Thursday, May 19, 2011

Is there archaeology in Pasteur's quadrant?

I’ve been working with a group of colleagues from many departments and disciplines to plan a research center that relates social science to contemporary problems. There has been much discussion about “Pasteur’s quadrant,” a concept I was not familiar with. This project is positioned to be in Pasteur’s quadrant, and it has led me to think about whether there is archaeological research in this domain.

The concept of Pasteur’s quadrant was introduced by Donald Stokes (1997) as an improvement over traditional conceptions of applied vs. basic research. Previously, these approaches were seen as a one-dimensional continuum, with pure or basic research at one end and applied science at the other. Niels Bohr and Thomas Edison are often taken to exemplify these ends of the spectrum. In this formulation, as research becomes more applied in orientation, it must become less basic. Stokes produced a more complex, 2-dimensional scheme, that examines both the drive for basic understanding and considerations for use outside of science. His framework is typically portrayed as a four-part chart:

Diagram based on Stokes 1997

The research of theoretical physicist Niels Bohr is clearly in the upper left quadrant: pure research (for basic understanding), with little concern for social use. Inventor Thomas Edison is in the opposite corner: applied science and technology for social use. These scientists fit well in the old pure/applied science continuum. But the research of chemist/microbiologist Louis Pasteur, in the top right, is not well captured in the old unidimensional scheme. Pasteur clearly carried out basic research, designed to advance scientific knowledge and understanding, but the focus of his research—human disease—was chosen for its social use or relevance. As for the bottom left quadrant, I haven’t seen anyone come up with a reasonable interpretation, and its typically left blank.

So, how does archaeology fit here? Most traditional scientific or academic archaeology fits pretty snugly in Bohr’s quadrant, and most salvage archaeology goes with Edison. Is there archaeology in Pasteur’s quadrant? When I first asked myself this question (driving to work this morning), I wondered whether postmodern archaeology’s infatuation with heritage issues might be an example. But on second thought, this work is not basic research to increase scientific understanding, and it probably doesn’t fit in this scheme at all.

One tradition of archaeological research in Pasteur's quadrant is Marxist-inspired work, designed to shed light on modern issues and to play a role in their transformation. I am thinking of Randall McGuire's long series of theoretical, methodological, and thematic works (e.g.,McGuire 1992, 2008), as well as a number of other Marxian archaeologists.

Another kind of archaeology that might fit in Pasteur’s quadrant is the burgeoning field of human-environmental research done from a sustainability approach. Indeed, sustainability science is often explicitly positioned within Pasteur’s quadrant (Clark 2007). I think many of the archaeologists working on the IHOPE project (“Integrated History of People on Earth”; see papers in Costanza et al. 2007)—which is part of the emerging field of the archaeology of sustainability (see papers in Fisher et al. 2009 or Sinclair et al. 2010)—probably see their work as fitting comfortably in Pasteur’s quadrant.
I wonder, however, about the extent to which archaeologists who are interested in the social or non-archaeological usefulness of their work use those concerns to design and guide their research. This seems different from doing basic or pure research, and then looking around for possible applications or connections. I know that some archaeologists working on agricultural systems in South America (e.g., Clark Erickson or Christian Isendahl) have long positioned their fieldwork and research within Pasteur’s quadrant, seeing archaeological knowledge of ancient agricultural systems as having potential benefits in the modern world, and using this notion as a factor that generates and shapes their fieldwork.

In my own work on comparative urbanism, however, those parts that would fit into Pasteur’s quadrant do not include my basic fieldwork-based research in Mexico. I have argued that knowledge of ancient cities may have relevance for an understanding of modern urban processes (Smith 2010; York et al. 2011), but in making this claim I refer to a body of comparative knowledge of ancient and premodern cities, not (only) to my own fieldwork in Mexico. It is not that my fieldwork is irrelevant to such concerns, but my projects have not been motivated by, or designed around, this approach. Will my work on comparative urbanism have an impact when I plan and carry out my next fieldwork project? Although this sounds logical, I can't yet say just how it will affect my field research.

Perhaps the difference between these two examples lies in the levels of complexity of their subjects and their relative abundance of data. It is easy to see how one or two archaeological projects could illuminate the construction and use of a particular premodern agricultural field type, thereby producing knowledge that can be applied to modern farming in a relatively direct fashion. On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine how a similar number of excavation projects in ancient cities could produce enough information to directly illuminate modern urbanization processes. For the latter task, a much larger sample of ancient/premodern cities is needed, and the direct relevance of any individual project is much less. But if a particular fieldwork project is devoted to, say, economic processes and standard of living in an urban context, I can envision a number of points of relevance for modern urbanism. In contrast, a project devoted to topics like the meaning of material culture and social identity would seem to have fewer points of relevance or usefulness. Anyway, I'll stop meandering here.

The concept of Pasteur's quadrant is an interesting way to think about the broader context of archaeological research and knowledge. These are just some quick thoughts, and it would be useful to follow this up with a more extensive study of the literature.


Clark, William C.
2007    Sustainability Science: A Room of its Own. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:1737-1738.

Costanza, Robert, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen (editors)
2007    Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Fisher, Christopher T., J. Brett Hill, and Gary M. Feinman (editors)
2009    The Archaeology of Environmental Change: Socionatural Legacies of Degradation and Resilience. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

McGuire, Randall H.
1992    A Marxist Archaeology. Academic Press, New York.

2008    Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Sinclair, Paul, Gullög Nordquist, Frands Herschend, and Christian Isendahl (editors)
2010    The Urban Mind: Cultural and Environmental Dynamics. Studies in Global Archaeology, vol. 15. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Uppsala.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

Stokes, Donald E.
1997    Pasteur's Qudrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

York, Abigail, Michael E. Smith, Benjamin Stanley, Barbara L. Stark, Juliana Novic, Sharon L. Harlan, George L. Cowgill, and Christopher Boone
2011    Ethnic and Class-Based Clustering Through the Ages: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Urban Social Patterns. Urban Studies (in press).


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. It is undoubtedly a good way to place one's research in Pasteur's quadrant. I did so with my current project on caves and climate change and received funding from eleven different funds. The difference with my position in this quadrant compared to many others is that I am quite sceptical that we can learn that much from the past for future solutions (like that proposed by Sinclair, Isendahl, etc.). It is well intended research but there are too many complexities between past agricultural practices and its modern readaptation. A long-term perspective of the effects of urbanism is good but apart from the "news" that people practiced farming in the cities I don't see the value of these results for our current problems. Are they worth the money invested?

Michael E. Smith said...

@Johan - I am an "agnostic" on this question of the value of archaeological results for future solutions. If some people don't make serious efforts, though, we will never know whether this kind of approach is valuable. Superficial comparisons are all too easy, and we need serious efforts. But regardless of whether these things pay off for contemporary relevance, they help archaeologists understand our data about the past more fully. Also, I see a level of clear relevance for a broader understanding of premodern cities in general, apart from whether contemporary cities are comparable or not.

Evan said...

Did anyone else wonder how many archaeologists end up doing work in the low-low quadrant?

Matt Bandy said...

I would say that quite a bit of "salvage archaeology" falls in Pasteur's quadrant.