Are academic archaeologists obsessed with significance? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I am putting the final touches on a grant proposal being submitted jointly by archaeologists and some (non-anthropological) social scientists.At a meeting yesterday the sociologist and political scientist surprised me by questioning the "significance" section of the proposal. I review lots of proposals, student and senior, for NSF and Wenner-Gren, and there is almost always a section that describes the "significance" of the research. I always include such a section in my proposals. I insist that my students include a significance section. But these other scholars had rarely seen such a section in proposals in their discipline. Why do we need this? they asked.
We had placed a "significance" section at the end of the proposal in which we stated the significance of the research for each of the four disciplines represented among the PIs, and then we outlined the importance of the project in more general intellectual terms.The latter was fine with everyone, but these non-archaeologists were puzzled at why we wanted to state the significance of the research for each discipline. We archaeologists (Barbara Stark and me) were dumbfounded. We always have a significance section!
The attitude of our non-archaeological colleagues seemed to be that the entire proposal made the case for the significance of the research, so why re-state this at the end? For archaeology, I think our obsession with significance may come from the detailed, painstaking, and local nature of the research process. Fieldwork is quite a picky affair. Many archaeologists do great fieldwork but have trouble putting it into a broader intellectual context.Yet that broader context is highly valued by the academic disciplines of anthropology and archaeology. NSF rarely wants to fund fieldwork that only illuminates a narrow local domain. NSF-Archaeology wants to support fieldwork that has wider scientific implications and relates to big issues. Yet we have to put lots of picky details into our proposals. Having a significance section makes us stand back and contextualize our research with respect to bigger issues.
Mainstream anthropology has similar emphases. The Wenner-Gren grant applications include a significance section with these instructions:
"Item 25. What contribution does your project make to anthropological theory and to the discipline? ... A successful application will emphasize the contribution its proposed research will make, not only to the specific area of research being addressed, but also to the broader field of anthropology."
While I support the emphasis on broader contributions, I question Wenner-Gren's emphasis on "anthropological theory." A lot of good research makes little contribution to "anthropological theory," yet has significance within the discipline. When I was on the W-G review committee, I interpreted this section more broadly than it was written. But the anthropological concern with significance seems parallel to that of archaeology: the research process is painstaking, picky, and local, and so scholars need to step back to put it all into perspective.
One of the fascinating aspects of working with a transdisciplinary research team is experiencing these contrasting elements of disciplinary culture. Archaeologists and anthropologists are obsessed with stating the significance of our research, but other social scientists are not. Or in another example, parts of the research design that seemed fine to me were viewed as too sloppy by the sociologist. The resulting act of tightening up our independent variables proved very instructive and helpful.
Perhaps archaeologists are obsessed with the significance thing, but it is a necessary and understandable obsession.