Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Archaeology as a social science

When our paper, "Archaeology as a social science," was published online last week, I emailed copies to a bunch of people, including John Gerring. Gerring is a political scientist, and I have been reading his books on social science methodology. I like them a lot - he has a strong scientific epistemology, but a broad outlook that values qualitative research and case study research (which covers much archaeology; see my post on this). I also like his article on direct and indirect control, which fits my understanding of empires very well. I have written a number of posts on Gerring's works (try searching).

Anyway, after I had sent our paper to Gerring, I read the final chapter of his 2012 book, Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework (2nd edition). I strongly recommend this book to archaeologists who are concerned with rigorous methods of social interpretation. On page 390, he implicitly states that archaeology is not even an observational science, but a speculative enterprise. He is making the point (to sociologists, political scientists, and the like) that qualitative research can be scientific just as much as quantitative research. But in making that point, he contrasts qualitative social science research (actually, observational research) to speculative resesarch:

"Just as society honors classicists, archaeologists, astronomers, and theoretical physicists -- despite the speculative nature of their trades -- it should also honor those who labor in the muddy fields of observational data in the social sciences."

Well, excuse me, but archaeology is not "speculative" but is rather an observational science (see Geoff Clark 1982 for a nice discussion of this). OK, much of "social archaeology" and other theoretical post-perspectices (e.g., post-processual, post-structural, post-colonial, post-autistic--oops, that is an approach in economics, not archaeology) are, to me, quite speculative in their epistemology. But good scientific archaeology is not speculative.

If I had read this prior to sending Gerring a reprint, I would have made a pointed comment in my email, hassling him about his  understanding of archaeology.

But my ire at Gerring's view of archaeology did not last long. A few pages later, he notes that "A tree felled in the social science forest makes no sound." He is arguing that social science research should have relevance to broader concerns in society, but to do so others have to find out about it. And that is exactly how I concluded my prior post in this blog. So if Gerring reaches the same conclusions I do, then he can't be too far off base....

Clark, Geoffrey A.
1982    Quantifying Archaeological Research. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 5:217-274.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris2012    Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:(published online).


Anonymous said...

I find it frustrating that so many social scientists who have read little, if any, serious archaeological research (focusing instead on cool discoveries in the pages of Science or Nature) seem to have figured us out--what we do, what our limits are, and what our contributions can be. I find it very common among cultural anthropologists, many of whom are moving increasingly away from data to creating simple vignettes to support already made assertions. This bothers me most when it comes from cultural anthropologists claiming to hold the torch of historical political economy. I always find I have to defend archaeology to many of their grad students, or at least demonstrate that archaeology is more than stones and bones (I usually start this by banning the word "agency" in class. Not that agency is bad, but when coming from the lips of a first or second year grad student, it usually is simple regurgitation to avoid actual understanding and developing true critique....I mean, imagine how boring a debate is if you assign old texts by folks like Steward or Childe and the entirety of the critique is the extent to which these guys considered agency...talk about theoretical teleologies [to use another oft-banned term]).

But, of course, there is an entire generation of students trained now in critique but not in the texts they are critiquing. I got so frustrated as a grad student that I went back to old-school theory by folks by Boserup, Netting, Wittfogel, Sauer, Boas, Steward, Leach, etc., just to see what they truly said. Their contributions not only remain important but their ghosts still haunt the un-interrogated assumptions of even the most "post-processual" accounts of the past (see, e.g., Barrett's 1994 book "Fragments from Antiquity" where he discusses tenure in resolutely Boserupian terms).

Well, where am I? Of course, I would not accuse Gerring of being so superficial, but it is frustrating and symptomatic of a broader disease that misunderstands archaeology. For example, could somebody tell me how an evolutionary psychologist studying capuchin monkeys can get an NSF for almost a million dollars, but an archaeologist studying, say, conflict and state collapse can only get around 300,000 max? Which has more important implications for the current world? Projecting already made classical econ models onto monkey behavior or examining the success or failure of the state process in comparative perspective? I dunno, but monkeys are cute.

Well, now there goes my coffee buzz. Thanks for the Clark cite and access to your new article. I will read it with interest.


Michael E. Smith said...

Hey, our PNAS paper got some publicity in the Columbus Dispatch today: