Thursday, January 27, 2011

Archaeology and the future of social science research at NSF

Last year, the NSF Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences called for White Papers on the future of research in this area. This is part of what they asked for:

NSF/SBE invited individuals and groups to contribute white papers in which we asked authors to outline grand challenge questions that are both foundational and transformative. They are foundational in the sense that they reflect deep issues that engage fundamental assumptions behind disciplinary research traditions and are transformative because they seek to leverage current findings to unlock a new cycle of research.

They received 244 responses, and of those, I count seven by archaeologists (there could be more: these are only the primary authors, and additional archaeologists are co-authors of some reports. Or perhaps I missed an archaeologist or two in my quick skim of the list). These are what I found:

Michael Barton's paper is about research on human-natural systems; Elizabeth Chilton calls for support for heritage studies; and Joy McCorriston deals with economic rationality; the other titles are more explanatory.

I must admit my disappointment with this rather meager showing by archaeology. Don't archaeologists want to have better access to NSF funding, don't our research questions deserve greater support, shouldn't we position ourselves more in the mainstream of social science research? Its not too hard to transform many of our basic research questions into issues that resonate with broader social science research. Domestication can be framed in terms of human-land interaction, climate, sustainability issues. The rise of states can be discussed in terms of human inequality, origins and variation in governments, or urbanism (all topics represented in the 244 white papers by social scientists).

The SAA wasn't much help, sending around an email notification of the call for papers just a day or two before it was due.

Perhaps archaeologists think that science in archaeology is mainly the domain of technical analysis and archaeometry (conceivably more in tune with the humanities than the social sciences). Or perhaps scientific archaeology exists only in relation to itself and we don't need to reach out to other social science disciplines. Maybe we don't need the broader social sciences because anthropology provides the scientific linkages for archaeology (oops, I'm lapsing into irony here). Many of us are certainly happy to get funding from the Archaeology program at NSF, but maybe that's all we want to worry about at NSF. Or perhaps we are just too busy doing our research that we don't have time for big-picture questions in the social sciences.

I don't like any of those speculative explanations, but I find the small number of archaeologists who contributed white papers to NSF puzzling and disappointing.


Anonymous said...

It seems that half of the entries were from ASU affiliated folk...

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, I was trying to be modest and not point that out. But the interesting thing is that these 3 ASU applications were prepared separately, without coordination and without specific stimulus from the university or our program. The emphasis on transdisciplinary research and big-picture issues is much greater here than at other universities with which I am familiar; its part of the culture.