Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Theory, theory, theory: What do we mean by "theory"

I thought I had made some headway in sorting out types of theory in my paper, Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. I distinguished "empirical theory," or what social scientists outside of archaeology call "middle-range theory," from high-level social theory. But I've just read a very interesting paper by sociologist Gabriel Abend called "The Meaning of Theory" (Abend 2008) which identifies no less than seven (7) distinct meanings that sociologists give to the word "theory." These categories apply (almost) equally well to archaeology:

  1. Warfare, stimulated by environmental and social circumscription, causes the rise of states. Carneiro's well-known theory for the origin of the state is an example of Theory-1, a general proposition about a relationship between two or more variables.
  2. The impact of Aztec imperial conquest in Morelos, Mexico, was determined by the interaction of two Aztec imperial strategies (enrichment of the capital through taxation, and co-option of local elites) with local social structures. This account, from several of my publications, is an example of Theory-2, an explanation of a particular social phenomenon. This kind of theory is also a proposition.
  3. Ceramic decorative styles in a particular region expressed world-view and ethnic identity. This kind of theory, Theory-3, is a hermeneutical interpretation about meaning, not a proposition about causality.
  4. What did Marx really mean when he described precapitalist modes of production? Or, how can we understand Bourdieu's concept of doxa in relation to the archaeological record? Theory-4 is concerned with how we understand the great thinkers today. Most courses on "anthropological theory" are in fact courses about the historical development of theory, understood as Theory-4.
  5. Theory-5 is an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. It is not theory about the social world itself, but rather about how to understand and represent it. Abend lists a number of types of Theory-5: postmodern theory, poststructuralist theory, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, Marxist theory, structural-functionalist theory, and rational choice theory.
  6. Theory-6 is concerned with how the world should be. In the language of all of the social sciences except for archaeology, Theory-6 is called "normative" theory. Critical theory, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory are often examples of Theory-6, which often rejects the fact/value dichotomy. This kind of theory is often called "social theory."
  7. This kind of theory concerns large fundamental problems about the nature of knowledge, language, and reality within a discipline. For archaeology, Theory-7 might include issues of time and formation processes, in addition to broader questions about the nature of data and explanation, or the role of theory. Abend notes that his article is an example of Theory-7.

How is all this related to publishing in archaeology? People publish works on "theory" that might deal with any of these seven concepts. Without some kind of roadmap, this can be confusing, not just to students but to long-time archaeologists like me. Abend talks about the importance of distinguishing between these different conceptions of theory. He does NOT essentialize "theory" by saying that there are seven distinct types of theory out there, and that sociologists pick one to use. Rather, these are seven labels for overlapping domains of knowledge, and that writers mean different things when they invoke different meanings of the word "theory."

Archaeologists with a more philosophical and interpretive bent (postprocessualists and social archaeology types) tend to use the term theory to mean Theory-3 through Theory-6. Nuts-and-bolts archaeologists (scientific and materialist types like me) tend to emphasize Theory-1 and Theory-2 meanings. This is the domain I call "empirical theory" (Smith 2011), something that doesn't find much expression in the literature on "archaeological theory."

I sometimes find it bizarre that I have found more conceptual clarity about ideas, goals, and understanding, — about ontology and epistemology — from the discipline of sociology than from anthropology or archaeology. Check out Abend's paper, or my 2011 paper for more.

Abend, Gabriel
2008    The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26:173-199.

Smith, Michael E.
2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.

PS - Note added in March 2013: I highly recommend thuis nice collection of brief papers on archaeological theory\:

Bintliff, John and Mark Pearce (editors)
2011    The Death of Archaeological Theory? Oxbow, Oxford.


Anonymous said...

So what kind of archaeologist favors Theory 7? I often find myself fixing on Theory 7 issues (and I am an archaeologist) -- e.g., Alison Wylie-esque. Perhaps I should jump shimp -- move to Philosophy (a sinking shimp, I'm told)?

Anonymous said...

And by 'shimp' I meant 'ship.' Philosophy has fried my brain.

Michael E. Smith said...

I'm not sure that Abend's Theory-7 translates perfectly into archaeology. I would put much of our theory about the archaeological record here, including formation processes, chronology, analogy, explanation, and such. We all need to be concerned with this kind of theory to make sense out of old rocks and things.