A colleague remarked recently I that don't seem to like archaeological works that deal with things like negotiation, identity, and agency. But these are important social science concepts and they all have their use. In archaeology today, however, they are buzz words. They are used more to signal adherence to a theoretical perspective than as analytical concepts that do intellectual work. Brubaker and Cooper (2000:19) talk about this with respect to identity; when scholars say that identity is "multiple, unstable, in flux, constructed, negotiated, and so on," these terms serve as "gestures signaling a stance rather than words conveying a meaning." For me, the concept of negotiation as a concept in collective action theory is great (Margater Levi; Blanton and Fargher; etc.). But when used as a postmodern buzz word, it really turns me off.
Anyway, back to arguments. Here is a form of argumentation that I have seen many times in recent years.
(1) Specify a theme, framed in terms of a high-level philosophical social theory.
(2) Discuss your archaeological data.
(3) Claim that the theory provides an interpretation of the data.
Now there is a problem here, one that some some writers acknowledge and others don't. High-level social theory is too far removed from data to actually provide any kind of empirical evaluation or test. That is, you can't come up with a way of establishing that the theory is correct or incorrect, or even applicable or not applicable. Why? Because high-level social theory is simply true. It floats high above the messy empirical world, impervious to attempts to test or evaluate it. And it is so ethereal that you can't directly evaluate it on the ground. If this isn't clear, check out Ellen (2010, Smith (2011), or Abend (2008). In the words of Kevin Fisher,
"While Giddens, Goffman and others [that is, high-level social theory] provide an overall theoretical orientation or examining the relationship between architecture, interaction and social transformation, their work does not offer the tools needed to analyze the material remains on the ground" (Fisher 2009: 440).
So only very naive scholars will stop with step #3. Many archaeologists recognize these limitations of high-level social theory, and they see the need for some kind of middle-level construct to justify their claim. Here are two faulty alternatives I've seen in recent publications:
(4A) Cite another study, perhaps from another region, where a similar argument was made. If someone else has already made the claim in another context (whether or not it is warranted, correct, or applicable), then I can make a similar claim in my context. The technical term for this kind of ploy is "empty citation" (Harzing 2002). This is a citation to a work that does not contain any original data for the phenomenon underconsideration; the works are cited merely to lend an aura of support for anargument, when in fact they contain no empirical support. This is not a valid form of empirical argument.
(4B) Cite a study showing that one's particular interpretation fits with some comparative data, somewhere in the world. This is a definite epistemological improvement over step 4A, but it still does not constitute a valid argument. For example, suppose I claim that imported goods from distant lands were seen as imbued with power and magic at sites I have excavated. It will be hard or impossible to confirm this statement empirically with archaeological data, but I can cite Mary Helms to the effect that in some documented societies, this was indeed the case. But unless Helms shows that this is always the case, that the pattern exists in every known ethnographic and historical society, then this citation only provides plausibility for my argument. It certainly does not provide confirmation, or even empirical support short of confirmation. Now you can turn this into a reasonable analogical argument with a good comparative study. Pick a sample. Determine the contextual conditions under which exotic goods are seen to have power, and those under which that situation does not obtain. Compare your case to the comparative data, and make the appropriate interpretation. But no one seems to do this because it is much easier to make a quick speculative interpretation than to go out and do a big comparative study.
Well, I guess we simply cannot test our high-level social interpretation of archaeological data. Let me quote the clear-thinking sociologist Andrew Abbott (2004) here:
- “in order to be tested, all of these ideas and implications must be framed in such a way that they can be wrong.” (p.215) [See my prior post, where I reference Steve Haber's discussion of this issue --MES]
- “it is surprising how many researchers—even graduate students in their dissertations—propose arguments that can’t be wrong. For example, research proposals of the form, ‘I am going to take a neo-institutionalist view of mental-hospital foundings’ or ‘This paper analyzes sexual assaults by combining a Goffmanian account of interaction and a semniotic approach to language’ are not interesting because they do not propose an idea that can be wrong. They boil down to classifying a phenomenon or, seen the other way around, simply illustrating a theory.” (p.216)
- “Thinking without alternatives is a particular danger in ethnography and historical [and archaeological --MES] analysis, where the natural human desire to develop cohesive interpretations (and the need to present a cohesive interpretation at the end of the research) prompts us to notice only those aspects of reality that accord with our current ideas.” (p.216)
- What is the claim?
- What reasons support the claim?
- What evidence supports the reasons?
- Acknowledge alternatives / complications / objections
- What warrant or principle justifies connecting the reasons to the claim?
I won't elaborate on this scheme; I don't want to give you an excuse to avoid looking at Booth et al. And one more suggestion, if you have ANY interest at all in the topic of identity, and you have not read Brubaker and Cooper (2000), you are doing yourself a big disservice.
2004 Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. Norton, New York.
2008 The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.
Booth, Wayne C., Gergory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams
2008 The Craft of Research. 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper
2000 Beyond "Identity". Theory and Society 29: 1-47.
2010 Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16: 387-404.
Fisher, Kevin D.
2009 Placing Social Interaction: An Integrative Approach to Analyzing Past Built Environments. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28: 439-457.
2002 Are Our Referencing Errors Undermining our Scholarship and Credibility? The Case of Expatriate Failure Rates. Journal of Organizational Behavior 23: 127-148.
Smith, Michael E.2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.