Thursday, October 20, 2016

Should you consider a 3-article dissertation?

The three-article format for dissertations is becoming more common in archaeology. In my proposal-writing class we cover some professional issues, and students were interested in discussing the 3-article dissertation. I am not an expert here, but I did supervise creation of a policy and guidelines for the three-article thesis in my unit, and I am sitting on committees where students have chosen this option. I found a nice blog post (from 2014) on The Thesis Whisperer, "Thesis by publications? You're joking, right?" (guest post by earth scientist David Alexander). The (many) comments on that post contain many good insights and ideas, and I'll quote a bunch of them below.

First, here is a brief summary of our requirements (in SHESC) for a three-article dissertation:
  • The dissertation will consists of an introductory chapter, three article-chapters, a conclusion, and a single bibliography.
  • The paper must be considered publishable by the committee. This includes evaluation of the appropriateness of the target journal.
  • If the student has gathered a significant amount of data that will not go into an article, then the data should be presented in an appendix to the dissertation 


  • Divides the thesis into manageable sections
  • Less of a big push at the end to get the thesis done
  • Professional critique and feedback at an early stage
  • Articles improve one’s CV, and gives you a head start on publishing from the thesis.

 Here are some positive quotes from the comments on the Thesis Whisperer blog post"

For mine, the greatest advantage is that I now don’t have to sit down and write publications associated with my thesis.
It would be fairly hard for examiners to say that your research is crap when it has already been peer reviewed. 
What this discussion raises for me, or reminds me of, is that too often PhD students spend so much time on this one research project that they end up having narrowed their vision of the field that they are in. In addition, their actual amount and breadth of experience with research methodology is quite brief, because the research methods utilised and analysis of data/results is limited in scope.   I would argue that a PhD by publication can not only be rigorous, due to the peer review process, whether internal or external, but it also likely demands that the student demonstrate a variety of research skills across a number of research studies.   The PhD by publication is much closer to the real life work of a career academic, where quantity of publications is a ‘fact of life.'


  • The format may not fit all dissertation topics
  • Can be looked down on by humanities-oriented scholars or disciplines
  • Can be looked down on by older, more traditional scholars
  • Can be a big delay if all of the articles must be PUBLISHED before the Ph.D. is granted.
  • The dissertation is less useful as a doorstop.

Here are some negative quotes from comments on the Thesis Whisperer post:"

I could imagine that a paper could possibly be produced from the lit review or maybe the discussion chapter from the end, but I can’t imagine how a chapter about theory, methodology or findings could function as a stand-alone paper??
I was strongly advised against it as the monograph plus 1 or 2 article is still the expected norm within English departments. I asked the same question, PhD by publication or PhD as monograph, at a conference a few months later where three scholars in my field (from UK, Australia and USA) gave a seminar for post grads on the job market, and was virtually scoffed at for even suggesting that a PhD by publication was a possibility in English.
I was incredibly surprised at the range of (often strongly voiced) opinions that academics and university administrators, as well as PhD students, have on the issue of PhD by publication. I’ve seen people having angry, loud arguments (particularly in the social sciences) about whether a PhD publication is a positive development for the academy.    I think the reason for the divergent opinions is that this issue goes to the very heart of what we think scholarship should be about. The monograph model suggests that good scholarship should be based on an ability to produce an in-depth, book length analysis of a given issue, whereas the publication model tends to correlate more closely to existing research evaluation frameworks, which value large numbers of papers more highly than other forms of research output (such as books).

So, here are some things to consider in making a decision about whether the three-article dissertation is right for you:

  • Check your university regulations. Some British institutions (based on the comments on the Thesis Whisperer post) require the three articles to be completely published before the thesis is accepted (obviously a potentially dangerous source of delay). Some institutions promote this form of dissertation, others try to restrict it. Check your options.
  • Is your archaeology more science- or humanities-oriented. The 3-article dissertation is definitely a development in the sciences, and it is more widely accepted in scientific disciplines. Humanities-oriented archaeologists, perhaps Classicists, who have spent their whole career on one type of building in one time period may be less likely to approve of the 3-article format. If you have such people on your committee, or if you intend to apply for jobs in programs consisting of such scholars, you may want to go with the traditional dissertation format.

Theses nailed to the wall in Uppsala
I wonder what they think about 3-article dissertations in Sweden, where they still nail their theses to the wall.

Monday, October 3, 2016

What books influenced my latest book?

When my book At Home with the Aztecs was published last spring, I had an invitation from an organization called "Connect-A-Book" to contribute to their website. The idea was for authors to list several books that were influential in the writing of their book. It sounded interesting, so I prepared some text. Then the company evidently bombed, and the website is gone (but the Twitter account still exists...). It was fun to identify the influences in my thinking, so I decided to put them here. Most of these show the development of my ideas on households and communities, with less attention to the Mesoamerican archaeological context that of course influences most of what I write about in the book.

First, the book blurb:

The lives of the Aztec people lay buried for five centuries until my excavations in Mexico brought them to light. My wife and I uncovered a remarkable series of prosperous communities composed of families with a high quality of life. At Home with the Aztecs tells three stories: (1) How archaeological fieldwork is conducted in Mexico; (2) What it was like raising our daughters on our digs; and, (3) How I pieced together the information from artifact fragments in ancient trash heaps to create a picture of successful ancient communities that have lessons for us today. In the process, I redefine success, prosperity and resilience in ancient societies, making this book suitable not only for those interested in the Aztecs but in the examination of resilient households and communities across space and time.

My influences:

Berdan, Frances F. and Patricia R. Anawalt (editors)  (1992)  The Codex Mendoza. 4 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

My quest to uncover the lives of Aztec commoners began with dissatisfaction with the written sources on the Aztecs. The Codex Mendoza, painted by an Aztec scribe shortly after the Spanish conquest, is one of the very few sources that actually shows commoners. The wedding scene on the cover of my book is from this source. While I got lots of ideas from the Codex Mendoza over the years, it also shows the limitations of the historical record of the Aztecs.

Flannery, Kent V. (editor)  (1976)  The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

As one of the founding texts of the “household archaeology” approach, this book first showed me the methods and concepts for using archaeology to uncover the lives and conditions of the common people of the distant past. I got excited when I read this as a new graduate student. But then I had to wait until I finished a boring Ph.D. dissertation before I could put the new ideas into practice. This classic work is a stand-in here for the many other articles and books on household archaeology that soon followed.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1993)  Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Understanding past households and communities requires more than excavations, houses, and artifacts. Ecological anthropologist Netting supplies the main conceptual foundation for interpreting Aztec households. These were not serfs or slaves, toiling away on the plantations of nobles. Instead, the residents of the houses I excavated were smallholder farmers who engaged in intensive agricultural practices. Netting’s model of smallholders fit my Aztec villages exactly, and I got lots of insights from this book, especially for my chapter 4 on the quality of life of Aztec households.

Ostrom, Elinor  (1990)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Nobel economics laureate (and former ASU colleague) Lin Ostrom showed how local villages can manage resources and survive as successful, resilient communities. This generalizes Netting’s household model to the community level, and it helped me see the connections between ancient Aztec communities and those of the modern world. Papers by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis also helped me make this connection. These ideas helped me write chapter 7, on resilient Aztec communities.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sampson’s study of Chicago neighborhoods reinforced the insights of Netting and Ostrom. Whether or not inner-city neighborhoods were communities in a social sense, Sampson’s approach to analyzing neighborhoods as important social units cemented my views that past and present societies can be compared. Rigorous methods and concepts can move social-science research forward, whether in today’s cities or yesterday’s cities and villages. This book helped convince me that human settlements share key processes across history and the globe. Thus my archaeological study of Aztec communities ties in with research on neighborhoods, communities, and cities today.

Check out the book's website: 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Why I voted NO on SAA ethics principle 9

The Society for American Archaeology has an election right now on whether or not to add a ninth principle to the society's list of principles of ethics. I just voted no. Here's why.

This is the text, from the ballot site:

First, these are not archaeological principles. They do not concern sites or artifacts or fieldwork or the archaeological record.

Second, these are broader principles that affect far more than archaeology, yet they are written only for archaeology and archaeologists. In fact, their application to my lab would be discriminatory. Suppose I am nasty and I exploit students in an unsafe university lab, and I also discriminate and harass students inappropriately. If this were an official ethical principle of the SAA, it looks like my actions would be condemned for archaeology students working on one of my archaeology projects, but NOT for other students working on other projects (I also work on various projects on urbanism that are not archaeological). Or maybe I will obey the SAA and be fair and nice to my archaeology students, but I will be nasty and harassing to my non-archaeology students. Would I be violating this principle? Does the SAA want to regulate non-archaeological activities?

Third, the SAA has no enforcement procedure for its ethics principles. If I am bad and violate all these precepts, what is the SAA going to do about it? Sanction me? Sue me? Berate me in public?

Fourth, many of these actions violate my university policies and rules. If I discriminate against some students or harass others, or if my lab is truly unsafe, I can be investigated and disciplined by my university. The employer has the legal teeth to enforce these things, but the SAA does not.

The SAA should stick to archaeology. Just because these are positive principles that most of us probably agree with does not mean they should be part of the SAA's official policy.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Activist ethnoarchaeology?

I just read a bizarre paper, "Occupy Archaeology! Towards an Activist Ethnoarchaeology of Occupy Denver" by Crystal Simms and Julien Riel-Slavatore in the SAA Archaeological Record (May 2016, pp. 33-39). I am interested in the campsites of the occupy movement because I think they have lessons to teach us about human settlement dynamics. I've published an article that includes discussion of the Occupy Portland campsite (Smith et al 2015), based on ethnographic fieldwork by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman (You can see a summary of our project here).  So, I was interested to see what these authors had to say about Occupy Denver.

But I found, much to my surprise, that they have very little to say about the campsite. They do describe aspects of the campsite. But their goal was to use archaeological or ethnoarchaeological methods to answer a very specific question. When the Denver authorities claimed that the campsite was dirty, were they telling the truth? The authors make an argument about why this is an important question. The authorities seemed to be making ideological and biased claims to justify their possible destruction of the camp. One such claim was that the camp was dirty and a danger to public health. If the archaeologists could show that this was not actually the case, they would be exposing lies or biases in the words of the authorities.

To me, this does not seem like an interesting research question. Of course the mayor and authorities didn't like the camp. Of course they used biased rhetoric to make it sound worse than it is. Even if researchers could catch the mayor in a lie here, would that change his mind? Would those who oppose the camp change their minds? Would this finding substantially help or promote the cause of Occupy Denver (which seems to be the goal of this activist research)? But let me set my skepticism aside for a minute. Let's assume that this was indeed a useful and valid research question. What did the research show?

Well, it turns out that this research needed to be done in fall, 2011, when the camp was in full swing. But the researchers didn't get a project together until summer, 2012.  By then, not only had the population of the camp had declined markedly, but the composition was radically different. Instead of studying committed political activists who camped out in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, they could only study homeless people and drug users whose relationship to the political movement was unclear. So they decided they could not do the research they planned, and the project was scrapped.

If this was just the story of a failed research project, then I would have no objections. We all have failed projects in our history. Ideally such failure has not wasted a lot of time and funds. I can think of a bunch of failed research projects I have been involved in. Thankfully, none of them has involved external grants or months of effort. But here, the authors decide to forge ahead and claim victory for activist archaeology:

"we believe that this study demonstrates that archaeological research can serve as a potential tool for social resistance" (p. 38)

Say, what?  Just what is a "potential tool"? What does it mean to "demonstrate" that something is a "potential tool"?  I could claim, following their logic, that this research can serve as a potential tool to bring about the closure of public parks in Denver, or to marginalize the homeless, or to show the futility of archaeology. These are all equally meaningless claims.

This was a failed research project, so just how does it promote activist archaeology? The pursuit of activist archaeology does not mean that we have to throw our empirical standards out the window. See some of the good studies in Saitta (2007) or McGuire (2008).

There is nothing wrong with having a project turn south and produce no results. This happens all the time. But why would one write about it as if it contributed to the cause?

Occupy Portland campsite. Photo by Katrina Johnston

McGuire, Randall H.
2008    Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Saitta, Dean J.
2007    The Archaeology of Collective Action. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland2015    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198.