Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What are the "Hard Problems in Archaeology" ?

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.


Anonymous said...

Great blog post - we just added to the discussion forum on the Facebook page for this symposium the topic of "Hard Problems in Archaeology" that you and your readers can discuss, suggest and debate.

Patrick said...

I like your suggestions. To be a little more specific I would add:
1. We now know that monumental/public architecture is frequently first constructed in a region by more-or-less egalitarian people (see Poverty Point, Gobekli Tepe, early San Jose Magote, etc.) Because we lack very good ethnographic analogues for such societies archaeology is going to be alone in answering how these cultures operated. For example, most of our models for why egalitarian societies were so persistent and durable is they often institute rules discouraging the amassing of surplus and wealth (private or public). How did (trans)egalitarian societies persist for centuries or millenia without a ratcheting up of status differentials? Such questions really get at the heart of our models of cultural evolution.
2. A more technical issue, but so many archaeological problems (peopling of the New World, tool use among early Homo) could be solved if we could directly date lithic production and use rather than rely on indirect methods.

BTW, great blog!

Michael E. Smith said...

Sometimes it is useful to think about the big questions that archaeology alone can solve, and sometimes it is good to think about big problems that are broader in scope, but with relevant archaeological input. For thinking about the latter, I really like these papers:

(1) Wallerstein, Immanuel, 2003, Anthropology, Sociology, and Other Dubious Disciplines. Current Anthropology 44:453-465.

Wallerstein's main point is that the main problems of social science cannot be solved within disciplines and require cross-disciplinary research. He argues that the current disciplinary structure of the social sciences is a historical artifact and today hinders, rather than promotes, progress.

(2) Steckel, Richard H., 2007, Big Social Science History. Social Science History 31:1-34.

Steckel talks about some large-scale research projects in historical social science (or social science history), and comes up with a list of 15 big projects that would advance scholarship significantly. His one archaeological suggestion, though, shows that he is not in touch with our discipline. It is "Inventory all archaeological sites and all artifacts at those sites." Now instead of complaining that Steckel is clueless, I prefer to acknowledge the fact that he is at least thinking about archaeology (pretty rare for other social scientists). And he DOES include some topics that archaeology does work on ("Study natural disasters and human history").

Michael E. Smith said...

the Facebook page on the Harvard symposium now has a section for archaeology - check it out:!/pages/Hard-Problems-in-Social-Science/111085732253765?ref=ts

RMA said...

I can think of a few:

1) Structural comparison of human societies dealing with all aspects we encounter in the material record. I guess this could fall under cultural evolution, though.

2) Interpreting worldviews different from our own based solely on a material record or with very few texts. My own work.

3) Providing a different perspective on the emergence and structure of the modern world we live in. Both by placing it into a comparative context alongside different kinds of society and the contribution of historical archaeology towards understanding the mterial underpinning of our life.

4) Interpreting the emergence of contemporary humans and the emergence of complexity as part of biological evolution.

Colleen said...

Thank you for the link to the FB group--it's an interesting topic and I posted my (fairly brief) take on the issue. Will have to think about it a bit more--it'd be a great session for the SAA or TAG!

Michael E. Smith said...

The Wall St. Journal (April 16, Opinion-Taste section) published an opinion piece on the Harvard conference, "Hard questions from 'soft' sciences":