Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies

My new edited volume, The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies, was released last week! I got my copies in the mail on Friday, and they look great. Based on a conference at the very nice Amerind Foundation in spring 2008, the chapters are a selection of case studies showing how to do rigorous comparative analysis with archaeological data. Chapter 1 is a group statement or manifesto by all participants on the importance of comparative analysis in contemporary archaeology. (You can read this statement here.). The book is not a textbook, and we don't offer a unified set of methods that we advocate for others to adopt. Rather, we base our examples on several principles (e.g., it is best to compare primary archaeological data, rather than comparing the interpretations of diverse archaeologists about their data), and make our argument through the case studies themselves.

One of the ulterior motives for the conference and book is to re-invigorate the use of rigorous comparative methods in archaeology. Comparative analysis was one of the casualties of postmodern archaeology, and as archaeologists with a scientific approach we are asserting the primacy of comparison to a rigorous explanatory archaeology.

Here is the table of contents:

1. Comparative Archaeology: A Commitment to Understanding Variation 
            Group statement by all contributors
2. Approaches to Comparative Analysis in Archaeology      
            Michael E. Smith and Peter Peregrine
3. Comparative Frames for the Diachronic Analysis of Complex Societies: Next Steps 
            Gary M. Feinman
4. What It Takes to Get Complex: Food, Goods, and Work as Shared Cultural Ideals from
            the Beginning of Sedentism  
            Monica L. Smith
5. Challenges for Comparative Study of Early Complex Societies
            Robert D. Drennan and Christian E. Peterson
6. Patterned Variation in Regional Trajectories of Community Growth
            Christian E. Peterson and Robert D. Drennan
7. The Genesis of Monuments in Island Societies     
            Michael J. Kolb
8. Power and Legitimation: Political Strategies, Typology, and Cultural Evolution 
            Peter Peregrine
9. The Strategies of Provincials in Empires   
            Barbara L. Stark and John K. Chance
10. Households, Economies, and Power in the Aztec and Inka Imperial Provinces
            Timothy Earle and Michael E. Smith
11. Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: Scale, Power and Ecology
            Roland Fletcher
12. Archaeology, Early Complex Societies, and Comparative Social Science History
            Michael E. Smith


Marcus said...

Looks to be quite interesting, especially in terms of the variety of approaches. Of course, I agree that comparative methods are highly important, but I wonder if it is just the postmodernists who are problematic. Quite often institutional frameworks and an emphasis on specialization as an end in itself can prove an even more formidable barrier. Comparison is often a peripheral activity, almost seen like a hobby, which prevents the emergence of a rigorous methodology.

Btw, the postmodernists have done some comparative work, as with Meskell & Joyce's 2003 book Embodied lives. It is quite interesting, but the analysis is highly self-contained (as one might expect, perhaps). Never knew what to make of it.

Michael E. Smith said...


Yes, there are lots of barriers to comparative analysis, practical as well as intellectual. I am not familiar with the book you mention. But there are lots of ways to make comparisons, and lots of reasons for doing so. My reasons are to construct rigorous and reliable empirical knowledge about the past, to identify large-scale processes and patterns, and to identify causal mechanisms that explain past social phenomena and change. I doubt that comparative work by the social archaeology crowd has those goals.

Jason Baird Jackson said...


Anonymous said...

I think the word postmodern should be used with greater caution. Granted many social archaeologists might be postmodern-esq or postmodern, but is it necessary to be a postmodern archaeologist if one considers herself or himself a social archaeologist? I consider myself a social archaeologist, but I am rabidly critical of postmodernism as a form of academic consumption and positioning.

Some of my favorite old school anthropologists are social anthropologists. But would one consider Malinowski, Leach, Levi-Straus, and Douglas postmodern? Certainly not. So it is unfortunate to call a researcher "postmodern" simply if she or he wants to examine questions that have been at the heart of comparative anthropology, such as gift exchange, ritual, symbolism, time, taboos, etc.

It is important to make a clear distinction between (1) postmodernism as a body of literature and (2) postmodernism as a form of superficial, trendy, jargon-laden consumption. If one wants to study, say, pollution and taboo because they're central aspects of comparative social anthropology, then that is not postmodern in theory or in practice. If one wants to study this theme because it is trendy and ripe with juicy jargon, then that is not postmodern in theory but is postmodern in practice.

This is coming from a comparative, social archaeologist with little patience for postmodernism in practice (at least among academics).

Anyway, congratulations on the new book. I can't wait to check it out!


Michael E. Smith said...

@CM - Yeah, I knew that someone would ding me on my usage of postmodern. So how's this (based on my prior post on major debate in social science):

- Interpretivist
- Culturalist
- Constructionist
- Contextualist

I tend to fall on the opposite sides of these issues from the people I was calling "postmodern." But in archaeology, postmodern ideas have infiltrated so much that they are part of much normal archaeological discourse, making it difficult to talk about these things with clarity.