Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cultural evolution, postmodern archaeology, and mechanisms

I am posting from funky Pacific port city of Guaymas, Sinaloa, Mexico, en route home from a summer of lab work in Toluca, Mexico.

I've just read an interesting debate between Robert Carneiro (dyed-in-the-wool cultural evolutionist) and Timothy Pauketat (postmodern archaeologist) about the concept of chiefdom. Its published in a journal that is hard to find (and this issue is not yet online). Carneiro has a lengthy review essay on Pauketat's book, Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions, followed by a reply from Pauketat and a final piece by Carneiro:

Carneiro, Robert L.
2010    Pauketat's Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions: A Challenge to Social Evolution. Social Evolution and History 9(1):135-165.

Pauketat, Timothy R.
2010    Carneiro's Long Tirade. Social Evolution and History 9(1):166-171.

Carneiro, Robert L.
2010    Critique of Pauketat's Volume. Social Evolution and History 9(1):172-176.

Much of the content of the debate is predictable if you know something of the work of Carneiro and Pauketat. The journal is soliciting papers to continue the debate/discussion on chiefdoms. I find Carneiro's account frustrating. I largely sympathize with this scientific approach and his critique of Pauketat. But by ignoring the empirical and theoretical work of the past few decades, Carneiro leaves himself open to easy critique by Pauketat.

What I want to comment on here is the concept of social mechanisms, something that I have started to read and write about. Much of Carneiro's frustration with Pauketat's approach is his lack of attention to social mechanisms. Carneiro tries to find social mechanisms in Pauketat's book, but is largely unsuccessful. But this is a key difference between scientific anthropology and postmodern anthropology. What are social mechanisms? The following text is adapted from a paper I just wrote on urban theory in archaeology (Smith, Michael E., "Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists". Paper under review for publication.).

A social mechanisms is: “an intermediary level of analysis in-between pure description and story-telling, on the one hand, and universal social laws, on the other” (Hedström and Swedberg 1996:281). The study of social mechanisms is one part of a broader approach called “analytical sociology” (Hedström 2005; Hedström and Udéhn 2009). Social mechanisms are lower-order social processes that have a causal component: “The basic idea of a mechanism-based explanation is quite simple: At its core, it implies that proper explanations should detail the cogs and wheels of the causal process through which the outcome to be explained was brought about” (Hedström and Ylikoski 2010). In the words of Hedstrom and Swedberg (1998:24), research on social mechanisms represents “the essence of middle-range sociology and expresses the idea that sociology should not prematurely take on broad-sweeping and vague topics or try to establish universal social laws (which are unlikely to exist in any case). It should instead aim at explanations specifically tailored to a limited range of phenomena.” See also Gerring (2007) and Faletti and Lynch (2009).

I'm too hot and tired to elaborate on how the concept of mechansisms is used (or not used) by Carneiro and Pauketat. But after reading the sociology and political science literature on mechanisms in the past few months, I was struck by their importance in Carneiro's view of science and anthropology, and by how much his discussion paralleled the critiques of postmodern sociology by some of the analytical sociologists cited above

Falleti, Tulia G. and Julia F. Lynch
2009    Context and Causal Mechanisms in Political Analysis. Comparative Political Studies 42(9):1143-1166.

Gerring, John
2007    Review Article: The Mechanistic Worldview: Thinking Inside the Box. British Journal of Political Science 38:161-179.

Hedström, Peter
2005    Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hedström, Peter and Richard Swedberg
1996    Social Mechanisms. Acta Sociologica 39:281-308.

1998    Social Mechanisms: An Introductory Essay. In Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, edited by Peter Hedström and Richard Swedberg, pp. 1-31. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hedström, Peter and Lars Udéhn
2009    Analytical Sociology and Theories of the Middle Range. In The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, edited by Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, pp. 25-49. Oxford University Press, New York.

Hedström, Peter and Petri Ylikoski
2010    Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 36:49-67.

It seems to me that attention to social mechanisms by archaeologists would greatly clarify the nature of the changes and dynamics of past societies. If this sounds at all interesting, check out some of the above sources. On the other hand, if this sounds ridiculous, outdated, and "scientistic", then you are probably a postmodernist and most likely  you disagree with much of the way I think about human societies and the role of archaeology in studying past societies.


Patrick said...

I have not yet read the Carneiro/Pauketat exchange, but there was an interesting set of comments and critiques about Pauketat's book by assorted Southeastern archaeologists printed in Volume 2 of the journal Native South. Some of the less interesting parts of the debate deal with terminology. But behind those arguments are some interesting debates about how to think of archaeology and chiefdoms.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yeah, I particularly like Robin Beck's paper:

Beck, Robin A., Jr.
2009 On Delusions. Native South 2:111-120.