Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why archaeologists need to publish outside of archaeology

Here is just one concrete example of why it is important for archaeologists to publish in visible places where non-archaeologist scholars will see our work. I have been working on an article on V. Gordon Childe’s model of the urban revolution. In reviewing what scholars in other fields have said about Childe and about early cities, I have come across some wildly inaccurate descriptions of early urbanism by nonarchaeologists. I see two primary problems with these works: (1) some writers do not respect archaeological data. They assume that data can be ignored or explained away if it conflicts with an idea they like (See Jacobs, Soja and Reader below); (2) other writers ignore archaeological data and cite erroneous arguments made by popular scholars in their field. If more archaeologists would publish outside of archaeology, we might convince scholars in other disciplines that we have some solid data, realistic models, and rigorous arguments about the past. For a general statement along these lines, see my earlier post.

1. Jane Jacobs: Iconoclastic urbanist

The noted urban critic and scholar Jane Jacobs published a speculative account of early urbanism in her book, The Economy of Cities (Jacobs 1969). In chapter 1, “Cities Come First—Rural Development Later,” Jacobs argues that cities arose before agriculture. As analyzed by David Hill (1993), this idea was part of a larger argument for the importance of cities in human life. Jacobs claims that she “asked anthropologists how they know agriculture came before cities” (p.44) but they could not answer her.

Here is the reply to the question Jacobs supposedly asked anthropologists: read any introductory textbook in world prehistory. Agriculture came before cities. Period. End of argument. The evidence is conclusive. Jacobs is wrong. This should be the end of the story. But wait, Jacobs was a popular and controversial figure in urban studies, and many scholars want to accept her arguments.

2. Edward Soja: Postmodern geographer

In his book, Postmetropolis, geographer Edward Soja (2000) follows Jacobs in making a strong argument for the importance of cities in human life. He evidently believes, following Jacobs, that if one can say that cities preceded agriculture, this will support his overall argument. Unlike Jacobs, however, he actually looks into the relevant archaeological evidence and finds his idea not supported. No problem! A good idea trumps (archaeological) evidence!

“While all of her claims probably cannot withstand the most rigorous evidential criteria of the ancient historians and archaeologists, the core argument is sufficiently powerful and insightful to deserve serious attention here, especially for its demonstration of the geohistorical as well as contemporary significance of putting cities first” (Soja 2000:42).

Soja also cites with approval the statement of Henri Lefebvre that “the development of society is conceivable only in urban life, through the realization of urban society” (Soja 2000:10). Gee, those poor slobs who lived for millennia prior to the urban revolution could not develop their society. Talk about a statement designed to set on edge the teeth of an anthropologist!

Author John Reader, in his generally interesting book Cities (Reader 2005:24) evidently follows Jacobs and Soja in wanting to argue for the primacy of cities, but since the archaeological data do not cooperate, he resorts to a convoluted argument that I have trouble following. Soja and Reader both invoke the old chestnut that Çatalhöyük was “the world’s first city” (Shane and Küçük 1998). Anyone who thinks they may be correct should look at the data! Here is what Ian Hodder has to say about the urban status of this 15-hectare Neolithic site:

“So all there is at Çatalhöyük are houses and middens and pens. There is none of the functional differentiation that we normally associate with the term ‘town’. Çatalhöyük is just a very large village—it pushes the idea of an egalitarian village to its ultimate extremes.” (Hodder 2006:98).

3. Other authors who cite the errors of Jacobs rather than archaeological data

Here are some recent authors who cite Jane Jacobs idea that cities preceded agriculture (without bothering to see whether there is actual data on the topic). This is a case of what Anne-Wil Harzing calls "empty references":

(Phillips 1996:88), (Taylor 2007), (Cortright 2001:23), (Short 1996:15).

What is the moral of the story? One might argue that if others are going to misuse archaeological data, there is not much we can do about it. I do not agree, however. I think we need to publish readable and authoritative papers and book about the past in places where others can find them. I’m not talking about communicating with the general educated public here, I am talking about communicating with scholars in other disciplines.

By the way, the only critique of Jacobs's ideas that I've seen is by Marc van de Mieroop (1999:25-26).


Cortright, Joseph

2001 New Growth Theory, Technology and Learning: A Practitioner's Guide. Reviews of Economic Development Literature and Practice, vol. 4. Impresa, Inc., U.S. Economic Development Administration, Portland.

Hill, David R.

1993 A Case for Teleological Urban Form History and Ideas: Lewis Mumford, F.L. Wright, Jane Jacobs and Victor Gruen. Planning Perspectives 8:53-71.

Hodder, Ian

2006 The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Jacobs, Jane

1969 The Economy of Cities. Vintage Books, New York.

Phillips, E. Barbara

1996 City Lights: Urban-Suburban Life in the Global Society. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, New York.

Reader, John

2005 Cities. Vintage, New York.

Shane, Orrin C, III and Mine Küçük

1998 The World's First City. Archaeology 51(2):43-47.

Short, John R.

1996 The Urban Order: An Introduction to Cities, Culture, and Power. Blackwell, Oxford.

Soja, Edward W.

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

Taylor, Peter. J.

2007 Cities in Transitions and Transformations: Exploring a Jacobsean Approach to Macro-Social Change. GAWC Research Bulletin, vol. 37. Globalization and World Cities Research Network, Online report. http://www.lboro.ac.uk/gawc/rb/rb237.html.

Van De Mieroop, Marc
1999 The Ancient Mesopotamian City. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


Scott Davies said...

'Go read a textbook'?? That seems an incredibly facile and arrogant response to what, as far as I can see, is a perfectly credible hypothesis.

In any case, I would hope the textbooks you refer to are a lot more convincing than Marc van de Mieroop's incredibly sloppy 'straw man' argument against Jacobs' hypothesis.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, to me a blog is a place where one is permitted to be facile and arrogant. In a scholarly publication, I would provide much more evidence showing that the notion of cities preceding agriculture is not at all a "credible hypothesis." And if Jane Jacobs had indeed read a texbook on world prehistory, she would have realized that this particular idea flew in the face of rather consistent archaeological evidence to the contrary.

Scott Davies said...

As a layperson, I'm not familiar with the unspecified archeological evidence you refer to. If you do indeed end up writing a scholarly article on the subject, I for one would be very interested to read it. In the meantime, perhaps you could give us all one or two clues about the evidence you so nebulously refer to?

Michael E. Smith said...

I'm not sure if this is what you are looking for, but: in every single area of the world where there have been indigenous transformations from hunting/gathering to farming (the Neolithic Revolution) and from farming to urban societies (the Urban Revolution), the Neolithic Revolution occurred several thousand years before the Urban Revolution. This has been conclusively demonstrated, with lots of archaeological evidence of well-dated sites, in the Near East, in China, in Mesoamerica and in the Andes. Just about any textbook on world prehistory or on regional prehistory will spell out the data, compiled from hundreds of sites. Here are a few examples:

Evans, Susan T. (2004) Ancient Mexico and Central America. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Fagan, Brian M. (2002) World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction. 5th ed. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Maisels, Charles Keith (1990) The Emergence of Civilisation: From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture, Cities, and the State in the Near East. Routledge, New York.

Peregrine, Peter (2002) World Prehsitory: Two Million Years of Human Life. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Anonymous said...

As an anthropology undergrad and now urban planning PhD student, I find your critique of Jacobs and Soja apposite. I've had a seminar with Ed, and had to bite my tongue at his story of urban development - namely that agriculture is a product of urbanization. My specialization in the field is very different from this debate, but one side's weaknesses are very clear.

Nonetheless, his and Jacobs work carry a lot of currency among some planning scholars. The basic argument is that innovation, social change and processes of 'spatialization' a la Lefevre, happen when many people are in close proximity to one another. This is rather intuitive -economists and sociologists have made similar but more rigourous arguments along these lines.

Either way, the title of this blog post is right on, as it is clear that urban theorists run into problems when trying to make diachronic generalizations about urban form and urbanization and could benefit from the work of archaeologists, among others.

Michael E. Smith said...

Update from June, 2009:

My paper on Gordon Childe's concept of The Urban Revolution has come out. It has a footnote on the errors of Jacobs, Soja, etc:

Smith, Michael E. (2009) V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.