Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why do I dislike archaeological theory?

Archaeological theory, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. I am planning a graduate seminar in theory for the fall, so I have theory on the brain. Ugh, I'd rather think about other things! Like basketball and beer. Will I root for Cindy's alma mater, the Florida gators, or for the Wisconsin badgers for Big-10 solidarity? Maybe they won't both win Saturday.

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 Schiffer 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
So, what is wrong with this figure? Well, the dominant social science theoretical approaches are not included! A recent collection on the philosophy of social science includes a chapter for each of the "social science paradigms" (Jarvie and Zamora-Bomilla 2011). Here is the list, with an indication of whether these are  included in Hodder's diagram or not:

  •   (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.


FDN said...

Great rant! Thank you. My observation is that courses in (socio-cultural) anthropological theory take a similar approach. That might suggest that fields of inquiry will equate theory with the thoughts of the ancestors to the extent that they lack any teachable models and analytical methods derived from them that can be successfully employed in a variety of different contexts. Here’s a timely example of the latter:, which I bumped into while eating my oatmeal this AM.

Archaeology is better off that s-c anthro in this regard, largely on the strength of the approaches on the left side of Hodder’s diagram. There’s more the left than meets the eye: for example (evolutionary) game theory is a part of the toolkit of folks who do HBE and gene-culture coevolution.

On the other hand, I do think there is an important role for courses in the intellectual history of our discipline(s). But it would be helpful to bill them for what they are.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should think of your class as more debate oriented, and less as an opportunity for you to tell students what they should think. If you disagree with post-processual strands in archaeology, then why not have students critically think about the use of theory by post-processualists. They don't need to believe it, but they should know at least some of it. You do them a disservice by not exposing them to the broad range of theory in archaeology. And you do the discipline a disservice by continuing to reinforce this so-called divide between "scientists" (like you), and post-processualists (whom you often carelessly label as post-modernists). Let your students figure it out on their own. The way you think about, and presumably teach, archaeology seems a lot like religious dogmatism.

alisonincambodia said...

I'd be interested in seeing a copy of your syllabus when it's finished. Would you be willing to share?

Michael E. Smith said...

@anonymous - First, here is a flippant reply: When creationists complained that their views should be given equal time on the new TV series Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson replied:

“You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers."

And here is a less-flippant reply. You seem to assume that this course will be taught in a particular fashion, when you really know nothing at all about the class or how it will be taught. In fact, the course is directed primarily at critical thinking (and not excluding postmodern, postprocessual, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and other post topics). If you think my scientistic ranting is a "disservice to the discipline," then please feel free to counter it with opposing rants. I do think that postprocessualists hijacked epistemological and theoretical discourse in archaeology, and some attention to alternatives is badly needed. I only wish I were smarter and had more time to write scholarly papers on this issue.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Alison - I will probably post the syllabus at some point. Its not complete yet.

WK Hutchings said...

I think you might be treating the "formality" of epistemology a bit to stringently. That might sound a little flippant I suppose, but it's not intended to be. Yes, the New Archaeology got their direction wrong, so teach the history of that, but then emphasize the benefits of a scientific approach that came out of it all. And the Post-modernists have deconstructed theory itself, but that doesn't mean that their views are necessarily more valid than any other.

If you want to "use" theory rather that talk about it, then do so - I do in my theory course. I give my students a "data set" comprised of brief summaries of site data including material culture content, dates, photos, maps, stratigraphic profiles, etc. for a well-defined (fictitious) region, and as we go through "the history of archaeological theory" the students analyse and then re-analyse the same data set through the lens of each theoretical perspective. Their results are not always exactly on target, but they do learn theory, and they do gain appreciation for the fact that we bring strong biases to our work based on our "lenses" - an important lesson.

Michael E. Smith said...

@WK - I have always thought that the kind of course you describe - taking some data and analyzing it different ways following different theories or approaches - would be very valuable. Sounds like a useful class exercise.

mxmacaronic said...

Post-processual and processual archaeology are both so hugely out-dated. I always resented having to learn them over and over again, and having to go elsewhere for current social science theories. Why do archaeologists try so hard to keep apart from related disciplines? Even the New Archaeologists used outdated and cherry-picked science a lot of the time. Frustrating as hell.

I disagree with you on things like ethics, though - archaeology as a discipline has a huge problem with unethical behaviour, and we have to make students aware of it somewhere!

Michael E. Smith said...

@mx - Are you saying that Hodder's scheme (in the diagram from his 2012 reader) is "hugely out-dated"? Well, that is one reason I am tremendously bored with "archaeological theory" as normally described.

As for ethics, I am not claiming that this is not an important topic. But is it "theory"? To me, theory is a part of the intellectual apparatus of archaeology, whereas ethics is part of methods and professional practice. Of course the two realms are closely intertwined, but I don't see the rationale for including ethics as part of the domain of theory. Why not also include in a theory course things like excavation methods, publication practices, tips for outfitting a petrographic lab, or recipes for campfire cookies? I guess if ethics are not covered elsewhere in the curriculum, you could throw it into a theory class.

jasonbairdjackson said...

I always enjoy these sorts of posts, even when I know that I do not control all of the issues that you are discussing. I think that your course name is a useful part of this story. I used to teach an elective that I called 'Putting Cultural Theory to Use' It was intended to introduce social and culture theory from outside folklore studies to graduate students in the field, with an emphasis on application. Our core theory course, which I now teach, has long been called 'Folklore Theory in Practice.' I think a separate history course is crucial. At Oklahoma, where I used to teach theory in cultural anthropology (as in so many other places), history of theory and applicable theory are conflated. Something that is usually challenging for new students to process.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Jason - I agree that the history of theory, and theory for application, are two different things, probably best taught separately. But I fear there is a generation of young archaeologists who think that their theoretical orientation is practice theory (that is what their professors taught them). But practice theory has few expressions "on the ground," leading these archaeologists to pursue faulty methods of logic and argumentation. They don't have much idea of what practical theory, or empirical theory, or theory for use, is all about.

John D. Ayer said...

Dude, the difference between sociological/anthropological theory (since, really they are pretty much the same thing and utilize the same theoretical structures) and archaeological theory is the difference between deductive and inductive and the difference between the intangible. Archaeologists start with a material object, a specific, and works to develop a general understanding of the ways a community used that object. Anthropology starts with an general intangible community and works to develop a specific understanding about the way a community behaves. A dig, material/specific compared to an ethnography, intangible/general. So, yeah, the theoretical approaches are going to be different. That ain't boring. Sure, I could take the various essays regarding theory Hodder's Archaeological Theory Today and compare/contrast to anthropological/sociological theories, but, they really wouldn't fit. Besides, there is way too much ego attached to archaeology, too many people trying to achieve "archeostar" (look at the discussions in various texts about the "showdown at La Caverna" over Monte Verde II).

Then there is the obvious issue, we are unlikely to ever find the "earliest" evidences of people in the Americas, or anywhere else. There will be bell shaped ramp up and a point at where population density makes it probable that we will discover some evidence. The idea of claiming that people didn't exist before the earliest evidence found is statistically unlikely. Reading about La Caverna is academic drama at its daytime television best. Blech. Ego and charisma is always going to a problem in science. Archeology takes it to a whole new level. Theory helps bring those egos down to earth. Theory forces people to focus on peer accepted, cooperative concepts.