Saturday, May 11, 2013

When our concepts fossilize, or, How to keep archaeology down on the farm

Cuexcomate, an Aztec community
I’ve been struggling with the problem of relating some of my archaeological findings to social issues in the world today. In this case, my focus is on the concept of “community.” I have two reasons for exploring how Aztec communities (whose remains I have excavated) are similar or different from modern communities. One reason is public communication. I am writing a book about Aztec communities intended for a popular, non-specialist audience, and I want readers to see connections between communities today and the contexts I am describing in the book. The other reason is scientific. In line with my strong beliefs that archaeology is a social science, I want to forge conceptual and empirical links between the results of my fieldwork and research on contemporary communities.

The major work on the archaeology of communities, for state-level societies, is the book with that title (Canuto and Yaeger 2000). I never much liked the concept of community promoted in that work, and I withdrew my name from one of the chapters to avoid being associated with the book and its approach (that is, I would have been co-author of one of the chapters, which was then published without my name). For a number of years I couldn’t put my finger on just what I disliked, beyond a vague uneasiness with the book’s emphasis on “the community as a socially constituted institution” and its celebration of “a multiplicity of perspectives” (Yaeger and Canuto 2000). I could not see how to operationalize the concepts in that book to analyze ancient communities as I understood them, and I disliked the vague interpretivist approach of the editors and some of the authors. To me, things like subjective meanings, identity, agency, and social construction—major components of that approach—were not the most important things about communities, today or in the past.

As my reading expanded into sociology, economics, and political science over the past few years, I found an approach to community that seemed more rigorous and useful. The major focus is on social interactions among people. A community is an institution with particular kinds of social interactions. This chart (from Bowles and Gintis 1998:6) illustrates how communities relate to states and markets, other institutions also based on interactions. Here is how Bowles and Gintis define community:

“By community we mean a group of people who interact directly, frequently and in multi-faceted ways. People who work together are usually communities in this sense, as are some neighbourhoods, groups of friends, professional and business networks, gangs, and sports leagues. The list suggests that connection, not affection, is the defining characteristic of a community. Whether one is born into a community or one entered by choice, there are normally significant costs to moving from one to another.” (Bowles and Gintis 2002:F420).


“By ‘community’ we mean a structure of social interaction characterized by high entry and exit costs and nonanonymous relationships among members. As with biological ‘groups,’ interactions among community members are more frequent and extensive than interactions with ‘outsiders.’ “ (Bowles and Gintis 1998:3).

Communities foster:
Bungamati, a community in Nepan

  • Frequent interaction among the same agents;
  • Low-cost access to information about other community members;
  • A tendency to favor interactions with members of one’s own community over outsiders;
  • Restricted migration to and from other communities.

“These structural characteristics, we will show, contribute to the ability of communities to promote pro-social behavior.” (Bowles and Gintis 1998:6) One of their big points is that communities today can accomplish many things more successfully than can markets or states. This, of course, is closely related to the insights of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990; 2010) on common-pool resource exploitation.

There is a HUGE literature on community in sociology and other social sciences. Here are some other sources with similar interaction-based views of community that I find congenial and very useful for archaeology: (Hechter 1987; Taylor and Singleton 1993; Sampson 1999; Talen 1999; Tilly 2008; Brower 2011; Sampson 2012).

This is the literature I draw on in discussing ancient communities and how they compare to modern communities. When a new reference work came out recently, I was interested to see an update on The Archaeology of Communities  (Canuto and Yaeger 2012). My initial hope was that these authors may have gotten into some of the contemporary literature cited above, but instead I found that their initial interpretivist perspective had fossilized. Although they claim to be interested in social interaction, this is a very different take on interaction than is used in sociology, economics, political science, and planning today:

  • “Of all the topics recently addressed under the rubric of the archaeology of communities, identities and identity formation have been most salient.” (p.701)
  • “These scholars focus on the constitution of past social groups through dialogic relations to other subjects as well as the material world. In this approach, community is a social group with an explicit discursive identity that develops through participation in meaningful practices, at meaningful places, and using meaningful objects.” (702) [Editorial remark from the peanut gallery: Do you think they are interested in meaning?]
  • There is a major focus on “intersubjectivity” (702).
Hierarchical community structure (Amos Rapoport)

As readers of this blog will know, there is a strong epistemological gap between this kind of interpretivist viewpoint (soft postmodernism, social archaeology, whatever you want to call it) and the materialist, social scientific epistemology that I like to promote. I find Canuto and Yaeger’s concept of community problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it prevents objective comparisons among cases. If subjective meaning and social construction are paramount, then you just can’t make rigorous comparisons among communities, ancient or modern. Second, continued adherence to this line of thought keeps archaeology isolated from contemporary thought and research in the social sciences. Archaeology is kept “down on the farm” and unable to contribute to wider debates about communities and other social phenomena.

If you are not familiar with this (non-archaeological) literature on community, you should check it out. I am not the only archaeologist getting into this area of social science research; see the papers in Carballo (2013). I have avoided mentioning the big literature on community in the American Southwest. Much of this work is quite good, well worth considering if you work on non-stsate societies. Schachner (2012) is a good introduction and empirical study.

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis
1998    The Moral Economy of Communities: Structured Populations and the Evolution of Pro-Social Norms. Evolution and Human Behavior 19: 3-25.

2002    Social Capital and Community Governance. The Economic Journal 112 (483): F419-F436.

Brower, Sidney N.
2011    Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.

Canuto, Marcello A. and Jason Yaeger (editors)
2000    The Archaeology of Communities. Routledge, New York.

2012    Communities in Ancient Mesoamerica. In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher Pool, pp. 697-707. Oxford University Press, New York.

Carballo, David M. (editor)
2013    Cooperation and Collective Action: Archaeological Perspectives. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Hechter, Michael
1987    Principles of Group Solidarity. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ostrom, Elinor
1990    Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2010    Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review 100 (3): 641-672. 

Sampson, Robert J.
1999    What Community Supplies. In Urban Problems and Community Development, edited by Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens, pp. 241-292. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

2012    Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Schachner, Gregson
2012    Population Circulation and the Transformation of Ancient Zuni Communities. University of Arizona Press, Tucson

Talen, Emily
1999    Sense of Community and Neighbourhood Form: An Assessment of the Social Doctrine of New Urbanism. Urban Studies 36: 1361-1379.

Taylor, Michael and Sara Singleton
1993    The Communal Resource: Transaction Costs and the Solution of Collective Action Problems. Politics and Society 21 (2): 195-214.

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

Yaeger, Jason and Marcello A. Canuto
2000    Introducing an Archaeology of Communities. In The Archaeology of Communities, edited by Marcello A. Canuto and Jason Yaeger, pp. 1-15. Routledge, New York.


Marcus said...

You bring up the pomo and social science models, but there's also still Polanyi to consider. Maybe one could argue him to be a fossil, but al least there is something in that body of work (since expanded by others) that allows one to investigate the relations between households, markets, states and indeed communities.

With regard to the notion that today communities can be more successfully than markets and states, I would caution that if A and B have failed, don't be too sure C is coming to the rescue. It seems to me that the possibilities of communities are quite limited given constraints on communication in large groups and not able to to provide the services that states and markets can do. Ostrom acknowledges that states are important for CPR preservation in her 2010 paper (pp. 663-665), which immediately brings up the need for a Polanyi-like framework to consider their relation.

Michael E. Smith said...

(1) Polanyi is associated with a theroetical perspective that has waxed and waned over the years. For the most part I wouldn't say that his perspective has "fossilized", although there are a few people who have held dogmatically to an outdated and strict version of his model. But Polanyi proposed an empirical and comparative approach, at least some of whose insights remain valid and useful.

As for communities, I was deliberately avoiding getting into a big discussion, since there are probably tens of thousands of published works on the topic. My main point was that there is a new perspective, from sociology/political science/planning/institutional analysis/economics (I don't even know what to call this stuff!), and that this perspective is more useful for social-science archaeology than is the Canuto-Yaeger approach.

John Millhauser said...

I am excited for your book to come out – especially because I studied small-scale Aztec communities for my dissertation research. I focused on communities of rural saltmakers especially how work practices could create the shared interaction, shared interests, and shared identities upon which communities are based. I found the growing literature on “communities of practice” (Wenger 1998) to be particularly helpful as a way to look at workplaces, rather than living places, as important sites of community. The problem I ran into (though it may not be a problem) was that depending on the measure that I used, the communities that I found overlapped and/or existed at different scales. Some aspects of saltmaking were unique to individual sites and settlements, others to clusters of sites, and others to entire regions in the Basin of Mexico.

I perceive that part of the problem with the study of communities is that the term has so many meanings. For it to be analytically or comparatively useful, you have to pin it down to something that has measurable spatial, temporal, and social aspects. I agree that Canuto and Yaeger don’t do a great job of that –- with a few exceptions, the papers in their volume do not provide a concrete framework for making comparisons. I find Kolb and Snead’s (1997) work to be more helpful in that regard as well as Johnson and Earle’s (1987) idea of the local group.

For me, the value of the concept of the community is in how it contrasts with the idea of the settlement. I see this in the quotes’ you have pulled from Bowles and Gintis and look forward to reading their work soon. Nevertheless, I find much of the archaeological work on communities to be limiting because it stays close to the community as a settlement (or group of settlements, or part of a settlement). Part of my excitement and interest in studying saltmaking communities was that I thought I might find evidence of how work was a source of community identity and organization complementary to residence.

Once we expand the idea of the community beyond the settlement we have to recognize that individuals will be part of many communities based on where they work, live, play, pray, and so forth. For each individual, many of these communities may overlap spatially, socially, and temporally – but not all of them. Similarly, you don’t have to get into questions of subjective identity and social construction to see that many kinds of communities exist simultaneously – this idea is implicit in Bowles and Gintis. Archaeologists face the challenge of studying overlapping communities that are more than settlements, which requires attention to specific cultural and historical contexts (one of the strengths of Canuto and Yaeger’s volume), but this makes it all the more difficult to build a comparative definition or model. We might do well to ask at what times and under what circumstances do different communities become more important for the individuals that comprise them? And does this happen in the same way in all times and places? I just saw an interesting paper by Arthur Murphy in this regard about the variable ways that different communities deal with catastrophes – some come together and others fall apart. For archaeologists, a central goal is to build a framework for objective comparison of the material correlates of the many communities that humans create without making a model that is so complex as to be useless. No problem, right?

Johnson, A. W., and T. K. Earle. 1987. The evolution of human societies: from foraging group to agrarian state. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kolb, M. J., and J. E. Snead. 1997. It's a Small World after All: Comparative Analyses of Community Organization in Archaeology. American Antiquity 62:609-628.

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael E. Smith said...

@John- You bring up lots of interesting and important points. I actually hesitated before posting anything on communities, because the topic is do big with such a big literature (mostly outside of anthropology and archaeology). You bring up what I think is a key issue - the difference between a social community and a settlements. Our usage in archaeology is so site-based that it is hard to even think about non-place-based communities. An over-reliance on "community-as-site" is one of the problems with the Canuto/Yaeger approach, and thinking back, that was one of the main reasons I didn't want to be associated with their book.

Here are a couple of interesting developments in modern community research that cry out for application or exploration by archaeologists.

(1) The internet fosters many non-placed based communities. How do these differ from neighborhood- or village-communities? Is there anything in the ancient world that is vaguely similar; can some of the concepts be useful?

(2) Despite claims that place-based communities are losing their importance due to internet-communities, migration, and other factors, research shows the continuing importance of place-based communities, both for the lives of residents and for the social structure of the city. There is something fundamental in human social organization (or in human brains, or culture, or whatever) at work in communities. Archaeologists should be jumping on this. We are starting to get into the importance of neighborhoods in cities, but that is just part of the story.

(3) Fieldwork-based studies of modern urban neighborhoods have found that the concept of "collective efficacy" is important in producing positive social outcomes. Collective efficacy means that people have and feel a level of social control over their local environment, and they ahve the ability to get things done. To quote Robert Sampson, “People want to live in environments that they perceive as safe, as cohesive, as having certain kinds of amenities. That is not the same as having a deep, intimate, personal tie with your neighbors." In other words, deep personal ties are not required in order for a neighborhood to be successful or prosperous or positive for its residents. From Sampson again: "while community efficacy may depend on working trust and social interaction, it does not require that my neighbor or local police officer be my friend.”

(4) Neighborhood or community identity may or may not be important in contemporary settings. Most of the causal models for neighborhood functioning (Sampson's work and many others) leave out identity as being of secondary importance. This goes against the trend in social archaeology today, of course, where identity is the be-all and end-all of social analysis. Could archaeologists be wasting lots of time and energy on a topic that is just not very important to the ways that societies operate?

Anyway, there is a BIG literature out there, much of it very relevant for archaeology. I know a bit of it, perhaps just enough to be dangerous. Sounds like someone should write a review article; I wish I had time for that.

Nancy Rynes said...

Thank you for posting this, and especially the reading list. I'm definitely going to dive in and read more about this topic.

While I'm no longer active in archaeology (I'm an artist and science/tech writer these days), I've been giving a lot of thought to this general topic lately. I'll admit that I'm probably more curious about the "communication" piece of this rather than the "community" piece, although I see how they are intimately tied together. Writing and speaking has been a large part of my career for more than a few years so I have a bit of a bias...

But back to communication and community...I worked on some paintings this weekend that depicted similar themes from different ancient cultures (and also the same culture across different areas) and I began to wonder: How can communication patterns be teased out of archaeological findings with cultures that leave behind little to nothing we today would say is "communication"? Is there a way to get at this from "artwork" left behind or other artifacts? And soon after that I ran across your blog for the first time and found that active archeologists are starting to delve into similar questions.

I'm too long out of the field to have an intelligent discussion as a scientist - probably what you'd get is from me instead is odd, hard-to-follow musings from the brain of an artist. It likely wouldn't do you much good...

Anyway, thanks for getting me going on a reading list and I'm looking forward to reading more of your writing!

Michael E. Smith said...

Nancy- Glad you liked the post.