Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why don't archaeologists talk about causality, explanation, and epistemology?

I just read a nice review article in American Anthropologist (vol. 113 (2):200-212, 2011), "Explaining the Past in 2010," by Elizabeth Arkush. As a review article, I found it intelligent, well-organized, and useful (as judged by the resulting growth in my Endnote bibliography file). But I found it slightly bizarre that an article titled "Explaining the past" has almost nothing to say about explanation, causality, or epistemology. Arkush does mention the postmodern/scientific theoretical split in archaeology and wisely does not get hung up on it. But in what ways can the various accounts she reviews be seen as "explaining" past society and historical change? What does explanation mean in archaeology, anyway? Why don't we talk more about these things?

First, a caveat. I am not any kind of expert in this area; in fact I'm not even sure my command of these epistemological and ontological issues is even minimally competent. Nevertheless, I do think that much of archaeology is in poor shape epistemologically, and I have recently become aware of numerous good models and approaches outside of archaeology and anthropology that we are ignoring at our peril. So while I hesitate to claim expertise or deep understanding, I do think that my suggestions are worth a look.

Why are we in bad shape epistemologically? Binford and the new archaeologists got off on the wrong foot by throwing in with Hempel's covering-law approach to explanation, even though it was already under attack by philosophers of science as inappropriate for the social sciences. There are still some scientifically-oriented archaeologists advocating covering-law explanations today (e.g., Kuznar and Long 2008). Then postmodernism hijacked theoretical discussion in archaeology. To the postmodernists (post-processsualists, "social archaeology" advocates, poststructuralists, postcolonial archaeologists, etc.), causality and explanation were (and are) bad and not to be discussed (mere scintistic delusions). Those archaeologists who did have some concern with epistemology got hung up on comparing scientific and postmodern archaeology ("see, both sides really use almost the same kinds of reasoning"), a trend that continues today. And while archaeologists have been excavating, arguing, navel-gazing, and rubbing up against cultural anthropology, the other social sciences (and the philosophy of science) were getting on with the job of producing reliable explanations of society, behavior, and historical change. It's time that archaeologists looked to this broader literature for suggestions and models. Here are a few suggestions.

Kuznar, Lawrence A. and Kenneth Long  (2008)  Deductive-Nomological vs. Causal-Mechanical Explanation: Relative Strengths and Weaknesses in Anthropological Explanation. In Against the Grain: The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, edited by Bradley B. Walters, Bonnie J. MacKay, Paige West and Susan Lees, pp. 159-173. AltaMira, Lanham, MD.

Middle-range theory (Mertonian, NOT Binfordian)

            I deal with this issue at length in my urban theory paper (Smith 2011), so I won't say much here. Suffice it to say that the high-level social theory many archaeologists are enamored of is simply not up to the task of explaining actual empirical social changes or processes (in the past or in the present). What is called middle-range theory by everyone except archaeologists is needed for the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts work of archaeologists who want to explain social processes.

The postmodernists out there will hate this diagram, and dismiss it out of hand; see Smith (2011) for discussion of the issue.

Smith, Michael E.  (2011)  Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).

Causal mechanisms

            The “nuts-and-bolts” metaphor above was deliberate. It is one way that sociologists and political scientists describe their work in identifying the causal mechanists that account for social change. Here are just a few of the many sources that contain discussions of causality and causal mechanisms that are very relevant for archaeology:

Bunge, Mario  (1997)  Mechanism and Explanation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 27:410-465.

Elster, Jon  (2007)  Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Gerring, John  (2007)  Review Article: The Mechanistic Worldview: Thinking Inside the Box. British Journal of Political Science 38:161-179.

Hedström, Peter  (2005)  Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hedström, Peter and Petri Ylikoski  (2010)  Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 36:49-67.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2011)  Neighborhood Effects, Causal Mechanisms and the Social Structure of the City. In Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, edited by Pierre Demeulenaere, pp. 227-249. Cambridge Universitiy Press, New York.

Tilly, Charles  (2008)  Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Explanation more generally

Fogelin (2007) is a very useful account, although a major deficiency, to my mind, is that he doesn’t stress the value of causal mechanisms. But read some of the stuff above to remedy that deficiency. Gibbon (1989) and Kelley and Hanon (1988) presented excellent accounts of scientific realism and explanation to archaeologists, but they never had the impact they deserved. See also Bunge (2004), Vayda (2008) and many of the other works cited in this post.

Bunge, Mario  (2004)  How Does It Work?: The Search for Explanatory Mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34(2):182-210.

Fogelin, Lars  (2007)  Inference to the Best Explanation: A Common and Effective form of Archaeological Reasoning. American Antiquity 72:603-625.

Gibbon, Guy  (1989)  Explanation in Archaeology. Blackwell, Oxford.

Kelley, Jane H. and Marsha P. Hanen  (1988)  Archaeology and the Methodology of Science. University of New Mexico Press`, Albuquerque.

Vayda, Andrew P.  (2008)  Causal Explanation as a Research Goal: A Pragmatic View. In Against the Grain: The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, edited by Bradley B. Walters, Bonnie J. MacKay, Paige West and Susan Lees, pp. 317-367. AltaMira, Lanham, MD.

The nature of theory

Lars Mjøset (2001) identifies four approaches to theory in the social sciences, and in his 2006 paper he expands this to six. His discussions illuminate how different archaeological camps approach theory and explanation:
  •          Law-oriented
  •          Idealizing
  •          Explanation-based
  •          Critical
  •          Transcendental
  •          Deconstructionist
 And in a brilliant paper,  Gabriel Abend (2008) shows how sociologists mean one of seven different things when they use the term “theory.”  Most of his seven meanings are directly relevant to anthropology and to archaeology. A very insightful paper, and I also recommend his 2006 paper, particularly for nomothetically-inclined U.S. archaeologists who have dealt with scholars in Latin America who might be more idiographic in orientation.

Abend, Gabriel  (2006)  Styles of Sociological Thought: Sociologies, Epistemologies, and the Mexican and U.S. Quests for Truth. Sociological Theory 24(1):1-41.

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

Mjøset, Lars  (2001)  Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

Mjøset, Lars  (2009)  The Contextualist Approach to Social Science Methodology. In The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods, edited by David Byrne and Charles C. Ragin, pp. 39-68. Sage, London.

Charles Tilly and social science epistemology

I nominate Charles Tilly for the best social scientist that archaeologists have never heard of. He explains social science epistemology and ontology so clearly, that even a philosophically-challenged guy like me can begin to understand. Here is one of his lists of major social science epistemologies, or “logics of explanation” (Tilly 2008:8):

  •         Covering laws
  •          Specification of necessary and sufficient conditions
  •          Statistical regression accounts (where one variable “accounts for” another
  •          Locations of structures and processes within larger systems (functionalist)
  •          Stage models; invariant growth sequences.
  •          Identification of individual or group dispositions just before a point of action.
  •          Reduction of complex episodes, or certain features of those episodes, to their component mechanisms and processes.

Tilly’s writing is clear and insightful. Here are just a few of his works that have relevance for archaeological considerations of epistemology, causality, and explanation (and if you work on states, be sure to check out Tilly 1985 and 2008 on states as protection rackets).

Tilly, Charles  (1985)  War Making and State Making as Organized Crime. In Bringing the State Back in, edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschmeyer and Theda Skocpol, pp. 169-186. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Tilly, Charles  (2001)  Mechanisms in Political Processes. Annual Review of Political Science 4:21-41.

Tilly, Charles  (2001)  Relational Origins of Inequality. Anthropological Theory 1(3):355-372.

Tilly, Charles  (2008)  Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Tilly, Charles and Sidley Tarrow  (2006)  Contentiouis Politics. Paradigm, Boulder, CO.

Some useful philosophy of social science

Boyd, Richard  (2010)  Scientific Realism. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, Stanford.

Bunge, Mario  (1996)  Finding Philosophy in Social Science. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Bunge, Mario  (2011)  Knowledge: Genuine and Bogus. Science and Education 20:411-438.

Elder-Vass, Dave  (2010)  The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Jarvie, Ian and Jesús Zamora-Bomilla (editors)  (2011)  Sage Handbook of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Sage, New York.

Little, Daniel  (1998)  Microfoundations, Method, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Transaction, New Brunswick.

Little, Daniel  (2010)  New Contributions to the Philosophy of History. Springer, New York.

Pawson, Ray  (2000)  Middle-Range Realism. European Journal of Sociology 41:283-325.

Sayer, R. Andrew  (2000)  Realism and Social Science. Sage, New York.

So, maybe I have violated the “Confucius says” phrase I remember from fifth grade: “Sometimes it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Or maybe some of this will be useful to others. I have certainly found much to think about in this literature (Smith 2011, 2012).

Smith, Michael E.  (2011)  Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).

Smith, Michael E.  (2012)  Archaeology, Early Complex Societies, and Comparative Social Science History. In The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies, edited by Michael E. Smith, pp. 321-329. Cambridge University Press, New York.


Marcus said...

Personally, I'm not so sure we are in such a bad shape and need to borrow from other fields. Archaeologists are very good at formulating middle-range/level theories that deal with specific aspects of the record. When it comes to grand theory, the question becomes how we can integrate and compare all these MRT's. That's why so much attention has been given to time perspectivism and the Annales (including your own 1992 paper). This sort of lets you order the past based on the data without getting lost in defining how it should be a priori.

To me, that is a very simple and attractive way of going about archaeology. I also think Annales causality is more empirical than a search for mechanistic causality.

Not saying there's no merit in these ideas, or to adopt a not-invented-here attitude. For myself I would like to elaborate what is useful in archaeological practice before entering into a dialogue with other disciplines.

Michael E. Smith said...

Check out Daniel Little's post yesterday on "social explanation and causal mechanisms," on Understanding Society:

@Marcus - I'm not so sure that archaeologists have given "so much attention" to the Annales approach - a few people made some noise, but I don't see it as very influential (yet). I think that the work of Braudel et al. fits very well with causal mechanisms.

dogscratcher said...

I will find these citings useful in writing my thesis, so thank you very much.

Jason Antrosio said...

Thank you for the extensive review and references. Although causality may be on the ropes within archaeology, it would seem (at least to this non-archaeologist observer) that causality and explanation have recently staged a press coup, with a big splash on states and warfare:

What Is War Good For? Sparking Civilization, Suggest Archaeology Findings from Peru

Sign of Advancing Society? An Organized War Effort

I would be interested to know your thoughts on this--I know you have already extensively published on the rise of the state, so feel free to point me back to something you have already done.

Thanks again!

Michael E. Smith said...


Thanks for the links. First, I usually don't give too much importance to press stories, since they are typically superficial and incomplete, if not outright wrong and silly. I printed out the PNAS paper by Stanish & Levine, but haven't read it yet. This kind of press coverage - an article based on a publication and interviews - is far superior to the typical archaeological press release - based on the PR department of a university's description of an oral account by a faculty member.

Two comments, though. First, this paper and some of the folks cited in the NYTimes piece (Joyce Marcus, Larry Keely, Sam Bowles) are clearly scientific scholars with a materialist orientation, and they are looking for causal explanations. This is great, its the kind of approach I favor.

That said, it is one thing to propose a reasonable explanation of a single case (the northern Titicaca basin in this example), and quite another to generalize to ALL cases of early state formation (as do some of the folks in the NYTimes article). The comparison with work by Flannery/Marcus and colleagues in Oaxaca is illuminating, but it takes more than two carefully selected examples to make a valid general argument.

Archaeologists still have much to do in developing rigorous comparative methods for addressing this kind of issue, and that is one reason I edited the book, The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies (due out in September):

Jason Antrosio said...

Hi Michael,
Many thanks for the insightful commentary. I was quite suspicious of that NY Times reporting, as it did seem to leap from two cases in the Americas to all state formation. I will very much look forward to looking at your edited volume on complex societies--surely an important contribution.

Matt said...

Charles Tilly is my social science hero.

Rory Allen said...

Causality is a fascinating topic. We all have a working understanding of it, but pinning it down in a precise way is so hard.

My day job involves psychology, but in an effort to get a better grip on causal mechanisms in that field I am currently looking across disciplines at archaeology (and am reading Tilly's 2008 book, recommended above, for which many thanks, and have ordered Gibbon's).

In my other reading, I have come across something you may or may not be aware of, arising from a classic 50 year old paper: "On aims and methods of ethology", Tinbergen (1963). This set out what have become known as "Tinbergen's four questions", a.k.a. "the four why's". They show how cause can be attributed differently according to whether one is looking for an immediate cause, a functional cause, developmental, or evolutionary causes. There are clearly going to be ways in which these will be of less relevance in the social sciences, but nevertheless they may help one to look at things from a new viewpoint.

References follow, but before everyone's eyes glaze over can I suggest that the "four why's" have something in common with Aristotle's doctrine of the four causes (material, efficient, formal and final). One of Aristotle's causes, the formal cause, has it seems to me much in common with Rome Harre's role-rule model of human interaction. I am constantly coming across ideas in psychology which were anticipated by Aristotle.

Links to discussions of Tinbergen's paper are at:


And for Aristotle's version, see

Michael E. Smith said...

Thanks, Rory. I had heard of Tinbergen's four questions but had never gotten around to tracking this down. The Bateson/Laland article (and Nesse's comment on it) both look very useful and I'll read them later this summer. Thanks for the suggestion.

Rory Allen said...

Can I ask one final question? I recently came across an idea, new to me, of a "hierarchy of questions" in archaeology, ranging from the very specific ("why are these textiles so well preserved") to explanations of a pattern of events, a class of events and finally, most generally, a process (eg development of a ranked society).

This is mentioned briefly in chapter 12 of Renfrew and Bahn's classic textbook, and I found a very similar account in Professor David Soren's web page at

under Oct 28th: Explanation in Archaeology.

You touch on the issue above I think, in the context of generalization.

This approach interests me because it seems to neatly avoid the false dichotomy between two extreme positions: Hempel's covering law alternative on the one hand, and complete relativism (if that's the right word) on the other, and because it is certainly a more sensible approach to psychology where causal models tend to be quite specific in terms of explaining events of a certain kind.

Do you happen to know of any books or papers where this idea is taken further? Perhaps your own upcoming book would be one such?


Rory Allen said...

Please ignore that last post: I must have had a bad week. Of course, the comment at the very top of this blogpost essentially answers precisely this question, and does more than just "touch" on it. I think those working in other areas of science can learn a great deal from archaeologists' approach and the use of levels of explanation. It's certainly about the only alternative we have in psychology, where high level laws are conspicuous by their absence.