theory associated with political scientist Margaret Levi that she has labeled the "predatory theory of rule" (Levi 1981, 1988). Levi argues that state revenues (a crucial part of state dynamics that is seriously undertheorized in archaeology) are determined by three factors: the bargaining powers of rulers and subjects; transaction costs; and the discount rate of rulers (i.e., how long a ruler expects to stay in power). She assembles empirical data and theory to support her model, which started a productive line of research in political science and historical sociology. Blanton and Fargher build on Levi’s insights, but they approach the topic from a different direction. They take fiscal organization as their starting point and examine its effects on key political and social variables. They come up with a scale of popular participation in government that runs from autocratic regimes to more collective or democratic regimes. In their causal model the internal or external origin of state revenues causes or determines the scores on the governance scale (see the diagram). In short, reliance on internal revenue sources leads to greater bureaucratization, greater popular control over rulers, and more provisioning of public goods. Rulers rely on their subjects for taxation, so they must treat them better. External revenue leads to the opposite pattern. Rulers get their revenue from elsewhere, so they have no incentive to treat their subjects well by providing public goods or giving them any say in governance.
Blanton & Fargher 2008: 254

Blanton and Fargher's scale of rulership, which runs from autocratic to democratic or collective, is a major advance in understanding ancient states. Not all states were the same. Some rulers were despotic and seriously exploited their subjects, but other states had more collective forms of rule, which means that commoner subjects had some say in governance. They analyze the thirty polities in their sample on a host of variables, which are scored in various ways to produce three numerical scales: public goods provision; bureaucratization; and control of the ruler. The scores for these scales are summed to produce their governance scale, which runs from a low of 23.5 (Bakitara; Aceh, Nupe, and 12th century England are near the bottom) to a high of 52 (Classical Athens; also near the top: Republican Rome, Ming China and Lozi in Africa).

2. Blanton and Fargher come up with some fascinating counter-intuitive results.

The standard archaeological view of ancient states is that they had powerful despotic rulers who stomped all over their subjects. People's lives were strongly controlled and dominated by rulers and the state, and ordinary households had few options to succeed. This image of powerful autocratic rulers dominates archaeological writing on states; Yul Brenner as Ramses in the film The Ten Commandments comes to mind here. I know this was my view prior to reading Blanton and Fargher. Few of us used language as stark as this, but we have fancier ways of saying the same thing.

But in their model, it turns out that the most despotic rulers (who ran the least collective states) generally left their subjects alone. Taxes were not very high, and while few public goods were provided, people had a lot of autonomy to do things as they like. A classical formulation of this kind of state is Max Weber's concept of the "patrimonial state." In the more collective states, on the other hand, rulers had many bureaucrats and they kept track of people by counting, measuring, recording, and generally watching the population. Taxes were much higher, and they were harder to shirk. So in this sense, commoner subjects had LESS autonomy from state interference, and they were far more subject to state surveillance, in the more collective states.  Hmmmm, does this sound odd? It certainly did to me when I first read Blanton and Fargher.

You don't have to take their word for this, however. The key concepts (which they mention but do not employ as extensively as I would have thought) are from Michael Mann: despotic and infrastructural power (Mann 1984, 1986, 2008). Despotic power is the ability of the ruler to do what he wants,
unconstrained by other political actors. Infrastructural power is the ability of the state to penetrate civil society and carry out its wishes. Mann uses this to contrast modern states (very high on infrastructural power) with ancient states (very low infrastructural power). Think of President Obama's inability to carry out his desired policies and actions; like most modern rulers, he has very low despotic power. But think of the ability of the IRS to keep track of our incomes, or of the NSA to spy on us; these are examples of high infrastructural power. The key insight of Blanton and Fargher here is the variation in both kinds of power among premodern states. Their scale runs approximately from the top left of Mann's scheme (autocracatic regimes) to the middle right area (collective states). If you work on states, you really need to read Mann's works also.

This is just a quick taste of Blanton and Fargher's model. The first reaction of an archaeologist, however, is that these are all historical case studies. How can we do this kind of analysis archaeologically? Blanton and Fargher have produced a series of journal articles since 2008 that begin to extend their insights to archaeology, but they have so far not come up with a rigorous method to apply their model to archaeological data. This is a big need, and if they won't do it, then some enterprising Ph.D. student should take this on. 

If you deal with states at all, you have no excuse not to read Blanton and Fargher, and you really should start using their concepts in your work. This is really ground-breaking stuff, a major contribution to knowledge. Six years after publication, however, I am surprised that more of us aren't citing and using this work.


Levi, Margaret  (1981)  The Predatory Theory of Rule. Politics and Society 10:431-466.
Levi, Margaret  (1988)  Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Mann, Michael  (1984)  The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25:185-213.
Mann, Michael  (1986)  The Sources of Social Power, volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Mann, Michael  (2008)  Infrastructural Power Revisited. Studies in Comparative International Development 43:355-365.

The basic model:

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2009)  Collective Action in the Evolution of Pre-Modern States. Social Evolution and History 8(2):133-166.
Fargher, Lane F. and Richard E. Blanton  (2007)  Revenue, Voice, and Public Goods in three Pre-Modern States. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:848-882.

Recent articles:

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2011)  The Collective Logic of Pre-Modern Cities. World Archaeology 43(3):505-522.
Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2012)  Neighborhoods and the Civic Constitutions of Pre-Modern Cities as Seen from the Perspective of Collective Action. In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, pp. 27-52. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Fargher, Lane F., Richard E. Blanton and Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza  (2010)  Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlascallan. Latin American Antiquity 21:227-251.
Fargher, Lane F., Verenice Y. Heredia Expinoza and Richard E. Blanton  (2011)  Alternative Pathways to Power in Late Postclassic Highland Mesoamerica. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30:306-326.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Did a robot edit our paper?

Q: Was this an urban settlement?
I've just finished correcting proofs for an article ("Neighborhood formation in semi-urban settlements") in the Journal of Urbanism (Routledge journals). Most of my "corrections" were fixes of errors introduced in the editing process. This is always frustrating, but the manuscript was fill of these errors. It looks to me like many of the errors were produced by algorithms, not human beings. Perhaps the publisher is trying to save money by using automated bad editing instead of human editing.

Here are a few examples. This paper described a joint research project, and it has eight authors. Every place where we used the term "our" was replaced, typically by "the" and occasionally by something else. Thus "Our research indicates...." became "The research indicates...." Increasing the occurrence of passive voice is a great editing trick, if the goal is to confuse the reader about the meaning of sentences. But this isn't a post-modern journal. I replied that they could either return to the "our", or they could go with something like "The research described in this paper indicates..." Adding unnecessary words is rarely a good idea, unless there is some taboo on clear and concise prose.

Of course the copy-editing changes are not highlighted for the author, so I had to do a search for "our" in the submitted manuscript, and then cross-check with the proofs to make sure I had found all of the changes that needed attention. Many book publishers will still show authors the copy-editing, but commercial journal publishers these days just show the proofs, making it difficult to find glitches introduced by the copy-editor.

A second example is the state names for cities. I guess Chicago is not a sufficiently precise description of the place where the University of Chicago Press is located, so the robot added "IL" to avoid confusion with any other "Chicago" that may be lurking out there (are there others?). The same with Seattle. But here is how the copy-editing came out in every case:  "ChicagoIL" instead of "Chicago, IL". It is hard to imagine a human leaving out the comma and space, so this must be another case of editing my algorithm.

And the most time-consuming systematic errors to fix were those resulting from capitalization practices for foreign-language titles in the bibliography. Even if the journal bibliography style has capitalization of all main words in the title of articles and books, works published in Spanish and French are capitalized differently, following conventions in those languages.

Here is what the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed, 2003) has to say:

"Capitalization of foreign titles. For foreign titles of works, whether these appear in text, notes, or bibliographies, Chicago recommends a simple rule: capitalize only the words that would be capitalized in normal prose--first word of title and subtitle and all proper nouns. In other words, use sentence style."  (page 401, section 10.3).

Then the Taylor and Francis editor replied to my changes to foreign titles, saying that they violated the journal style on capitalization and he would fix them. He sent a link to the publisher's style guide. I check that out, and it turns out that it specifies the capitalization procedures I followed. So he evidently had not looked very hard at his own style guide! I hope my reply to him was in time to prevent him changing my corrections into incorrect capitalization.

By the way, are you familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style? If you haven't looked at this reference work, you probably should.

Our paper, which has been in press forever, is:

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland
    2014    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 7 (in press).

Answer to the question on the illustration at the top: Tipi aggregation camps can be classified as "semi-urban" settlements, but by most definitions they are not cities or urban settlements. What is a semi-urban settlement? Read our article and find out.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Urban scaling arrives in archaeology

Urban population dynamics
The first application of the methods of urban scaling to archaeological data was published last week (Ortman et al. 2014). This should be the first of a series of archaeological applications of urban scaling research, a trend that has the potential to revolutionize scholarly understanding of the basic processes of urbanization. While some of the discussion is pretty technical, the basic results and their implications are clear. The population sizes and areas of a large sample of ancient settlements conform to the expectations of urban scaling power laws as identified for contemporary cities. Yes, I said settlements. Not just cities, but smaller settlements as well, all conform to the scaling model. I discussed the scaling research on modern cities in Wide Urban World last fall, based mainly on Bettencourt (2013).
in PLOS-one (
Superlinear scaling (Bettencourt 2013)

To summarize briefly, the relationships between the sizes of contemporary cities, and various social, economic, and spatial phenomena, conform two two basic power law patterns called superlinear scaling and sublinear scaling. Superlinear scaling has been found for diverse social outputs, from economic productivity to crime. It means that as the population of cities increases, the level or frequency of these traits (per capita) increases faster than the rate of increase of the population. Sublinear scaling means that the level or frequency of other traits increases more slowly than the population does. This has been found for two types of urban phemonema: infrastructure, and the area or footprint of the city. The infrastructure pattern is pretty obvious: if you have twice as many people, you don't need twice the length of roads or cables (per capita). As for area, the pattern indicates that larger cities have a higher density than smaller cities. What is fascinating and important about these patterns is that the rates of increase (measured by the slope when plotted on a log-log graph) conform to a narrow range of values. In other words, these processes follow trajectories with similar quantitative parameters.
Sublinear scaling (Bettencourt 2013)

The new paper focuses on this latter factor. The authors ask whether the area of Prehispanic settlements in the Basin of Mexico increase at the equivalent rate as in modern cities; do the data conform to the same power laws? The answer is yes. The authors analyzed a mass of settlement pattern data from the surveys of William Sanders, Jeffrey Parsons, and others. Not only do larger settlements have a higher density than smaller settlements, but the increase in density occurs at a predictable rate. Why is this so revolutionary? Because it suggests that not only do ancient cities follow the same quantitative laws of growth and change as modern cities, but non-urban settlements conform to these patterns as well.

As my students are probably tired of hearing, I think urban scaling is a really important topic of study for archaeology right now. I am in the process of measuring a bunch of Mesoamerican urban maps, and before long I'll be able to test whether they exhibit super-linear scaling. Actually, I should say that I have a talented undergraduate, Alexandra Norwood, measuring the maps! And I know Scott Ortman is working on other data, as are a few other colleagues.

I approach this topic as a convert, and they say that converts are the biggest fanatics. When physicists Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt announced that finding power laws of urban scaling meant that they had found "a unified theory of urban living (Bettencourt and West 2010), and could point for the first time to a "science of cities," I was highly skeptical. My skepticism came more from these grandiose claims than from the content of the scaling research (which I didn't understand at the time). If there is to be a science of cities, it will have to be considerably broader than finding a few power laws.

Then I was invited to spend a week at the Santa Fe Institute to discuss ancient cities: In what ways were they similar or different from contemporary cities? Can we expect scaling laws to work for ancient cities? How could archaeologists test these models? In preparation for my visit, I read a bunch of literature in economic geography and urban economics. It seemed clear the the processes of urban growth are at the heart of the scaling relationships, and urban growth is the major theme of these disciplines today. I found that the key processes identified for contemporary cities center on agglomeration effects. The spatial concentration of labor, firms, and information in cities is synergistic, and creates economies of scale and increasing returns, and many authors suggested that these are responsible for regularities like the scaling effects. But premodern cities did not have capitalist economies, and agglomeration effects either did not exist, or else existed at a much smaller scale than in contemporary cities. Urban growth in the past was a quite different phenomenon than urban growth today.

So when I arrived in Santa Fe I had two propositions in mind:
  • IF agglomeration economies are the cause of scaling laws today, then ancient cities should not exhibit similar scaling patterns, because they lacked agglomeration economies.
  • If ancient cities DO exhibit scaling laws like contemporary cities, then the causes must lie at a more fundamental level than agglomeration economies.
After only a day of discussion with Luis Bettencourt, Geoffrey West, José Lobo, and Scott Ortman, it became clear that the processes that generate scaling regularities in fact lie in the basic realm of social interactions among people within a delimited space. This is the basis of Luis's model of contemporary urban scaling (Bettencourt 2013), although I was too obtuse to pick up on it until I got to Santa Fe.
Urban dynamics ???

If it is indeed the case that social interaction generates scaling effects, this opens up new avenues of research. Scaling should work not only for premodern and ancient cities, but also for non-urban settlements as well. Processes of rural-to-urban migration, and settlement nucleation become central to these dynamics. I wrote a paper on these processes, now under review at World Archaeology. One of the conclusions is that in premodern societies, spatial movement (within and among regions) was quite common, including nucleation and urbanization. There were few barriers to people moving into settlements, and thus there were few barriers to settlement growth. One implication is that urbanization and nucleation dynamics in the past could generate interactions and growth comparable to the agglomeration economies of the modern world.
Jeff Parsons

I think research in urban scaling has the potential to illuminate basic human processes of social interaction and their effects on society. Those effects include urbanization, economic change, and a host of other social phenomena. Ancient cities were different from modern cities, and the specific urbanization processes were different, yet several kinds of end result (such as the amount of infrastructure, or the level of social outputs) were quite similar. This situation is nothing new to those who work with complexity theory, but it is something that the rest of us need to learn. And for me, the important implications lie not in the abstract realm of scaling parameters and network structure, but in the on-the-ground realm of human behavior and social processes. I wonder if Jeff Parsons ever thought his survey data would be analyzed and discussed by physicists.

When is the last time scholars from other disciplines came knocking on your door, saying they need archaeological data in order to answer fundamental scientific questions?

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  (2013)  The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A. and Geoffrey B. West  (2010)  A Unified Theory of Urban Living. Nature 467:912-913.

Ortman, Scott G., Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm and Luís M. A. Bettencourt  (2014)  The Pre-History of Urban Scaling. PLOS-one 9(2):e87902.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Are Archaeologists Welcome in the Anthropocene?

As I'm sure most readers are aware, the "Anthropocene" is a term for our current geological/environmental epoch on earth. It was coined to reflect the fact that today and in the (geologically) recent past, humans have had an enormous impact on the earth as a geological and biological entity. There is by now a big literature on the anthropocene (see the bib below for some examples), and even a journal with that title.

It has been proposed that the anthropocene should be accepted as a formal name for the current geological epoch, and a study committee (the "Anthropocene Working Group") is now addressing this question for the Stratigraphy Comission of the Geological Society of London. (Wow, I wish archaeology had such a committee to sort out the varied meanings of messy period names such as Late Postclassic vs. Middle Postclassic vs. Early Aztec. I never know when to use those sequences of period names. I'd be happy to serve as the arbiter of truth, but my colleagues might not be so pleased).

Most of those concerned with geological periods and with the environmental trajectory of humans on earth seem to agree that anthropocene is a reasonable concept. But they are not in agreement about dating the origins of the anthropocene. As outlined in the very useful paper by Bruce Smith and Melinda Zeder (2014) in the journal Anthropocene, there are four main contenders for that date:

  • AD 1800. This "late chronology" posits the industrial revolution as the major force that amplified human impacts on the earth. The anthropocene should therefore begin only in 1750 to 1800. This is currently the majority opinion among the (non-archaeological) scientists involved.
  • 2,000 BP. This date comes from analyses suggesting major creation of anthropogenic soils around this time. This is probably the minority viewpoint.
  • 8,000-5,000 BP. This date derives from evidence for major methane production from agriculture and human population growth, and it corresponds roughly to the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions (to use Childe's terms).
  • ca.13,800 BP. This "early chronology" posits the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, with human impacts on megafauna, and other flora and fauna, as the most relevant time for considering the start of the anthropocene. In the words of Smith and Zeder, "it seems more useful to begin the Anthropocene when there is clear evidence on a global scale for human societies first developing the tools, in this case domestication, that will be employed in reshaping the earth's terrestrial ecosystems over a span of the next 10,000 years." They note that the Anthropocene would then be coterminous with the Holocene, requiring only a name change, not the creation of a new geological period.
In the current SAA Archaeological Record, Braje et al. (2014) review the anthropocene concept briefly, and concentrate on the fact that most discussion so far has largely ignored archaeology. We have geologists and ecologists and others talking how humans have impacted the environment in the near and distant past, but without input from archaeology! I share the authors frustration. I've talked quite a bit in this blog about the problems that arise when scholars in other disciplines ignore archaeology when they are in fact talking about things that we have data about. Much easier to speculate about the past than to actually find the relevant data.
**ADDED JAN 31: Here are some of my prior posts on this: ***
"Do archaeologists know anything useful about premodern states?"  (2012)
"Why archaeologists need to publish outside of archaeology"  (2008)
"Publishing archaeology outside of archaeology"  (2007)

But part of the blame is our own. My initial reaction to the paper in the SAA Archaeological Record was to suggest that if archaeologists want to be accepted by other scholars, we should publish not in our own journals but in journals in other fields. But then I saw that there is a whole special section in the journal Anthropocene with archaeological papers; I cite Smith and Zeder (2014) above, and I also looked at Kennett and Beach (2014), although the connection of the latter with the anthropocene debate was not very clear.

So I forged on through Braje et al (2014), and came up short against a ridiculous statement:

  • "The designation of an Anthropocene Epoch at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the appearance of artificial radionuclides associated with atomic detonations, or any other recent date harkens back to the faulty premise that pre-industrial humans lived in harmony with nature, and that a "natural" world existed in some idyllic pre-modern state." (Braje et al 2014:28).
Give me a break. I though this debate was about the evidence for human impact on the environment. When was serious environmental change initiated? How can we measure this? How can we compare environmental changes thousands of years ago with changes in the past three centuries? What is the most useful way to conceptualize and describe the history of human impacts on earth? These are empirical, scientific questions. But now we are told that those preferring a late date for the anthropocene must have faulty views about people living in harmony with nature! Huh?? The argument has now turned away from science and into ideology. Those with opposing scientific views must have faulty ideas about ancient humans. They must be in error.

Braje et al then quote from Steffan et al. (2007), who say that there were fewer people in the past whose simpler economic and technological organization did not modify the environment to the extent that we do today. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable interpretation to me. I don't see anything about living in harmony with nature.

I am not an expert in this topic, but here are my conclusions from reading the 2014 papers by archaeologists.

  1. Humans have had significant impacts on environments going back thousands of years (the proper archaeological response is, "Well, duh!")
  2. It is difficult to quantify those impacts to compare recent and ancient impacts.
  3. The Anthropocene is a useful concept for addressing these issues.
  4. I'm not sure of the best choice of dates to begin the Anthropocene; I think I might favor Smith and Zeder's early dates, but I don't have specialist knowledge here and I'm not strongly wedded to this view.
  5. If archaeologists want scientists in other disciplines to take us seriously, we should avoid making silly ideological claims when we should be producing rigorous scientific findings.
  6. We should publish in journals outside of archaeology. The section in the journal Anthropocene is a step in the right direction.


Braje, Todd J., Jon M. Erlandson, C. Melvin Aikens, Tim Beach, Scott M. Fitzpatrick, Sara Gonzalez, Douglas J. Kennett, Patrick V. Kirch, Gyoung-Ah Lee, Kent G. Lightfoot, Sarah B. McClure, Lee M. Panich, Torben C. Rick, Anna C. Roosevelt, Tsim D. Schneider, Bruce D. Smith, and Melilnlda A. Zeder
2014    An Anthropocene Without Archaeology: Should we Care? SAA Archaeological Record 14 (1 (January)): 26-29.

Gowdy, John and Lisi Krall
2013    The Ultrasocial Origin of the Anthropocene. Ecological Economics 95: 137-147.

Kennett, Douglas J. and Timothy Beach
2014    Archaeological and Environmental Lessons for the Anthropocene from the Classic Maya Collapse. Anthropocene 2 (in press).

Robin, Libby and Will Steffen
2007    History for the Anthropocene. History Compass 5 (5): 1694-1719.

Roscoe, Paul B.
1995    The Perils of "Positivism" in Cultural Anthropology. American Anthropologist 97: 492-504.

Smith, Bruce D. and Melinda A. Zeder
2014    The Onset of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 2 (in press).

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill
2007    The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature? Ambio 36: 614-621.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and  John McNeill
2011    The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369: 842-867.