Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The clarity (or not) of our concepts: migration

This is a migration.
I recently wandered into the conceptual quagmire of migration. I posted previously on concepts and their clarity (or lack thereof), using the example of identity. Please see the first part of that prior post for my discussion of John Gerring's pointers on concept formation in the social sciences.

A caveat here. I am most interested in the topic of migrations or human movements in agrarian state societies. The concepts and perhaps methods differ for non-state societies. In fact the one domain where I found coherent and interesting archaeological work on migration is the U.S. Southwest. For reviews of this work, see: Schachner (2012), or Nelson and Strawhacker (2011); particularly the synthetic chapters.

So, what is wrong with the concept of migration in the archaeology of states? First, many or most archaeologists do not define the term. I was flabbergasted that major programmatic works, published explicitly to promote and refine the concept of migration, do not define the term (Anthony 1990; Burmeister 2000; Frachetti 2011). I took a quick look at other recent works on migration, and didn't see any definitions. It seems that the attitude is that everybody knows what migration is, so why define it. Maybe migration is like pornography - one can't define it easily, but one sure knows it when one sees it.

Is this a migration?
But in the absence of explicit definitions, it seems pretty clear that for most archaeologists, migration means big groups of people moving from one place to another more distant place. Some archaeologists dismiss the notion that shorter or temporary movements constitute migration. These other movements must be something else, but whatever they are, they aren't migration. These more ephemeral movements happen to be the topic of my paper. Now I don't care whether they are called migration or movement or ambulatory transpositional spatial undertakings. But shouldn't there be a way to relate different types of movement to one another without just picking one mode of movement, calling it migration, and ignoring the others? These works remind me of the old country-music song, "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!"

This narrow approach to definition common in archaeology violates two of Gerring's criteria for productive concept development. First, it produces terminological confusion, by changing the commonly accepted broader definition of migration as many different kinds of movement. This confusion violates Gerring's principle of resonance.

Second, by claiming that only one kind of thing constitutes migration, this narrow definition isolates
Charles Tilly's typology of migration
·        one’s research domain from others, preventing the identification of commonalities or patterns at a more synthetic level. This violates Gerring's principle of differentiation.

To me, a far more productive approach is to look at the broad range of things called migration or movement, and identify the significant variations. Then one can define more limited types or categories based on the important variables. This is just what Charles Tilly (1978) did in a highly influential paper on migration that is not cited by archaeologists or anthropologists.  ((EMAIL ME if you want a copy of Tilly's paper))

People who work intensively on migration will proabably find my ideas simplistic and not useful. But as an outsider wandering into a new body of literature, I was surprised and disappointed at the conceptual confusion. Please define your terms (especially one's central concepts). Please relate your concepts to nearby concepts. And please take a look at Gerring (and at Tilly, if you are interested in migration).

Criteria of conceptualization (Gerring 2012, Table 5.1, p.117)
  • 1.      Resonance.  How faithful is the concept to extant definitions and established usage?
  • 2.      Domain.  How clear and logical is (1) the language community(ies) and (b) the empirical terrain that a concept embraces?
  • 3.      Consistency.  Is the meaning of a concept consistent throughout a work?
  • 4.      Fecundity.  How many attributes to referents of a concept share? (coherence, depth, richness, etc.)
  • 5.      Differentiation.  How differentiated is a concept from neighboring concepts? What is the contrast-space against which a concept defines itself?
  • 6.      Causal utility. What utility does a concept have within a causal theory and research design?
  • 7.      Operationalization.  How do we know it (the concept) when we see it? Can a concept be measured easily and unproblematically?
Anthony, David W.
1990    Migration in Archaeology: The Baby and the Bathwater. American Anthropologist 92: 895-914.

Burmeister, Stefan
2000    Archaeology and Migration: Approaches to an Archaeological Proof of Migration. Current Anthropology 41: 539-567.

Frachetti, Michael D.
2011    Migration Concepts in Central Eurasian Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 195-212.

Gerring, John
    2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Nelson, Margaret and Colleen Strawhacker (editors)
2011   Movement, Connectivity and Landscape Change in the Ancient Southwest. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

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

Smith, Michael E.
    n.d.    Urbanization and Village Nucleation: Causes and Consequences of Moving into Town. Unpublished manuscript.

Tilly, Charles
1978    Migration in Modern European History. In Human Migration: Patterns and Policies, edited by William McNeill and R. Adams, pp. 48-74. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

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