Harvard University is hosting a symposium April 10 called "Hard problems in social science." A number of prominent social scientists, from Harvard and elsewhere, will discuss their views of the major unsolved questions facing social science. I found out about this through Savage Minds, in a post that asked whether (cultural) anthropologists could identify a set of basic unresolved hard problems. This elicited a bunch of comments, but not surprisingly cultural anthropologists seem hard pressed to identify basic research problems for their discipline. The Harvard symposium has a page on facebook, where they solicit suggestions of hard questions in a number of disciplines (including anthropology, but NOT archaeology).
So, my question here is: What are the "hard problems" in archaeology? That is, what are some basic research questions that are important intellectually, but difficult to resolve and worthy of continuing attention? I realize that this blog is not the ideal venue for this kind of discussion. I try to keep the topics focused on issues of publishing, and I try to refrain from too much self-indulgent ranting and raving. But there does not seem to be an sophisticated and well-read blog devoted to intellectual issues in archaeology, parallel to Savage Minds in cultural anthropology. When I have tried to raise more general issues of this sort previously, I have been underwhelmed by the response.
Nevertheless, I find the buzz surrounding the Harvard symposium contagious, and it resonates with some ideas I have been wrestling with recently. What issues are really important in our field? Are they issues particular to archaeology, or do they relate to broader scholarly currents? Can we think of a series of common issues, or will postprocessualists or poststructuralists come up with very different lists from materialists like me? How can we convey our intellectual concerns to the public and to other scholars (very different from how to convey out latest "exciting finds" to the public).
On the facebook page for Hard Problems in Social Science, under Anthropology, I posted what I consider 2 big problems for (4-field) anthropology:
(1) cultural evolution.
(2) the evolution of cooperation.
If you have suggestions, post a comment (here, or on facebook). It can't hurt for archaeologists to become part of a broader discussion in this area.