Sunday, March 17, 2013

Flannery and Marcus go for the Big Picture

I’ve just finished reading the new book by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (2012, Harvard University Press, hardcover). The book covers an immense amount of archaeological and ethnographic territory in tracing human social evolution from the Paleolithic to the early empires, emphasizing the nature of inequality in different kinds of societies. This is truly “big history.” The topic is timely and big, the time depth is enormous, the cases reviewed are numerous, and even the endnotes are big (47 pages, out of a total of 631). I learned quite a bit, and I recommend the book to anyone who reads this blog (well, perhaps not the postmodernists, who just aren’t going to like the book, but they probably don’t like the blog, either).

With an epigraph of the famous quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains”), who could dislike this book? Well, Randall McGuire for one. His book review, in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal (23-1, 146-147), praises the eudition and diversity of the case studies, but he really doesn’t like this book at all. It “suffers from the same flaws as all universalizing, unilinear theories of cultural evolution” (p.147). The authors, in McGuire’s view, don’t recognize or acknowledge the superior work of Eric Wolf or Johannes Fabian, who identified those flaws (Hmmm, I didn’t think Fabian wrote about cultural evolution). Flannery and Marcus are said to “spatialize time,” depicting ethnographic societies as “frozen in time” (in fact these societies are so cold and frozen that they bounce around like billiard balls, a metaphor from Eric Wolf repeated by McGuire without attribution).

I was a bit puzzled with McGuire’s review. First of all, the book didn’t seem at all universalizing or unilinear to me. Second, I thought I had heard those criticisms before. After some checking, I found the critique of The Evolution of Human Societies, by Alan Johnson and Timothy Earle (1987, Stanford Univ. Pr), contained in McGuire’s book, A Marxist Archaeology (1992, Academic Press, pp.151-152). Here’s what he didn’t like about Johnson and Earle in 1992: Their model is universal and unilinear, and it conflates time and space (i.e., it spatializes time). So now, twenty years later, McGuire has dusted off his old criticisms of cultural evolution to throw at Flannery and Marcus.

McGuire would probably respond that the criticisms are the same because the problems with cultural evolution are the same. But to me, these critiques (in 1992 and 2012) apply more appropriately to work by Elman Service and others in the 1960s and 1970s and not to either Flannery and Marcus, or Johnson and Earle. I don’t want to get into a big debate about cultural evolution here, but the following passages from The Creation of Inequality are not consistent with McGuire’s charge of universal/unilinear ideas:

·         “One of the interesting facts of hereditary rank was that it could be created even by hunters and gatherers such as the Nootka. Neither slavery nor aristocracy, in other words, had to wait until agriculture had arisen.” (p.554)

·         “For all these reasons we should probably view clans or descent groups as one of several alternative social networking strategies rather than as an inevitable second stage of foraging society.” (p.550)

In fact, much of the book is devoted to exploring alternative arrangements of social organization, inequality, economic processes, and political dynamics. To me, Flannery and Marcus did an excellent job of producing a useful contemporary approach to cultural evolution that avoids the kinds of criticisms that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. There are no layer-cake models here, there are no simple typological sequences (e.g., bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states; or egalitarian, ranked, stratified), and the authors do not assert (or assume) that social variation is somehow explained by assigning a group to an evolutionary category. I just re-read McGuire’s review, and realized that he is really obsessed with the issue of “unilinear” evolutionary models; the term “unilinear” is used three times in the review, and the term “unilineal” appears six times. I can’t tell whether is this is a subtle deliberate distinction, or just an error of writing and editing.

I am not claiming that the The Creation of Inequality is without flaws. I was disappointed by the authors’ refusal to weigh in on a number of current debates, and it seemed to me that their treatment of inequality was somewhat reduced in the final chapters (on states and empires) compared to earlier chapters. Inequality seemed to be swamped by issues of social and political dynamics in the chapters on states. But then the lack of systematic attention to inequality is one of the major failings of the archaeological study of complex societies, so Flannery and Marcus had less research to draw on. I also have a few minor quibbles on topics I specialize in, but these do not detract from the value of this important book.

If you are a postmodernist, you almost certainly won’t like any account of cultural evolution, and you just aren’t going to like this book. But for those of you with a more empirical and scientific bent: Read this book. You will learn a lot. And then let the passages where you disagree with the authors serve as starting points for more research and writing. Inequality is a tremendously important topic with a rather poor record of archaeological scholarship (due, in large part, to the influence of postmodernism, but don't get me started.....). Let's hope this book signals a new commitment to archaeological research on inequality. 

*** ADDED 20 MARCH 2013: Here is a link to Peter Turchin's review of the book. This is a preprint; the review just came out in the Times Literary Supplement. (Click here for the TLS version).  He evidently tried to post a comment, but Blogger was being cranky and rejected his comment.


Colleen said...

Nice review! It looks like a great book--I'll have to check it out when I get access to a library again.

Marcus said...

The problem with reviews like that of McGuire's is that they set up straw men to beat. This happened with the work of Service in particular, and I think unfairly. If one looks at his 1975 book, one finds it is far from a simplistic application of band-tribe-chiefdom-state. He also predicted China as the future preeminent power, based on his Law of Evolutionary Potential.

If you go back to Service and Sahlins 1960 book, the distinction between general and specific evolution is clearly outlined. Of course, Marcus & Flannery explicitly framed their research in Oaxaca in terms of investigating a specific line of cultural evolution. So, now that they are turning to the general picture, I actually feel that it is not enough like Service's work (in terms out outlining general issues).

Not that my line of work follows this, I'm more influenced by Childe and Trigger, but lets give credit where credit is due and keep away from the temptation to set up straw men everywhere.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus- Yes, McGuire's critique is certainly of the "straw man" variety. The thing that puzzles me is the origins and virulence of his antipathy toward cultural evolution. I would think that a Marxist would acknowledge the value of work like this and try to do it better - more attention to the material foundations off inequality, a more explicit focus on exploitation, etc. But the outright rejection of cultural evolution sounds more like a postmodern position (science is bad, explanation and causality are bad, systematic comparative analysis is bad, etc.)than a Marxist position.

As for Service (1975), I haven't looked at it for many years. I recall reading this eagerly as a grad student, when it was published, and thinking "There has GOT to be a better way than this to understand cultural evolution." My criteria were (1) Adams's book, The Evolution of Urban Society (1966), which remains a living influential text for me today; and (2) undergrad courses with George Cowgill.

Adams, Robert McC. (1966) The Evolution of Urban Society: Early Mesopotamia and Prehispanic Mexico. Aldine, Chicago.

Service, Elman Rogers (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. Norton, New York.

Marcus said...

Michael, an explanation for this can be found in his 2006 article on 'Marx, Childe and Trigger', where McGuire contrasts Childe and Trigger's classical Marxism with different kinds of neo-Marxism. The distinction between these two concerns especially the role of science. Probably this neo-Marxism is more like critical theory than post-modernism, but certainly not so much concerned with comparative approaches.

I looked at Service's 1975 book recently, just out of curiosity, and found it quite sophisticated. But his main problem is that he doesn't think cities were important in the initial development of early civilisations. This view appears to have been shared by some archaeologists in the 1970s, but of course now is untenable. In that regard it's Adams' book that will have a more lasting legacy.

McGuire, R. H. (2006). Marx, Childe, and Trigger. The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism. Williamson, R.F. (ed.) Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press: 61-79.

Anonymous said...

"...the outright rejection of cultural evolution sounds more like a postmodern position"

"well, perhaps not the postmodernists..."

"...due, in large part, to the influence of postmodernism, but don't get me started"

"If you are a postmodernist..."

All from this one blog entry. Are you entirely certain that McGuire is the only one with an obsession? Neither the book in question, or the review were actually about postmodernism. In your blog the term increasingly seems to mean little more than "things I disagree with". Not a particularly scholarly usage.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - Guilty as charged. You are absolutely right. I do tend to use "pomo" as a code for a variety of interpretivist and relativist approaches. I don't use it for everything I dislike (that's too big a category for one term!). I wish I had a better understanding of social theory so that I could be more discerning and more precise on the different types of non-scientific approaches within archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences.

You are right that this is "not a particularly scholarly usage." This is a blog, and I reserve the right to rant and rave in a quasi-scholarly manner. I do apologize for my sometimes cluelessness about interpretivist and relativist approaches, though.

Anonymous said...

It's your blog and obviously you can say what you like. I'm not a processualist, but that doesn't mean I don't value research produced by archaeologists who have different theoretical views from my own. I think there's room for a diversity of perspectives and a basic collegiality despite differences of opinion.

I therefore find this kind of dismissive attitude very tiring and unhelpful.

I'd prefer processualists do one of two things.

1) Say that they do a different kind of archaeology and are therefore neither interested nor qualified to comment on social theory. In which case, they are happy to let those who want to do that kind of thing get on with it.


2) Publish proper critiques. There are good examples of this (such as Fleming's 2006 critique of p-p landscape studies in Cambridge Journal). However these are fully referenced and peer-reviewed, not online hit-and-runs.

It's a lot easier to attack vague labels rather than seriously engage with others' work, even if that engagement is a critical one. These "culture wars" and the attitudes that drive them are to the detriment of our discipline.

Michael E. Smith said...

I am not a "processualist archaeologist." Much of Binford and the other processualists was wrong and misguided. As I have tried to make clear in this blog and in some recent papers, I am a comparative historical social scientist who happens to be an archaeologist. I am also a materialist with a scientific epistemology. The closes thing I can offer as "proper published critiques," are these papers:

Smith, Michael E. (2011) Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.
Smith, Michael E. (2011) Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. Anthropologies 3:(online).
Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle and Ian Morris (2012) Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:7617-7621.

There are two main reasons why I haven't (and probably won't) publish a "proper critique" of interpretivist/relativist archaeology. First, I am not a good enough thinker in what people call "social theory" (and don't care to take the time do bone up on this), and second, others outside of archaeology have published strong critiques of this kind of scholarship in related fields (sociology, cultural anthropology, philosophy of science, etc.). If you are interested, here are some examples:

Boyer, Pascal (2012) 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. 113-129. Oxford University Press, New York.

Bunge, Mario (1993) Realism and Antirealism in Social Science. Theory and Decision 35:207-235.

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

Gerring, John (2003) Interpretations of Interpretivism. Qualitative Methods: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association Organized Section on Qualitative Methods 1(2):2-6.

Haber, Stephen (1999) Anything Goes: Mexico's "New" Cultural History. Hispanic American Historical Review 79:309-330.

Hacking, Ian (1999) The Social Construction of What? Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Hedström, Peter (2005) Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Manicas, Peter T. (2003) The Social Sciences: Who Needs 'em? Futures 35(6):609-619.

Roscoe, Paul B. (1995) The Perils of "Positivism" in Cultural Anthropology. American Anthropologist 97:492-504.

Tilly, Charles (1994) Softcore Solipsism. Labour / Le Travail 34:259-268.

Tilly, Charles (2008) Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

I find myself drifting away from archaeology and anthropology, in part because of continued adherence to nonscientific theoretical perspectives that have been left behind in most of the social sciences. I prefer reading foreward-leaning social science than backward-looking humanities scholarship. The pomos, or interpretivists, or whatever they want to be called, can do their work and talk to one another, and I won't bother them (except maybe in this blog). I just have a different view of the world, and I don't really have time to "seriously engage with" much of that work. If that makes me a bad scholar in some people's opinion, then so be it.