Reason 1: Archaeological theory is boring, the same old, same old. I did some checking with other graduate archaeological theory courses around the country, and they are pretty much the same old historical perspective. First came the discovery of chronology, then culture history, then Binford and the New Archaeology, then Hodder and the post-processualists, then all kinds of high-level abstract social theory, with some other things. Yadda yadda yadda. These courses follow Abend's Theory type 4 (the words of the great masters, the history of thought). Check out my comments on Abend here (Abend will be the first paper assigned in my seminar). I don't know how to discuss theory without Abend. But archaeological theory is boring, boring, boring. First, this approach focuses more on ideas about ideas, rather than ideas about what people did in the past. Second, students can read the history of theory on their own if they are interested; I would rather spend my seminar time helping students learn how to USE theory to answer archaeological questions. Knowing what Binford said in 1968 won't help much for that.
Reason 2: Discussions of theory and epistemology have been hijacked by the post-processualists. How many political economists or epistemological science-types are writing about archaeological theory? Not many. Do you want my historical speculation for the reason? Binford and the processualists climbed up the wrong branch when the sided with Hempel's covering law model, which was recognized as not applicable to social science BEFORE they started touting it! Read the philosophy of science. This left scientific archaeology without a valid explanatory epistemology. The post-processualists had a field-day, making fun of the bad science of covering-law explanations, while the scientific types (like me) just hunkered down and did our work, not making much epistemological noise. So nearly all of the publications on archaeological theory after Binford were by post-processualists! No wonder so many students got off on the wrong foot.
Reason 3: Non-theory is thrown in with theory. Why should topics like ethics, descendant communities, and heritage concerns be included in books (Hodder 2012) and courses on archaeological theory? Is this what archaeological theory now consists of?
Reason 4: Post-processual theory is deficient in social science. If you follow Hodder's ideas of theory, then I don't do archaeology at all. Or perhaps I do weird things that don't rate inclusion in his scheme of archaeological theory. Maybe I do non-theoretical archaeology. Check out the diagram from Hodder's intro chapter from his theory reader, 2nd edition:
|Hodder (2012), intro to Archaeology Theory Today, 2nd ed, p. 7|
(1) Rational choice theory - NO
(2) Game theory - NO
(3) Social networks - NO
(4) Normative criteria of social choice - NO
(5) Analytical sociology - NO
(6) Institutions - NO
(7) Evolutionary approaches - YES
(8) Functionalism and structuralism - NO
(9) Phenomenology, hermeneutics, and ethnomethodology - YES
(10) Pragmatism and symbolic interactionism - ???
(11) Social constructionism, postmodernism and deconstructionism - YES
(12) Theories of culture, cognition, and action - YES
- (13) Communicative action and critical theory - NO
Since I work with networks, analytical sociology, institutions, and rational choice theory, I guess I'm not part of the realm of Hodder's world of "archaeological theory."
But maybe that's ok. I don't really want to be part of the post-proceessual archaeological world. As I've expressed in the blog before, I now read more theory (and more articles and books in general) in the non-anthropological social sciences than in archaeology or anthropology.
So, how can someone who hates archaeological theory teach a graduate seminar in theory? The answer is that this will not be a course in "archaeological theory" but rather a class on "theory in archaeology." That is, theory that archaeologists use, or can use, to understand and explain the past. We will dispense with the usual content of the archaeological theory courses in about two weeks, and get on to epistemology, causality, explanation, the structure of argument, comparative methods, and then some useful theories, from collective action to human behavioral ecology to political economy. If you want an idea of what I mean, check out my paper on empirical urban theory.
Hodder, Ian (2012) Introduction: Contemporary Theoretical Debate in Archaeology. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by Ian Hodder, pp. 1-14. 2nd ed. Polity Press, Oxford.
Jarvie, Ian and Jesús Zamora-Bomilla (editors) (2011) Sage Handbook of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Sage, New York.
Smith, Michael E. (2011) Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.