Thursday, February 11, 2016

Science, social science, and archaeology: Where do we stand?

This is the first of a planned three posts on my view of a “scientific archaeology,” within the domain of the social sciences. The second will be, “Why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology,” and the third, “Why is a scientific archaeology so hard to achieve?” I have long been distressed that (1) some archaeologists dismiss science as a model for our academic discipline; and when they do that, (2) they often show a faulty or partial understanding of what kind of science might be appropriate for archaeology. My short answer is that “social science” is an appropriate model. My views will target the archaeology of complex societies, both because that is my domain and I know it well, and because most of the anti-science rhetoric and practice seem to be in this domain. My critiques of archaeological practice probably have less relevance to the study of hunter-gatherers; in that field, archaeologists do science and they don’t go around wringing their hands about whether that is an appropriate model or not.

What is science?

My reading of the literature of scientific methods and the philosophy of science, coupled with my experience in archaeology and transdisciplinary projects, lead me to the following definition of science:

  1. Science is a method to gather accurate knowledge about the natural and social world:
    1. It gives primacy to reason and observation.

  1. Science has a critical spirit:
    1. Constant testing of claims through observation and experiment;
    2. Findings are always tentative, incomplete, and open to challenge.

  1. Science is complex:
    1. It consists of an interconnected network of diverse evidence and theory;
    2. Its content and findings are judged by communities of scientists.

I developed this definition after close consultation with these and other sources: (Bunge 1999; Gerring 2012; Kosso 2009; Little 1998; Sokal 2006; Wylie 2000). For a similar succinct way of framing this kind definition, John Gerring (2012:11) defines science as follows:

“Inquiry of a scientific mature, I stipulate, aims to be cumulative, evidence-based (empirical), falsifiable, generalizing, nonsubjective, replicable, rigorous, skeptical, systematic, transparent, and grounded in rational argument. There are differences of opinion over whether, or to what extent, science lives up to these high ideals. Even so, these are the ideals to which natural and social scientists generally aspire, and they help to define the enterprise in a general way and to demarcate it from other realms.”

If this is at all strange to you, or if you want something to assign to your undergraduates, check out the chapter on epistemology (called “How do you know what you know?”) in Ken Feder’s excellent text, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Psuedoscience in Archaeology (Feder 2002).

Please note that there is nothing in these definitions about experiments or laws. Hempel is nowhere to be seen. This definition does not coincide with the way the New Archaeologists viewed science (Watson et al. 1971), something I will take up in my third post in this series. I think their faulty views of science and explanation caused great harm to archaeology. Nor does my approach coincide well with the various traits that Matthew Johnson (2010:38-41) includes in his discussions of “Definitions of Science” and “Positivism.” His discussion, quite similar to that of the New Archaeologists, resonates with an older literature in the philosophy of science, but it doesn’t have much relevance to the way I think about the question of a scientific approach to archaeology.

Please note also that this definition is about epistemology, not about methods narrowly defined. That is, science is a way of doing research that may or may not include the use of “scientific” or archaeometric techniques from chemistry, physics, or other disciplines. Conversely, “scientific” techniques can be employed in the pursuit of science as well as in the pursuit of non-scientific (and even anti-scientific) ends. I discuss this in a number of previous posts, where I draw a contrast between Science-1 (a scientific epistemology) and Science-2 (the use of “scientific” techniques): Try  here, and  here.

What is social science?

For most of my career, before moving to ASU in 2005, I had no idea that the social sciences had any relevance to archeology. Apart from the contentious issue of the relevance of cultural anthropology to archaeology (my views on this issue are here: Smith 2011b), the notion that sociology or political science or economics might be useful to me was foreign, not even on my radar. The notion that there might be a body of methodological and theoretical work that is extremely relevant to archaeology (far more so than just about anything in cultural anthropology) did not even cross my mind.

After moving to ASU, I realized that ancient and modern cities could be compared and analyzed in common frames of reference; I discovered transdisciplinary research; and I discovered an epistemological literature in the social sciences that fit rather precisely with my own views of how to pursue scholarship. I have blogged about these issues on and off for a number of years, in this blog ( here) and in Wide Urban World (here,  and here).

One way to highlight what is distinctive about the social sciences is to contrast them with the natural sciences on one hand, and the humanities on the other. The former are often said to focus on instrumental knowledge, and the latter on reflexive knowledge. As described by sociologist Michael Burawoy, this leaves the social sciences in the middle:

“The social sciences are at the crossroads of the humanities and the natural sciences since in their very definition they partake in both instrumental and reflexive knowledge. The balance between these two types of knowledge, however, varies among the social sciences” (Burawoy 2005:22).

Here is a chart, abstracted from a longer table from Jerone Kagan (2009:4-5):

 While this is obviously a greatly simplified scheme, it does indicate nicely the position of the social sciences between the natural sciences and the humanities. Half a century ago, C.P. Snow (1959) could describe scholarship as a choice between two cultures: the natural sciences and the humanities; today there are clearly three cultures of relevance (Kagan 2009). But archaeologists have been slow to get the news.

What are the major goals of social science research?

Here is a handy list of the major goals of the social sciences, from the very nice methods textbook by Charles Ragin and Lisa Amoroso  (Ragin and Amoroso 2011:35-56). As archaeologists, do we do these things?

  1. Identifying general patterns and relationships
  2. Testing and refining theories
  3. Making predictions.
  4. Interpreting culturally or historically significant phenomena
  5. Exploring diversity
  6. Giving voice
  7. Advancing new theories

My work mostly concerns points 1, 2, 4, and 5, but there is an element of all of these goals in what I do. I would guess that this scheme could be used to organize the nature of social research by archaeologists. Ragin and Amoroso use this scheme to organize their textbook. Check it out.

Social science ontology

Its about time that I quote from my favorite social scientist, my intellectual hero, Charles Tilly (NO, this is NOT the phenomenologist Christopher Tilley!). Tilly (2008:6-7) lists the following as the four major social science ontologies. I’m sure you can find your niche in this list:

  1. “Methodological individualism insists on decision-making human individuals as the basic or unique social reality.”  (Focus on persons, one at a time.)
  2. “Phenomenological individualism refers to the doctrine that individual consciousness is the primary or exclusive site of social life.” (No assumptions of rationality. Speaking of Christopher Tilley......)
  3. “Holism is the doctrine that social structures have their own self-sustaining logics. In its extreme form—once quite common in social science but not unfashionable—a whole civilization, society, or culture undergoes a life of its own.” (World-systems analysis, and studies of large-scale social institutions fit here.)
  4. “Relational realism, the doctrine that transactions, interactions, social ties, and conversations constitute the central stuff of social life, once predominated in social science.” (Marx, Weber, networks. This is Tilly’s preferred ontology, and I find it very attractive).

I think this list covers most of the terrain of archaeology. I can fit my views into this scheme, and it helps me make sense of why I find the work of some writers attractive and others less so.

Social science epistemology

Then Tilly (2008:8) gets down to the major social science epistemologies, or what he calls “logics of explanation”:

  1. Covering laws
  2. Specification of necessary and sufficient conditions
  3. Statistical regression accounts (one variable “accounts for” another)
  4. Locations of structures and processes within larger systems (functionalist)
  5. Stage models. Invariant growth sequences.
  6. Identification of individual or group dispositions just before a point of action.
  7. “Reduction of complex episodes, or certain features of those episodes, to their component mechanisms and processes”

The situation for archaeology is somewhat different, now. I can find my personal logics of explanation here. I’ve used #4 and #5 in the past, but now I favor #7 (although I haven’t really published a major mechanisms-based analysis yet). But much of archaeology today cannot be incorporated into this scheme. Where would materiality, actor-network theory, or structuration be accommodated?

These latter abstract, philosophical theoretical frameworks cannot be accommodated into the standard social science epistemologies because they pertain more to the humanities than to the social sciences. As evidence for this, consider the question of “how would you know when you are wrong?” This is a fundamental issue in the social sciences. I use this as the organizing principle for my paper on arguments in archaeology (Smith 2015). This question, which is basic to many domains of scholarship, derives from the second point of my definition of science at the top.

Perspectives like materiality or practice theory or the social production of space cannot be disproven. They are so abstract that they cannot be tested and confirmed or rejected (Smith 2011a, 2015). They are more appropriately considered as part of the humanities than as part of the social sciences. This does not make them useless or bad; it just means that they have little role to play in developing causal models of past societies, or in understanding the hows or whys of specific social trajectories of past societies, or in relating archaeological findings to work in other disciplines on the major social problems of today. If this does not sound right to you, I suggest reading some social-science epistemology. This is pretty basic stuff (although I must admit that I was ignorant of these ideas and sources until about eight years ago). I recommend a number of relevant sources in my two papers just cited. Or here are a few suggestions: (Abend 2008; Bunge 2004; Gerring 2012; Little 2011; Mjøset 2001, 2009).

So, why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology? See my next post, coming soon.


2008  The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.

1999  Social Science under Debate: A Philosophical Perspective. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

2005  For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review 70 (1): 4-28.

2002  Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Psuedoscience in Archaeology. 4th ed. Mayfield, Mountain View, CA.

2012  Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2010  Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell, Oxford.

2009  The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2009  The Large-Scale Structure of Scientific Method. Science and Education 18 (1): 33-42.

1998  Microfoundations, Method, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Transaction, New Brunswick.

2001  Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

2011  Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method. 2nd ed. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Smith, Michael E.2011    Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology.      Anthropologies 3: (online).

1959  The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2006  Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow Travelers? In Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Mispresents the Past and Misleads the Public, edited by Garrett G. Fagan, pp. 286-361. Routledge, New York.

2008  Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

1971  Explanation in Archaeology: An Explicitly Scientific Approach. Colombia University Press, New York.

2000  Questions of Evidence, Legitimacy, and the (Dis)unity of Science. American Antiquity 65: 227-237.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I write a blog post. Students reply with a Facebook post. What is going on?

I guess I just don't understand the new world of social media. My previous blog post was a critique of Rosemary Joyce's lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Then I see on Twitter that some anthropology graduate students have responded to my post, not by commenting directly on this blog, but in a Facebook post from the CUB Anthropology Department's Facebook page. Their post is mildly critical. I posted a brief comment on Facebook inviting them to reply directly on the blog (as a comment) to continue discussion. I say that I try to avoid using Facebook for professional purposes, and I am not anxious to start posting there about abstruse issues of social theory. But I haven't heard any more from the group of students.

(( SLIGHT UPDATE, same day, 9:30 am: Here is a link to the facebook post:  And the likes are up to 34! ))

((Now, at noon, the likes are up to 39! I am really taking a killing here in Facebookland))

Perhaps in the world of social media and academia, all venues are equivalent. A response on Facebook might be no different than a reply to a blog, or some other kind of internet posting. So maybe I should just go ahead and reply to their comments here in my blog. Maybe I should switch to my other blog, Wide Urban World, to spread things around even further.

Or maybe I should just shut up. As a long-time blogger and senior scholar, I have a number of advantages over graduate students in terms of experience, power, and access. I am not anxious to play the heavy here. But then perhaps the students have an advantage over me. They are obviously more comfortable with Facebook, and they probably have other social media skills and experiences that I lack. So maybe I should shut up and admit defeat. After all, as of 8:00 AM today, there are NO comments on the blog post in question. The initial tweet from UCBoulder-Anthropology has 2 likes and 2 forwards, and my reply tweet has none. And the original Facebook post has 32 likes, including some prominent archaeologists and anthropologists. Wow, everyone is lining up against me.

In the court of Facebook opinion, I seem to be the clear loser in this affair. Obviously the "new materialism theory" (which is NOT materialist!) is popular and I am just a cranky positivist who can't see the light. But is this a productive direction for scholarship? I have complained in this blog about the "facebookization of online scholarship." You can "like" something buy you can't "dislike" anything. Popularity and superficiality are what count. What are the quality control mechanisms in the court of social media opinion? Are there any?

Well, this post is long enough. It doesn't really say anything about the substantive issues, mainly because I can't decide whether it is appropriate or useful to try to engage my critics in a dialogue, given the situation as described above. I guess I am still trying to figure out social media and its role in scholarship.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

New Materiality Theory - Vacuous, or just incomprehensible?

Sorry to keep harping on abstract theoretical topics. I was in Boulder for a 2-day workshop with my urban scaling research group. I'll blog about that soon; it is very exciting right now. Rosemary Joyce was at the Anthropology Department as a "Distinguished Lecturer." There were a few hours available between our meeting and the flight back home, so I went to see her talk, titled, Flows of Clay: Archaeology and the New Materialisms.
I must admit that I really didn't understand the theory aspect at all. There were some ruminations about the properties of the archaeological record that I understood (e.g., varying rhythms of temporal duration and resolution), but the theory made no sense at all. She admitted at the beginning that when she gave similar lectures in the past, they were often met with silence because people didn't understand her.

Maybe one should not criticize what one doesn't understand. This is usually reasonable advice, and I sure don't understand the "new materiality theory." I can't even figure out what is non-trivial about the "old materiality theory." One side of me just wants to leave this alone and get on with my business. But several aspects of this talk really disturbed me.

First, one of the major points was that archaeology has a lot to contribute to the new materiality theory, but the non-archaeologists working in that area don't know about archaeology or its value to their enterprise. I guess if one starts with the notion that new materiality theory is a Good Thing, then that is a reasonable point to make. But from where I start -- that archaeology is a historical social science science of the comparative and explanatory sort, then the propositions that materiality theory is is useful, and that archaeologists should go around worrying about whether we are contributing to it, are dubious. Is this a useful role for archaeology?

Second, I was bothered by the fact that Rosemary ruled out my intellectual perspective early in the talk. She presented scholarly knowledge as a choice between the humanities and the natural sciences. These are different, and they form the basis for our choices about the external connections and relevance of archaeology. Well, my scholarship is clearly not in either the humanities OR the natural sciences. My work as a historical social scientist simply is not captured by these two choices.

I dragged my colleague, Jose Lobo, along to the talk. As an urban economist, a former physicist, and an urban scholar, Jose is very interested in what archaeology can contribute to the body of knowledge about cities and economies and their changes through time. I had to apologize to him afterword for suggesting he attend the lecture. His overall reaction was that the talk was "vacuous." He was particularly incensed by Rosemary's characterization of the science of physics as being about "unobservables."

The thing that disturbed me most about this talk was that this kind of approach serves to isolate archaeology from the social sciences (both by ruling them out explicitly, and by using theory that is so highly abstract as to be meaningless) and to isolate archaeology from the public. Few people can understand this stuff. In the questions there was some discussion  about whether undergrads could understand this kind of theory (the consensus seemed to be negative). I know that I wouldn't be caught dead talking about this kind of abstract theory to my undergraduates. If social-science ideas don't make sense in conversation to ordinary people, then I have serious doubts about their scholarly utility. See my post on the concept of "community" for some discussion of this idea.

To my mind, archaeology is about the human societies of the past. We document the traces of past societies, and we use our methods and concepts to make statements about social-science topics (households, villages, communities, exchange, production, ritual, domination, inequality, and the like), and we try to understand causality and change in the past. The "new materiality theory" does not contribute to these goals. I was temped to ask the question, "How does all this help us understand ancient society in Formative period Honduras and its changes through time?" But Rosemary is an old friend and that question would probably be considered hostile (although I would have intended it as a dispassionate query). I was a guest at the Boulder anthro department, and didn't want to rile things up unnecessarily.

As to the question in the title of this talk, I really can't decide whether this stuff is vacuous or just incomprehensible. To me, though, the implication is the same.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is the "social production of space" a bad concept?

I spent years trying to figure out what the "social production of space" means. I read the works people were citing and recommending (Lefebrve, Setha Low, Gottdeiner in sociology, etc.). Lefebvre was a wash-out: incomprehensible. (And when I read his statement that humans only reach their full potential when living in cities, the anthropologist in me barfed. So all those poor slobs, our ancestors, living in the world before the urban revolution. They couldn't reach their potentials. Give me a break.) The other authors seemed to make sense while I was reading them, but then 30 minutes later I couldn't for the life of me recall what the concept meant. I had a real block about this idea. Finally, in talking with an archaeologist colleague who was fully committed to the social production of space, it dawned on me why I had so much trouble with the concept.

After hearing her explanation, I asked whether there was such a thing as space that was NOT socially produced. Space, that is, that had been the setting for some kind of human activity, not space on Mars or in Greenland 30,000 years ago. No, of course not! Space is always socially produced. Aha! If space is always socially produced, then how is this a useful concept? Space is socially produced by definition. Fine, but how does this advance our understanding of variation among human spaces? This marketplace and that ceremonial plaza are both socially produced. But I want to know how they differ, as well as how they are similar. This platform was once a ceremonial structure, and then it became a housefloor in a later period. I'd like to understand that process of change. But if the space of that platform was always socially produced, how can that concept help me understand change through time?

The problem, for me, is that the social production of space is a humanities concept, and I think like a social scientist (in case you haven't guessed). The social production of space is one of those highly abstract, philosophical concepts that describes the way the world works in general; it is not a concept that explains specific social contexts on the ground. For fans of Abend (2008), this concept is theory type 5, and/or perhaps theory type 3; it is certainly not a workhorse causal concept that pertains to theory types 1 and 2. See my discussion of Abend here., or better, go read the paper yourself. It's a great paper that will open the eyes of archaeologists. As I detail in my paper on arguments in archaeology (Smith 2015), abstract and philosophical social theory is not useful for explaining social processes on the ground (see also Smith 2011). It is for high-level musing about how the world is structured in general

For the social production of space, see Lefebvre, Low or Soja. Unwin provides a critique (references below)

I was reminded of my original reaction to the social production of space while reading an excellent treatment of social science methods (6 and Bellamy 2012). In their chapter on concept formation, they discuss "four closely related methodological reasons for ensuring that concepts are sound and appropriately structured" (p. 131). And, guess what? The social production of space is NOT a sound and appropriately structured concept from the perspective of social science epistemology. It may be a fine concept in the humanities; I couldn't say. What are the four reasons?

(1)  "If we define and/or operationalise concepts wrongly, then our research questions will lack precision, and we shall not be able to choose the right cases or population to test them. That is to say, our research will lose external validity." [SPS is not a very precise concept]

(2)  "If we specify and structure our concepts poorly, we cannot develop appropriate research instruments and apply them accurately and consistently. So the reseach will not achieve measurement validity and reliability."  [Does the social production of space have any research instruments at all?]

(3)  "Without getting concepts right, we cannot select appropriate populations and cases and thus make appropriate comparisons between them:"

(4)  "Quite simply, if we specify concepts wrongly, we will draw incorrect inferences in explanations and interpretations."  (all quotes, pp. 131-133)

So, quite simply, the social production of space does not make the grade as an adequate social science concept. Gerring (2012) has a nice discussion of concept formation in the social sciences, even better than 6 and Bellamy (and yes, the surname is "6"). I didn't have the heart to trot out Gerring and evaluate SPS in terms of his criteria.

If you view archaeology as part of the humanities, then much of what I write in this blog may not make much sense. But if you view it as a social science--a discipline that can contribute to the task of understanding human societies and their transformations over time in a rigorous fashion that will be accepted by other social scientists--then you should pay attention to your concepts, and think about whether they can carry real explanatory weight or whether they are just abstract hot air.

6, Perri and Christine Bellamy
2012    Principles of Methodology: Research Design in Social Science. Sage, New York.

Abend, Gabriel
2008    The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.

Gerring, John
2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Lefebvre, Henri
1991    The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell, Oxford.

Low, Setha M.
1996    Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica. American Ethnologist 23: 861-879.

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 15 (4): 18-23.

Soja, Edward W.
2000    Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Blackwell, Oxford.

Unwin, Tim
2000    A Waste of Space? Towards a Critique of the Social Production of Space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 25 (1): 11-29.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 wants to commercialize its "recommendations" has a system of "recommendations" for publications that I have never been fond of. Now they want to commercialize them by selling commendations. The way the recommendations work is that some scholars are invited to submit recommendations. I can't find the criteria listed on the website, but as I recall the only criterion was that one had published one or two papers ever. The recommenders are then supposed to recommend papers by clicking a button on the paper in question. This information become public, and the number of views on those papers increases. Individuals are given an "Authors rank" based on the number of recommendations their papers have received, adjusted for the rank of the recommenders. My author rank is 3.6, but I have no idea if that is high or low; the nature of the scale is not revealed.

I tried being a recommender for a while. I recommended some things, and then I'd get messages stating that views of those papers had increased dramatically after I had recommended them. Wow, I am an influential guy in! I'll put that on my CV. But without information on why one is recommending a paper, these recommendations don't carry much weight. And when the system got started I snooped around to see who was doing the recommending. Some recommenders are serious scholars whose views I take seriously (people like Gary Feinman and Linda Manzanilla). Others are low-quality scholars whose views I do NOT take seriously (I won't name names here. I manage to get enough people pissed off at me as it stands, I don't need make a bunch more people mad). So having one's papers recommended by someone like Gary Feinman (one of the top archaeologists, in my opinion) has the same weight as having them recommended by low-quality scholars. Not a very good system.  Plus, there is no way to give a negative recommendation. Some papers are terrible and deserve to be described as such, but that is not possible with this system. This is one more example of the facebookization of online scholarship. You can like something, but you can't dislike anything.

I just got the following email from someone on the staff:

 Hi Dr. Smith,
   My name is XXXXX, here at Academia. I noticed you had received a few recommendations on your papers. Would you be open to paying a small fee to submit any upcoming papers to our board of editors to be considered for recommendation? You'd only be charged if your paper was recommended. If it does get recommended then you'll see the natural boost in viewership and downloads that recommended papers get. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Here are my thoughts (this was my email reply) - I don’t have a very high opinion of your system of recommendation. As it stands, you have a bunch of low-quality scholars making recommendations, and I don’t consider the recommendations any kind of rigorous or useful measure of anything. Getting visibility through is useful, I guess, but it is not very high on my list of professional goals. The idea of paying a fee for recommendations sounds ludicrous. Who is on the “board of editors” to make these decisions? Non-professionals? Low-quality scholars? I have previously looked at as an alternative to the trend of increasing commercialization of scholarship. But now you want people to pay for some kind of recommendation? The recognition that matters to me is citations, not some social-media type of “liking” or fee-based recommendations. Please leave me out of it.

(END OF EMAIL) is strange. It will have some very positive scholarly practices, and then it will introduce a retrograde, anti-scholarly features like co-authors listing. I think the whole idea of recommendations, as currently implemented, is a pseudo-scholarly feature, and I don't trust it. One could design a better and more transparent system but that might be too complex. But this idea of selling recommendations is terrible. If this is implemented, I might consider leaving and posting my papers elsewhere.