Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Problems with Bourdieu? We can help! Call now.

I find that I am not the only one puzzling over the infatuation of archaeologists with the work of Pierre Broudieu and other incomprehensible French social philosophers. Here are some suggestions about what an archaeoalogist can do:

(1) Steve Lekson: Use other theorists who are more grounded and make sense.

Steven Lekson has an amusing post, "La Maladie Française" on his blog, The Southwest in the World. This blog is fascinating - it consists of chapters and parts of chapters of a book that Lekson is in the process of writing. Readers can follow his book as it is constructed, quite an innovative process. This particular post is about the convoluted prose of Bourdieu, de Certeau, et al. Lekson says:
"I have from time to time disparaged French social philosophy.  It’s not so much the content (it’s that too), but rather the language.  To paraphrase Professor Higgins, the French don’t care what they say actually, so long as they write it properly.  Which, for French social philosophers, means convoluted, obtuse, ambiguous, impenetrable — well-known hallmarks of French philosophy, generally."

After posting several choice uncomprehensible quotes., Lekson lists some archaeological theoreticians. who write clearly and comprehensibly. He says:

"Theory does not require Delphic obscurantism.  Many useful thinkers think clearly and write clearly.  I list several below – a quick, short list with only a few works for each.  Some are old and some not so old.  You must judge if their thinking is useful (I find it so).   But – and this is key – you can judge their thinking directly on its merits, and not as faith that something useful lies buried in the verbiage."

(2) Robert Rosenswig: Why cite Bourdieu and Giddens when Marx said it better?

In an interesting paper, Robert Rosenswig notes that many archaeologists cite Bourdieu and Giddens without engaging with their work. He compares their perspective on agency and practice to the ideas of Marx. But whereas Marx presented a materialist theory of agency, these scholars promote an idealist version. Rosenswig advocates a return to Marx's materialist theory of modes of production and social change.

Rosenswig, Robert
2011    Materialism, Mode of Production, and a Millennium of Change in Southern Mexico. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).

(3) Andrew Abbott: Bourdieu contributes nothing new; avoid abstract social theory.

I've raved about Andrew Abbott's (2004) very useful book several times in this blog, here, here, and here.  Abbott is not a big fan of high-level abstract social theory:

·         “A good idea, then, ought to have some referent in the real world. This is not to deny the utility of pure social theory, but the vast majority of social theory consists of relabeling. All real theory arises in empirical world, in the attempt to make sense of the social world, no matter how abstractly construed. A student is well advised to stay clear of writing pure theory. It’s an open invitation to vacuity .... Relabeling is a general activity in social science because it’s a way of appearing novel without having to do much.” (p. 218).

In another passage, Abbott explicitly calls Bourdieu's concept of habitus as a simple relabeling of concepts long used in sociology.

Abbott, Andrew
2004    Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. Norton, New York.

Other prominent sociologists who have little use for Bourdieu include Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Peter Hedström, Robert Sampson, and Charles Tilly. Also check out philosopher of science  Mario Bunge (1995).

Bunge, Mario
1995    In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 775:96-115.

(4) Yours truly: You can do rigorous theoretically-informed research without bothering with Bourdieu et al.

As detailed in my paper on urban theory (Smitih 2011), archaeologists interested in causality and explanation can conduct their research and engage with theory on an epistemological level below that of high-level, philosophical, social theory (I wrote that paper before reading Abbott). I call such theory "empirical theory." In the social sciences (outside of archaeology) such theory is labeled "middle-range theory," drawing on the concept by Robert K. Merton (which has nothing to do with Lewis Binford's idiosyncratic concept of the same name). I got tired of grant proposals and articles by archaeologists (students and professionals) in which the authors spend a lot of time waxing poetic about Giddens and Bourdieu, and then go on to describe their research in rather pedestrian terms that ignore the theory entirely. If you are not going to USE theory, then don't waste your time talking about it. Better still, find empirical theory that you CAN use to plan and carry out your fieldwork and to analyze your data.

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

For further clarification of different kinds of theory (and how high-level theory relates to middle-range causal theory), see also my earlier post "Theory, theory theory: What do we mean by theory?"


Marcus said...

There is actually a fifth way: turn to the thinkers that are attacked in contemporary French philosophy and you will find some sense.

I do enjoy high-level theory and have read a lot of Wittgenstein (one thinker vigorously critiqued by Badiou). He is good to 'think with', although his writings are not easy and take a lot of effort. For some reason there has always been a strange smell to French philosophy that made me save my efforts. My feeling is that it is not completely sincere as it is closely bound to certain ideological and commercial interests. It's hard to ignore how these thinkers and their books have become sort-of 'ideological commodities' that appeal to a certain clientele (and are further marketed by others who imitate them).

I'm not suggesting they are in it to make money from their ideas, as many are sincere leftists. But the way their ideas proliferate reminds me of the current fetish of art and high-value luxury goods. Both cannot be used but are highly desired.

Michael E. Smith said...


I like your analogy between high-level social theory and art: highly desired, but without much use-value.

I don't object to high-level social theory per se, just as I have no objection to theology or high-energy particle physics. These are fine areas of study and research. But in their own terms, they won't get archaeologists very far in our basic tasks of documenting and explaining the past. Selected aspects of these fields, highly modified, can be very relevant in some archaeological domains, however.

Anonymous said...

I dunno. I think Bourdieu said many things that are useful and that are such a detailed expansion on (structural) Marxism that a return simply to modes of production stuff not only misses the point but ignores decades of genealogies of debate within Marxist theory itself.

I agree that Bourdieu is trendy. He is, I think, better than Giddens, at least because he was an anthropologist (!!!!!!). I always think that Giddens is cited more because he is more abstract, allowing archaeologists to easily pull from his prose w/o wading through the dense writing.

One can fault Bourdieu. He did what he did and cared little for post-modern consumption in current archaeology. I actually think that Leach did a better job of wedding Marx with Levi-Strauss than Bourdieu did, but that is another story. I find his work interesting because there ARE "idealist" elements to culture. No surprise there. Should not want one want an integrated approach to idealism and materialism? Rosenwig's essay, I think, does a mediocre job at best because it is tainted by a cynical critique. The problem with such critique is that it muddles a cynicism of postmodern archaeology with criticisms of intellectuals whose works should (DEFINITELY) be part of our vocabulary and intellectual genealogy. It is also speaking to a specific audience as much as super-trendy, citation-heavy refs is.

So those of us who are interested in these genealogies of knowledge in the social sciences have to deal both with the trendy postmodernists and the alienated reactionaries. On both sides, laziness rules.


Michael E. Smith said...

CM- Bourdieu, Giddens, and other social philosophers are fine if you like that sort of thing. Perhaps I can summarize my take on their high-level social theory:

(1) It is so far removed from material reality that it is not very useful for generating causal explanations for society and social processes.

(2) Excessive attention to this material by archaeologists has come at the expense of work on the level of causal explanations. This displacement of what I see as useful research by non-useful research exists on several levels:

(A) Individual articles and grant proposals. I have reviewed proposals where students spend so much time on their philosophical theory that they have no space to describe their research design or methods. A similar phenomenon is common in publications.

(b) The discipline generally. It is amazing that a field that was actively debating explanation and causality in the 1970s (Binford, Redman, et al) is today ridiculously outdated in its approach to these issues. The social archaeology types don't discuss causality because it is not part of their ontology, and the scientific types tend to have outdated views on the topic.

If one wants to do philosophical social analysis, that's fine. But scientific social archaeology is something else entirely.

Marcus said...

I really don't like this dichotomy between scientific archaeology and philosophical analysis. Both are concerned with the same social phenomena. It's not logical to separate them on what seems to be mutual incomprehension between the two.

Would high-energy particle physics be able to function (in the long run) without theoretical physics? They have an uneasy relation as well (but differently than in archaeology), but would be clueless without each other's insights. It occurs to me, however, that one big difference with archaeology is that physicists at least have a common goal to work for. I don't think that this is so obvious for Giddens and the typical archaeologist.

Where we have seen a dual focus on high-level theory and archaeological practice, as with Childe and Trigger, the results have been impressive. This is especially true for their broad syntheses of civilizations and trajectories. How could this not have high-level theoretical implications? And if French philosophy is unsuitable for handling these implications, are we really left without any alternatives?

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus- Perhaps some things are getting conflated in a dichotomy between scientific archaeology and philosophical analysis. Each can be done perfectly well without the other. I don't buy the analogy with physics. I think the archaeological equivalent of theory in high-energy physics would be lower-level, empirical theory (that is, "nuts-and-bolts" theory about how the world works). The physics equivalent of philosophical social theory might be the musing of Teilhard de Chardin, or other philosophical or theological accounts that are only very loosely tied to the data and day-to-day empirical research in the field.

Childe and Trigger did not spend much time on high-level social theory - most of their theoretical work tended to be on the level of causal mechanisms (although they did not use that term). Yes, each did write about things like agency, but when they wanted to explain the changes observed in the archaeological record they got down to a lower level.

To me, social philosophy is not necessary in order to do social science. Many archaeologists and anthropologists probably disagree with that statement, but it matches practice in sociology and political science, which is where I draw most of my epistemological models from these days.

Anonymous said...

One place I definitely agree with Rosenwig is that people have not, I think, effectively engaged with some of these scholars--often to such an extent that power and inequality are expunged from archaeological interpretations of Bourdieu and De Certeu. It is shocking to me. RR is commenting on the typical nonsense that drives me nuts: "Structure is reproduced via practice" (now cite Bourdieu 1977 and Giddens 1979). To say that Marx's theory of agency was better than these latter folks, however, I think is a misdirection. But, whatever, I do not think these guys are essential to an analysis of change or, for that matter, practice or everyday life (leave it to archaeology to turn "everyday" into jargon). That said, I completely disagree that their work cannot be integrated into a scientific archaeology interested in change and causality. In fact, I think Blanton earlier than most saw this potential in Pierre's writings and used him effectively.

I think Marcus' comment on commodities is right on. However, this is caught up in the hyper-consumption of theory in archaeology's postmodern condition (itself a phenomenon different from the theorists whose works are cited). This goes back to Rosenwig. Who has time to engage in the history of ideas in the fast-paced, superficial phantasmagoria of post-modernity?

This also makes me agree with Smith's comment on how things have changed since the 60s. I wonder if archaeology is losing a sense of itself and if that is a bad or a good thing? I certainly feel lost sometimes, but I struggle to be an anthropologist more than anything else.

Now time to go finish wading through Wittgenstein's Blue-Brown Books sitting on the tank of my toilet. Perhaps one day I can heed his call to get beyond the ambiguity of language and head down a road toward clarity of thought and the achievement of truth...


Anonymous said...

That Rosenwig omitted references to the work of (1) Pedro Armillas, (2) Angel Palerm, and (3) Jose Luis Lorenzo is just jaw-dropping. Almost unbelievable that this article was accepted without these guys. These individuals introduced the Marxist-mode of production model to Mesomaerican archaeology. So much for breaking down walls between Mexican and US archaeologists working in Mexico.

Benjamin Geer said...

This post contains serious misconceptions. Bourdieu was a sociologist, not a philosopher. His theory is not very hard to understand, certainly no harder than Marx's. If you find his writing style difficult, there are several good Bourdieu textbooks that are written in a more straightforward style. Beware of lumping all "French thought" together. And of dismissing ideas simply because you can't personally be bothered to study them.

Benjamin Geer said...

Also, the claim that "X had nothing to say that wasn't already in Marx" is the standard way that Marxist scholars have always attempted to turn back the clock in academia. Even a superficial acquaintance with Bourdieu is enough to show that this claim is nothing more than a bluff.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Benjamin-I guess my main objections are the ways that archaeologists have used Bourdieu's practice theory to avoid the hard work of rigorous explanation of their data. Yes, he is a sociologist. As I have read more widely in sociology recently, I have found little (in citations and discussions of Bourdieu)that would incline me to look at his other works. Given my research interests and my epistemological stance, I can't imagine what I would get out of taking a hard look at Bourdieu, or reading the various "Bourdieu for Dummies" books that are out there.

So I freely admit that I have an impoverished view of the work of Bourdieu, and I have probably said a number of ignorant things about his work in this blog. But when there are so many sociologists whose work I find exciting and inspiring and relevant to my research, I can't justify devoting much time to Bourdieu. That list of sociologists includes people like Sampson, Massey, Tilly, Abbott, Mann, Kiser, Hechter; among the French I would count Boudon and Elster in this group.

Benjamin Geer said...

@Michael, unfortunately, because Bourdieu is fashionable in some quarters, many people do indeed pay lip service to his ideas without doing the "hard work" you're talking about. One could find many examples of people doing the same thing with Marx and other prestigious thinkers. Perhaps all the more so with Bourdieu because using his theory rigorously usually does take quite a lot of work, both to get relevant data and to analyse it (especially if you take the quantitative route). It's certainly easier to try to work with any social theorist's concepts in an impressionistic, non-rigorous way. On the other hand, I think this can be a necessary first step in thinking through what you might actually be able to accomplish more rigorously over time with a given set of theoretical tools, and whether those tools might need to be adapted somehow to deal with the questions you're interested in. Given how competitive things are in academia, if the current crop of Bourdieusian archaeologists has been content to do impressionistic work, perhaps a younger generation will challenge their authority by aiming for greater rigour. That's the kind of thing Bourdieu's theory would lead us to expect, in any case. :)

Knowing little about archaeology, I can't tell you what you might get out of a hard look at Bourdieu, but I do think he offers a powerful general theory of cultural production and consumption, based to a large extent on a synthesis of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim that solves serious problems in the work of all three. Perhaps the best advice I can give is to remain critical but open-minded. For a sense of how Bourdieu saw himself as going beyond Marx, you could read the interview with him, "With Weber Against Weber", in the book "The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays", edited by Susen and Turner.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Benjamin-You are probably right about these things, and perhaps I will have a chance to take a closer look at Bourdieu before too long.