Thursday, October 7, 2010

Archaeology and other disciplines

(1)  The office of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at NSF put out a call for White Papers with suggestions on directions for research over the next 10 years. Our urban group submitted a document. We argue for a broad perspective on urban research that not only transcends the social science disciplines, but also incorporates disciplines from other areas (e.g., history, planning). Our vision of urban research goes beyond traditional social science perspectives on cities in three ways: a focus on the built environment; a historical perspective; and a comparative perspective.

Smith, Michael E., Christopher Boone, George L. Cowgill, Sharon L. Harlan, Barbara L. Stark, and Abigail York   2010   An Expanded Social Scientific Perspective on Urbanism. White Paper, Future Research in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. National Science Foundation, Washington, DC. 

It is available under "documents and downloads" on our website.

(2) I've just published another paper on this general theme in the SAA Archaeological Record:

Smith, Michael E.
2010    Just How Useful is Archaeology for Scientists and Scholars in Other Disciplines? SAA Archaeological Record 10(4):15-20.

I tried to post this on my page at, but instead of letting me upload a paper, the program insisted on "searching the web for papers you may have written." Google Scholar says that I have written 34,000 papers (you didn't know I was so productive, did you?), and the Academia automatidc search hung my computer. I have given up posting papers there for now. It is posted on my website, though.

Here are some other recent works along these lines:

  • "Is Archaeology Useful: An Archaeological Dialogue," a theme issue with multiple contributions and discussion in Archaeological Dialogues 16(2), 2009. Those papers are from a symposium at the same SAA meetings as the session described in my paper. It is fascinating to see how radically different the 2 sessions were, although each addressed the question of the "usefulness" of archaeology.
  • Foster, Thomas, Lisa Olsen, Virginia Dale and Arthur Cohen  (2010)  Studying the Past for the Future:  Managing Modern Biodiversity from Historic and Prehistoric Data. Human Organization 69:149-157.
  • Guttmann-Bond, Erika  (2010)  Sustainability Out of the Past: How Archaeology Can Save the Planet. World Archaeology 42(3):355-366.


Marcus said...

While I think the urbanism project is very useful and innovative I have some misgivings about 'use' being a definitive criteria to assess the value of archaeology. It is an old debate, already addressed by Childe in his 'Society and knowledge' (1956).

My misgivings are that more holistic treatments of societies are bound to suffer as people focus on specific aspects that are thought to be of most use. In the process simplifications and category mistakes are bound to be made. A focus on 'economic' things is likely to overlook 'art' things, per their usefulness in current society. But it may very well be that such a distinction was not made by the society in question. In fact, it is more likely that 'art' and 'economic' things were part of a 'total system' in the Maussian sense.

This is not to say that it isn't very useful to study such aspects in isolation, but for me the ultimate (if maybe unreachable) goal is to gain a holistic overview of civilizations A, B and C. It may very well be that such holistic views of societies have their own use, but I remain a little worried about a scattering to diverse 'use' interests.

I write this as a general comment, not as a criticism of the excellent work of yourself and the urbanism group btw.

Michael E. Smith said...


There are lots of different goals or uses for archaeology. Holistic descriptions of ancient societies is certainly a worthwhile goal, one that many archaeologists support. Some of my work is addressed at this goal. But to me personally, I think that archaeology has a lot to contribute as a comparative historical social science, but this goal has not been pursued very far. Therefore, much of my recent research and thinking focuses on how to further this part of archaeology. In this context, one doesn't need to construct holistic models of past societies. But one does need to focus on specific domains (e.g., the economy, or political dynamics, or ritual practice) and specific topics (e.g., craft production, architecture and power, domestic ritual).

I don't think we can pick just one thing and say "THIS is what archaeology is all about" (unless we mean, perhaps, "the past"). Archaeology is a big tent, etc., Thanks for the comment.