Thursday, November 18, 2010

“Social Archaeology”: A good thing or a bad thing?

            I am revising my textbook, The Aztecs, for a third edition. In the previous editions (1996 and 2003), I used the phrase “social archaeology” as a contrast with “monumental archaeology” to illustrate the dominant approaches to the archaeology of ancient civilizations. But now I am having trouble deciding whether to continue to use the phrase in this sense, because it was hijacked by the postmodernists to refer to something very different from the kind of archaeology that I do. For me, work under the banner of “social archaeology” has changed from a good thing to a bad thing.
            “Social archaeology” was first used as a label for research on social topics by processual archaeologists. The phrase was used as the title of Colin Renfrew’s Inaugural Lecture at the University of Southampton in 1973, and then in titles of books in the 1970s and 1980s (Redman 1978; Renfrew 1984). In my own case, I cited Renfrew as exemplifying the kind of social archaeology that I do and that I advocated in my textbook and elsewhere.
            In the late 1980s, “social archaeology” was taken up by the postprocessualists initially as a way to describe what was wrong with processualist thinking. Chapter 2 of Shanks and Tilley (1987), titled “Social Archaeology,” was a critique of Renfrew and other processualist thinkers. But Shanks and Tilley go on to outline their program of postprocessual theory, which they called “critical social archaeology” (p.60). At about the same time, Barrett (1988) called for “reconstituting a social archaeology” with an emphasis on discourse and the practice theory of Giddens. Soon after, Blackwell initiated a book series called “Social Archaeology” with Ian Hodder as the editor.
            Through the 1990s some archaeologists continued to use the phrase “social archaeology” in Renfrew’s sense (Patterson 1994; Smith 1996:5; Webster 1996). By the turn of the millennium, however, it was spreading fast as a new name for postprocessual archaeology. The Journal of Social Archaeology began publishing in 2001, and the Blackwell Companion to Social Archaeology appeared in 2004 (Preucel and Meskell 2004).
            As an old-fashioned materialist with a scientific epistemology, I have little use for the “new social archaeology,” or postprocessual archaeology, or whatever you want to call it. I still find the concepts “social archaeology” and “monumental archaeology” useful in lectures to the public to explain how archaeologists approach the study of ancient states and empires. But can I continue to use this dichotomy in a new edition of my textbook (with caveats, or course)? Or should I just give up and accept the victory of the postprocessualists in hijacking the phrase social archaeology?
            This kind of thing is one reason why I often feel out of synch with much contemporary thought in archaeology and anthropology. In an upcoming book on social science methods, political scientist John Gerring (2011) suggests that the interpretivist orientation of modern cultural anthropology puts it outside of the main methodological and theoretical currents in the social sciences. And I find myself increasingly drawn to theory and concepts in sociology, political science, geography, and other fields in place of what passes for theory in archaeology and anthropology (Smith 2011). I’m sad to see social archaeology disappear as a concept that I can relate to.


Barrett, John C.
1988  Fields of Discourse: Reconstituting a Social Archaeology. Critique of Anthropology 7(3):5-16.
Gerring, John
2011  Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Patterson, Thomas C.
1994          Social Archaeology in Latin America: An Appreciation. American Antiquity 59(3):531-537.
Preucel, Robert W. and Lynn Meskell (editors)
2004  Blackwell Companion to Social Archaeology. Blackwell, Oxford.
Redman, Charles L. (editor)
1978  Social Archaeology: Beyond Subsistence and Dating. Academic Press, New York.
Renfrew, Colin
1984  Approaches to Social Archaeology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley
1987  Social Theory and Archaeology. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Smith, Michael E.
1996  The Aztecs. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
2011  Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).
Webster, Gary S.
1996  Social Archaeology and the Irrational. Current Anthropology 37(4):609-627.


Anonymous said...

While I agree with some of your sentiments regarding the "new social archaeology" and the Journal of Social Archaeology, there are a few things that this new line of work has done that I think has been beneficial. JSA frequently publishes articles considering the social, political, and particularly financial implications of archaeological research and tourism for descendant communities in various parts of the world. This is something that hasn't been considered quite so reflexively in the past. As for the term itself, I still think that there is room for your use of the term social archaeology. I understand the dichotomy that you've seen develop in the last ten years, but I still think that there are numerous people working within essentially processual (or processual-plus if you want to go there) paradigms who would appreciate the distinction you are trying to make in your Aztecs book.

Marcus said...

I'm not so sure of the value of putting forward such dichotomies for polemic purposes. Renfrew certainly doesn't, he just broadened the processual perspective to include the cognitive. What Hegmon called the 'processual plus'. It uses a scientific epistemology. There is also important renewed contact with anthropologist concerning the social implications of materiality. An example is:

Malafouris, L. & Renfrew, C., 2010 The cognitive life of things. Recasting the boundaries of the mind.

I'm pretty sure this approach includes monuments as well, as part of the functioning of the state and its underlying subdivisions (thus ultimately as a social fact).

The postmodernists are just sad, as my supervisor likes to say 'eunuchs at a party'. Very few people care about their stuff, it has not proven useful. Processual-plus can just move on without paying any attention to it, much less engage in a polemic.

Michael E. Smith said...

Reply to Anonymous and Marcus - Yes, my statement is probably overly polemical. I don't want to imply that nothing important is being done by the "social archaeology" crowd.

I am not very good with high-level theory, so my remarks are probably open to serious critique. Someone whose work and intelligence I admire recently called their approach to scholarship scientific, materialist, and postprocessual. I find this baffling, and the problem is probably my own limited understanding rather than contradictions in this person's theoretical approach.

All this implies, of course, that I should probably keep my mouth shut about high-level theoretical issues.....

cwren said...

I have the same problems with bodies of theory with names which have been used multiple times for different purposes. In a recent paper I resorted to using citations for evolutionary theory like this "ie. Shennan, Steele and Bentley rather than Spencer, Morgan and White" and for landscape archaeology "ie. Rossignol and Wandsnider rather than Tilley and Bender".

Perhaps not so elegant, but it invoked the body of theory I was trying to reference.

Terry said...

It would be neat if, regardless of what you choose, there was a footnote with a discussion about the changes in the terminology. Or, since we all love blogs around here, a URL that would take students to learn more about that discussion. That way, you can at least make explicit your concerns with the terminology.

Jason Baird Jackson said...

I am not as conflicted about the state of social/cultural theory as your post-authoring self is (and I am not an archaeologist) but you might follow the lead of sociology vis-a-vis psychology on the question of social psychology's status. When I learned it, it was common to differentiate psychologically inflected social psychology from sociologically inflected social psychology. ("Sociological social psychology" is one way that this gets written.) With your finding work in sociology useful for your purposes, it sounds to me like the label for what you are describing would be something like "sociological social archaeology."

Just a thought experiment.

(It would then be in a binary pair with "interpretive social archaeology." Both understandings of social archaeology then coexist with erasing the earlier sense.)

Michael E. Smith said...

Jason - Nice idea, although I think "scientific social archaeology", or perhaps "historical, comparative social archaeology" would be more apt. By the way, I followed up the folklore middle-range theory references you suggested previously, and included a note about "humble theory" in my paper on urban theory. Gosh, I hope I remembered to put you in the acknowledgments!

And Terry - If I put something in my textbook, it will be very brief. The blog post has much more information on the historical context than I will be able to put in the book.

Chris said...

The New Social Archaeology is truly postmodern.

What does that mean?

Does it mean that all pasts are subjective? Yea, sure.

Does it mean that history and texts and discourse are power-laden? That too, OK, yes.

Does it mean a recontextualization of personhoodization, and meaning structurization, and blah, blah, and Derrida too. Of course it does.

But these things are beside the point...and surely not restricted to the postmodern wing of academia...just look at the political economic Marxists.

So what makes a postmodern academic a postmodern academic? Simple: The superficiality of consumption. The consumption of ideas. The consumption of jargon-laden jargon. To be the first archaeologist to use this or that theorist. To regurgitate that which is trendy. I don't know how many readers have followed David Harvey's work, but I really like how he nails them. They are the products of the advanced capitalism that they seek to criticize.

Moreover, postmodern approaches-- that is, this form of consuming-- is becoming mainstream. The status quo. The "old school" processualists are now the increasingly marginalized, the subaltern academics trying to make a difference in the world by grasping to the notion that there is a material history. I had a conversation with a graduate student who called one of our professors, who identifies as a processually trained archaeologist, a conservative. Only in a postmodern condition can an intellectual majority (at least in academia and grad programs) make such an accusation.

But certainly the pursuit of new theorists and new concepts and new words is wonderful. It should be part of the intellectual enterprise. Agreed. But it takes a particular stance that I find alarming. It tends to close off, rather than open up, intellectual genealogies.

It is shocking to me that grad students can more easily churn out some vacuous unspecified statement on structure and agency but not be able to say one educated thing about, say, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Douglas, Leach, etc.--- the anthropologists who put structure (i.e., social org) center stage. Now Levi-Strauss's house society model is becoming trendy (or maybe that is passed us), but nobody considers the way Leach looked at the same problems with descent theory and the importance of place, land, tenure, and estates (there was a reason that some of Leach's later work was on feudalism). The notion of citation is important, furthermore, and increasingly "cited." But what are the similarities between this concept and some of the stuff on indexing from the ethnography of speaking? I could go on and on (especially on Leach).

I am not just name dropping here. I often joke that one's status as a social theorist varies inversely to the amount of actual research and fieldwork he or she has done with real societies. The postmodern condition increasingly ignores the body of knowledge "we" have produced and looks elsewhere to-- shockingly-- philosophers and theorists who rarely went out and, well, studied people, living or dead.

Just one more comment. A friend of mine, a cultural anthropologist with whom I recently published an article, told me that archaeologists are the consumers of theory produced by cultural anthropologists. I have heard this statement throughout graduate school. But, this time, I paused and considered his comment. First, I reminded him that he probably has the faintest idea of any archaeological work other than the one course he took as a grad student. Then, I said, sadly, archaeologists are looking to other fields for theoretical knowledge, especially Social Archaeologists. But so are so many cultural anthropologists. When it comes to theory, even cultural anthropology is undergoing this process. Cultural anthropologists can no longer claim themselves to be the intellectual superiors and patrons of archaeologists.

Michael E. Smith said...

Chris- Wow, what a post. Very nice!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a little bit late to the commentary, but I find your ideas interesting. I am getting ready for grad school and just starting to look into social archaeology, having only recently begun classes in archaeology.

I find that, as a newcomer, what seems to be the benefit of social archaeology is the admittance that you cannot know absolute truths because regardless of what you do, you are always looking at the world through your own point of view. That is especially true because we are dealing with the study of humans, who are not subject to the sort of universal laws that other sciences can test. Our data is inherently flawed when it comes to describing past societies or explaining why things were the way they were based off of material objects. Can you tell me how I feel about my TV, how often I use it, and what I get from it based off of the remains of my remote? Can you even tell me what it is like to live as a woman in today's society? Not if you are a man, the best you can do is ask, and even then your data can be skewed by the questions you ask and the answers I give under questioning.

I do not believe that everyone has to agree with the various social theories that are emerging, or be comfortable with them for that matter. However, at the very least I think people could recognize the fact that they are important to large populations, and not denigrate this attempt to highlight the fact that archaeology is a field that has long been dominated by white men, who do not understand the world in the same way as everyone else. (Not that white men aren't reasonable, educated people who deserve to have their views heard- I'm just saying that having multiple viewpoints is a good thing and diversity is still lacking in archaeology)

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - I don't think you really mean to say that humans are not subject to universal laws. If you don't get enough water to drink, you will die. That is a universal law, and it has clear material expression in settlement patterns, artifacts, and other things that we can study archaeologically. Now it is true that human thoughts, and perhaps human social organization, are probably not subject to universal laws. That observation is both profound and trivial. One of the problems I have with postmodernists (social archaeologists) is that they use that observation to argue that we cannot know the past objectively, that we cannot make rigorous comparisons among groups/societies/cultures, and that we should refrain from trying to explain the historical and social dynamics of the past.

The realist alternative (as in scientific realism) is to use our methods to approach a level of objectivity that allows comparison and explanation. By opbjectivity I mean that research should have explicit and clearly defined rules of evidence and reason, and that these rules do not privilege individual experiences or beliefs that cannot be replicated.

As for white men, I don't care whether research was done by white, blacks, or little green aliens. While social factors such as gender, social class, and ideology do affect scholarship, they are rarely determinate, and the scientific approach allows for advances in knowledge irrespective of the race, class, gender, etc., of the researcher. But if one has an interpretivist epistemology, then none of this matters at all, and one is free to reject objectivity, rigor, and science.