Sunday, October 21, 2012

Should archaeologists worry about attacks from politicians?

Last May, the U.S. House of Representative passed an amendment that would allow Congress to interfere with the peer review process at the National Science Foundation. Specifically, the bill would prohibit the NSF from funding research in political science. Does this have any implications for archaeology?

The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake (R) from my state of Arizona. Flake wants to politicize funding at NSF. He objects to wasteful spending on merit-less research by political scientists, such as $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis and $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.

There is quite a bit online about this, including Ezra Klein's blog at the Washington Post and an excellent editorial in Nature, which includes the statement, " To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved?" I was just reminded of this episode by an eloquent letter to the editor in the September 21 issue of Science by Arthur Lupia. Fortunately, Flake's amendment has little chance of passing the Senate.This is just the latest is a long line of conservative attacks on science, and on the social sciences in particular.

So, what about archaeology? If political science is not seen as a rigorous science, where does that leave us? Can we expect the likes of Jeff Flake (who is running for Senate from Arizona right now, an outcome scarier than Halloween) to come after archaeology? Some archaeologists would like to see our field as providing data and findings relevant to contemporary concerns. Should we tone down any such implications to keep the politicians at bay? If political science research on climate change is ideologically suspect, what about archaeological research on past climates, or on sustainability?

Maybe we should all pursue postmodern themes. After all, Frederic Jameson tells us that postmodernism is "the cultural logic of late capitalism." (Verso, 1991)
Conservative politicians ought to like that! If we write in postmodern prose, people like Jeff Flake won't be able to understand what we are saying, and it will be hard for them to find it objectionable. No, on second thought, if we go postmodern I won't be able to understand it either. (By the way, I see that the Postmodern Text Generator is still going strong. Just click the refresh button a few times for new essays).

My suggestion is that we should do our work as rigorously and as scientifically as we can. I am more worried about politicians claiming that archaeology is not really a science (and thus not worthy of NSF support) than about claims that our work is too political, as in Flake's case. Of course by this I mean Science-1 (scientific epistemology), not Science-2 (the occasional use of scientific techniques, sometimes in service of an anti-science agenda like postmodern archaeology). See my prior posts on this: Rejected by Science!, or Science type 1 vs. Science type 2, or John Gerring: Methodological Unity or Diversity?


Anonymous said...

Binford boom lacka lacka.

Anonymous said...

The divisive language you use, and your tone, will not help archaeology's situation. Seeking common ground, and building solidarity within archaeology would seem to be a good way to combat threats to our funding, existence, whatever. Call it alliance-building if you will. But please stop the "postmodern archaeology" hate speech.

Michael E. Smith said...

"Hate speech"? I'm not sure how to interpret that. I have not singled out specific individuals to attack, nor have I made derogatory statements about people who are postmodernists. So how is my writing "hate speech"? Are postprocessualists so thin-skinned that methodological or epistemological criticism of their approach is taken as a personal insult?

I understand and sympathize with the suggestion that seeking common ground and building alliances, etc. is generally a good idea. But to me, the issue of the quality of research is a more urgent concern for archaeology. We will advance more as a discipline by improving our methods, our concepts, and perhaps most of all, our epistemology and research design. And from my viewpoint, postmodern approaches have reduced the quality of these things in archaeology.

I am not bothered much by individual postmodernists (and hence my puzzlement at the "hate speech" label). But I AM bothered by the influence that postmodern/postprocessual approaches have had in lowering the quality of research in archaeology (or, at least in the archaeology of complex societies).

And while I am at it here, one reason why I rant and rave about epistemological issues in this blog is that postprocessual archaeology has always had--and still has--a vigorous tradition of programmatic works. Open any journal and you will find one or more articles talking about how great postprocessual thought is (or poststructuralist, or postcolonial, etc.). But once Binford stopped debating with Hodder, scientific archaeologists largely abandoned the public realm of programmatic work and debate, in order to get on with their work. I am among this group. But by abandoning the realm of public discussion of epistemology, students were left with a single brand of programmatic work--postprocessual. To me, this is a major reason for the spread of postprocessual thought within archaeology -- we scientific types abdicatated our responsibility to make our epistemological argument clear and public, beyond the examples buried in more technical publications on our empirical research. This is one reason why I was so surprised and delighted to discover vigorous bodies of scientific methodological and epistemological works in sociology and political science (Tilly, Gerring, Sampson, etc.). These folks have been doing all along what scientifically (or social-scientifically) minded archaeologists stopped doing long ago.

So one reason I often take strong positions in this blog is to fill the void that my scientific colleagues and I have left in the general archaeology literature by abandoning the field to the postmodernists. If you want more measured prose, read my scholarly articles.

I was going to make some more comments about labeling epistemological discourse "hate speech," but instead I will just conclude by re-stating my bafflement with the use of that phrase.

Social Archaeologist said...

I think anonymous goes too far in referring to your views as "hate-speech" - nothing wrong with a polemical tone now and again in the service of scholarly debate.

However, the irony from my perspective is that you sound a lot like the anti-science politicians you seek to criticize.

For example:

1. "Maybe we should all pursue postmodern themes"

Postmodernism seems to function for you as a label for any kind of archaeology you don't approve of, which appears to be any kind of archaeology that does not reflect a processualist theoretical outlook. This is not unlike how anti-science Republicans use the term "socialist" to describe virtually anyone and anything they dissapprove of. There are many archaeologists who have been critical of processualism over the years and very few identify as post-modernists. And even though some might, these terms all have specific meanings in the hands of serious scholars. A postcolonial, a feminist and a postmodern archaeologist are not necessarily arguing from the same position - even though all might be critical of post-processualism.

2. "the occasional use of scientific techniques, sometimes in service of an anti-science agenda like postmodern archaeology"

An anti-science agenda? Who exactly in archaeology has argued that we must not engage in science? This sounds suspiciously like a Straw Man since I've yet to encounter an archaeologist who claims to be anti-science. Some archaeologists may consider themselves to be humanists rather than (social) scientists, but I would respectfully suggest that this is very different from being anti-science. Unless of course all humanistic disciplines by virtue of existing are engaged in an anti-science agenda? You're either with us or against us, I suppose...

3. "I AM bothered by the influence that postmodern/postprocessual approaches have had in lowering the quality of research in archaeology"

Lower quality in your opinion perhaps, but that is very much the problem here. Your archaeological colleagues who differ from you theoretically are not some army of clowns who just don't get it. You may not like there work but it remains the product of intelligent, committed scholars with a lot of training in the discipline - just like you. For all their faults, post-processualists never dismissed their opponents as idiots in such a unscholarly manner.

As someone you would doubtless consider a "postmodernist" I would dearly love to read a serious critique of postprocessual archaeology by someone such as yourself. But all we get are sneering dismissals and insults. Perhaps that's why grad students aren't as excited by your rigorous "science" as you would like.

Michael E. Smith said...

Those politicians try to interfere with science for non-scientific reasons, whereas I am trying to interfere in archaeological scholarship for scholarly reasons.
On the numbered points.
1. This was an attempt at humor, not any kind of serious statement, or any attempt to accurately characterize the various types of relativist/interpretivist viewpoints in archaeology.
2. You are correct. Few archaeologists openly declare that they are against science. But the epistemology of postmodern/postprocessual/and other post-archaeologies are decidedly anti-science in being constructivist, relativist, interpretivist, and in NOT being “cumulative, evidence-based (empirical), falsifiable, generalizing, nonsubjective, replicable, rigorous, skeptical, systematic, transparent, and grounded in rational argument.” (Gerring 2012:11). My concept of science is based on works listed in the bibliography below. I approach all this from a comparative social science perspective, not from the perspective of theory or epistemology in anthropology and archaeology, which I find constraining (and too postmodern)l.
3. No, I would never call postmodern archaeologists a bunch of clowns. Many are very smart and clever people, which to me is part of the problem – they have been very successful in promoting their view of archaeology.
I don’t have the knowledge or sophistication to write a critique of postprocessual archaeology. The closest I’ve come is:
Smith, Michael E. (2011) Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.

If one conceives archaeology as more in the humanities than the sciences, then postprocessualism may be fine. If one is not concerned with creating a body of reliable empirical knowledge that may have relevance to the concerns of the modern world, then postprocessualism may be fine. If one is not a materialist, then postprocesualism may be fine. But these points to not describe me. I have a different view of the value of my discipline, one that seems increasingly more in line with sociology or urban studies or planning than with anthropology or archaeology (see: Smith, Michael E. (2011) Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. Anthropologies 3:(online).

Guides to the meaning of science (for social science):
Boyer, Pascal (n.d.) From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes Of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology. In Creating Consilience: Reconciling Science and the Humanities, edited by E. Slingerland and Mark Collard, pp. in press. Oxford Univ Press,.
Bunge, Mario (1999) Social Science under Debate: A Philosophical Perspective. University of Toronto Press.
Bunge, Mario (2012) The Philosophical Matrix of Scientific Progress. In Evaluating Philosophies, pp. 15-34. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science. vol. 295. Springer Netherlands.
Gerring, John (2012) Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.
Hedström, Peter (2005) Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press.
Manicas, Peter T. (2003) The Social Sciences: Who Needs 'em? Futures 35(6):609-619.
Manicas, Peter T. (2006) A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding. Cambridge University Press.
Sampson, Robert J. (2009) Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621:260-280.
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 Pres.
Tilly, Charles (1998) Durable Inequality. University of California Press.
Tilly, Charles (2001) Mechanisms in Political Processes. Annual Review of Political Science 4:21-41.
Tilly, Charles (2008) Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers.

Marcus said...

The problem is that archaeology deals with cultural systems that are dual in nature. There are data patterns that have to be understood through a 'causal mechanism' approach. Yet these data patterns were also shaped by indigenous symbolic systems, which are better interpreted through humanistic study than through science.

I'm thinking that rather than to keep at this 'culture war', perhaps it is better to come to a new conception of truth that can incorporate both perspectives. Or perhaps renewed, as I think Childe already touched upon this in the 40s and 50s.

Marcus said...

I forgot to add, philosophy argues for different conceptions of truth, two of which are relevant here:

1. Correspondence truth, which would apply to causal mechanisms.

2. Coherence truth, which would apply to humanistic interpretation.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus- You may be right. But I increasingly tend to look at things NOT in terms of "what is the best way to do a comprehensive analysis of past peoples or cultures of societies", but rather "what do I need to do to approach the kinds of social analyses done by Charles Tilly or Robert Sampson for archaeological data." I think that when I considered myself more of an anthropologist, I was more interested in comprehensive analyses and understandings (such as the concept "culture"). But now that I consider myself as a comparative historical social scientist, I try to focus on more limited domains and I want to answer a more limited set of questions about past societies.

Thus I find less need to worry about emic symbolic systems, except when they impact political processes directly. Now a cultural-ologist might say that one can't understand anything about politics without symbolism, and that this is where research should begin. But I think one can get pretty far on more grounded data, and then try to attack the symbolic domain only where it is necessary to do so, and where it is possible with archaeological data.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.