Monday, June 14, 2010

Engaging other disciplines, apologizing for Binford

I just completed a paper on urban theory in archaeology, most of which is from disciplines like architecture, planning, and geography. I draw on sociology for models and approaches to theory and explanation. I found that I had to "apologize" twice for Lewis Binford's idiosyncratic terminology. Due to Binford's influence, we archaeologists use a variety of terms in ways that differ greatly from usage in other disciplines. In my current kick to link archaeology more strongly to non-anthropological social science and historical disciplines, this is a problem.

The first divergent concept is "normative." To Binford and his followers, "normative" is a pejorative term used to dump on mental, or idea-based explanations of cultural phenomena. Normative is bad, and as an archaeologist and old Binfordite (and as a materialist!), I certainly wouldn't want to promote "normative" theories. At first I found it very odd that planners and architects used the phrase normative without blushing, often in a positive sense. It turns out that normative theories refer to theories that have a positive evaluative aspect. For example, most planners believe that there is such a thing as "good city design," (a title of an excellent book by Kevin Lynch) and this is the way they use the term normative.

There was a second reason that normative theory sounded odd to me when I first encountered it outside of archaeology. As an anthropologist, I was trained to be relative about everything. All cultural practices are equally valuable; we can't say that one practice or concept or institution is any better than any other. Relativism is at the heart of anthropology. I was uncomfortable when art historical colleagues would say that a particular object or work of art was awful. How can we make such a judgment? How can architects say that a building is good or bad in some absolute sense?

Well, I think I have been cured of much of my relativitis. Just take a look at James Kunstler's website "Eyesore of the Month." (I really want to submit the signs that line the north side of Tempe Marketplace Mall for Eyesore of the Month, but I have so far been unable to get an appropriate night photograph that reveals their full commercial ugliness). But back to Binford: there are bodies of normative theory that are respectable and important, and Binford's idiosyncratic definition hinders cross-disciplinary understanding.

The second Binford problem I came across in my paper was the concept "middle-range theory." Sociologist Robert Merton used this, long before Binford, to denote theories at a lower epistemological level than high-level social theory. Now several archaeologists have pointed this out and contrasted Merton with Binford's use of the term to refer to archaeological formation processes (Raab & Goodyear 1984; Shott 1998). But in spite of their urgings, archaeologists go on using "middle-range theory" in Binford's idiosyncratic way. Because the theories I review in my paper are examples of middle-range theory in Merton's sense, I looked into the continuing use of this concept in sociology (as someone who is not fond of high-level social theory, I find the literature on middle-range theory very congenial). So again I had to explain that I was using the concept in its standard sense rather than in Binford's sense. By standard sense, I mean chronologically prior, used by a greater number of disciplines, and used by a far far greater number of scholars. Hmmmmm.

Working across disciplines is hard, but it would be nice if the hard things were intellectual and conceptual, not terminological.

Raab, L. Mark and Albert C. Goodyear (1984) Middle-Range Theory in Archaeology: A Critical Review of Origins and Applications. American Antiquity 49:255-268.

Shott, Michael J. (1998) Status and Role of Formation Theory in Contemporary Archaeological Practice. Journal of Archaeological Research 6:299-330.


Michael E. Smith said...

From Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five: "I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting."

Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing an article discussing language and its problems within the archaeological sphere...and was directed to your article, and am very glad for it! I've also noticed the problems with different terminology for different disciplines: in many sociological papers I have come across in my research, they do not hold back from using words such as "primitive" or "savage" - words which, with my institutional teaching, I have learnt to frown upon especially within the discussion of prehistoric man. I too find Binford's word use at times problematic and am glad to know others have the same issues! Thank you for your article, it's very insightful - and makes me hopeful of people studying archaeology becoming more interested in and aware of the language they use in comparison to other disciplines, and the consequence of terminology differences.