Saturday, February 14, 2015

Is archaeology relevant? Is "relevance" irrelevant?

The topic of relevance seems to be cropping up more frequently in archaeology. Our findings from the past are claimed to be relevant to contemporary concerns. I have no quibble with this viewpoint (Smith 2010), and indeed, my urban blog, Wide Urban World, is based on this premise. But the way the topic of relevance is used by most archaeologists today seems off the mark. The typical format is to assert, with little context or warrant, that some particular archaeological findings are relevant to some modern concern. This is usually done in an archaeology or anthropology journal, or other disciplinary work, in places that guarantee it will NOT to be seen by anyone outside of our field. As a result, such claims of relevance are irrelevant. If there is virtually no chance that policy-makers and politicians will read these claims, and even if someone in the policy world were to read our journals, the chances that our claims of relevance would be acted upon are nil. In this sense, claims of "relevance" are irrelevant.

I am prompted to write this after seeing a few recent examples of such irrelevant relevance claims. For example, the recently released American Anthropological Association's "AAA Statement on Humanity and Climate Change" includes this text:

"6. The archaeological record reveals diverse human adaptations and innovations to climate stresses occurring over millennia, providing evidence that is relevant to contemporary human experience" (emphasis in original). 

And then yesterday I read a review of a book about ancient markets and commercial economies that suggested that the book is relevant to the recent economic turndown. The review stated that "this book could easily be subtitled 'Ancient Widsom for Wall Street'." Incredible. Some Wall Street trader is going to read an archaeology book about ancient non-capitalist economies and act on what he or she learns. Give me a break. This is a pipe dream.

I gave a talk last fall at a workshop of the iHOPE-Maya group. The work of that group is described in Chase and Scarborough (2014); my talk is Smith (2014). I do not have a written version of the talk. The following is a brief outline of my talk.

To start, comparative analysis is hard (Smith 2012a), and it is particularly difficult to compare ancient and modern social phenomena when archaeologists have yet to produce reliable, synthetic, quantifiable findings about the past (Smith 2010). So, what is needed to claim that a particular archaeological finding is "relevant" (in a useful and realistic way) to some modern concern?

First, we need a good scientific basis for the archaeological find. That is, we need an explicit, evidence-based conclusion that most reasonable people will accept as correct. Abstract theory and speculation are not helpful. They may be useful to some people, in some contexts, but if you want someone to pay attention to an empirical finding, it needs to be a strongly-supported scientific conclusion. My point in Smith (2010) was that for ancient cities, we so far have few such conclusions that extend beyond a single city. It is easy to say, "At Teotihuacan, they did such-and-such," but much harder to say that "at all large ancient Mesoamerican cities, they did such-and-such."

Second, someone has to take up the archaeological claim and use it for some purpose: a policy-maker, a journalist, or another scientist. This is the tough part. These folks are just not going to read our technical literature and come up with useful findings. Some journalists do engage with archaeologists, but they are more likely to get things wrong than to report accurately on a find and its scientific significance. There is a scholarly literature on the relationship between social sciences and policy, and I draw on that literature here.

van Langenhove (2011) identifies several levels of impact on policy makers:
  1. Policy makers need to be aware of the new knowledge
  2. They need to pay attention to the new knowledge
  3. They need to form opinions/ attitudes about the knowledge
  4. They need to initiate actions based on that knowledge

Since policy makers are not going to read our journals, and few of us have the skills or fortitude to make our results known in the realm of policy, how might these processes of impact work? A major concept is translation: how technical findings get translated into simple terms that policy-markers can understand (Tseng 2012).  Most commonly in the social sciences, this is through intermediaries: entrepreneurs, advocacy groups, think tanks, and media consultants. But these things just don't exist for archaeology. The SAA and AIA do a very limited job in this arena. Most such work is actually done by university public relations offices, and they do a terrible job.

A big topic in the social science policy realm is "evidence-based policy" (e.g., Cherney and Head 2011, Bogenschneider and Corbett 2010). Empirical studies show that most policy is made with little or no consideration of the relevant social-science research. Politicians drafting laws about school lunch programs pay no attention at all to research on those programs. When the California legislature drafted a law about the purported relationship between video games and teen violence, they ignored the relevant research and let themselves be guided by biased promoters with inaccurate data. This is a fascinating case (Ferguson 2013); it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended up making a decision on which scientific evidence was valid and which was not (something the California legislature evidently had trouble with).

In a study of rural how policy gets made in rural  municipalities in Canada, Reimer and Brett (2013) found that:

“The results indicate that the respondents [local government officials] seldom provided justification for their claims and when they did, scientific evidence was infrequently used. Instead, the respondents most often used examples from their personal experience or public meetings as support [for their policy decisions]."

I recall seeing an estimate that of all the considerations that go into creating a piece of policy, the contribution of relevant evidence is almost always under 5%. Given these (and other) findings from research on social science policy, I see the chances of archaeological results being taken up and acted on by policy makers as just about nonexistent.

I have a different strategy. If social science research is going to be accommodated at all in the policy world, it is going to come from the best known specialists, not from archaeologists. It is going to come from the broader domain of knowledge about some phenomenon (urbanism, economics, demography, sustainability, whatever), rather than the limited domain of archaeological knowledge. I think archaeologists will advance farther in getting out our message beyond archaeology by trying to contribute to these broader domains. This has two advantages. First, we can help scholars create more realistic and better models of, say, urban neighborhoods, by expanding the domain beyond contemporary western cities. Second, this strategy can produce indirect influences on policy.

On the first front, I have been engaged in exercises of this sort for a while now, publishing in journals and attending conferences in other disciplines. There is a downside, of course. The time I spend in learning about these other disciplines is time I am not spending on my own Mesoamerican research. I published what I consider a major paper on ancient urban planning (Smith 2007), that is rather poorly cited by archaeologists because it is in a strange journal (Journal of Planning History). But these efforts have had some payoff in broadening perspectives on urbanism among some scholars in other disciplines.

On the second front, no policy maker is going to pay attention to my research on ancient urban neighborhoods, but they may very well pay attention to the work of people like Robert Sampson or Robert Chaskin.  These are two of the top researchers on neighborhood issues in contemporary cities, and both have been involved in policy work. If I can convince people like Sampson or Chaskin that archaeological research on neighborhoods is important and has something to say, that knowledge can become incorporated into their personal scholarly views, and perhaps have a policy impact (Smith 2012b). I do know that Sampson has taken an interest in ancient neighborhoods and has cited me, which is an encouraging first step.

Sorry to go on at such length. But rather than make unwarranted and decontextualized claims for the relevance of archaeological findings, I think we should be trying to refine our data, methods, and findings, and then we should promote them to scholars in other disciplines. If you think archaeology is "relevant" to some contemporary concern, then do the work needed to generate reliable knowledge. Translate it into nontechnical terms, and get it out to other scholars. Publish in non-archaeology journals. Contact other scholars and make your point. Put your money where your mouth is. Telling other archaeologists that you think your work is "relevant" may make you feel good, but it doesn't accomplish very much in the real world.


Bogenschneider, Karen and Thomas J. Corbett  (2010)  Evidence-Based Policymaking: Insights from Policy-Minded Researchers and Research-Minded Policymakers. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Chase, Arlen F. and Vernon L. Scarborough (editors)  (2014)  The Resilience and Vulnerabilityof Ancient Landscapes: Transforming Maya Archaeology through iHOPE. Archeological Papers vol. 24. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC.

Cherney, Adrian and Brian W. Head  (2011)  Evidence Based Policy and Practice: Key Challenges for Improvement. Australian Journal of Social Issues 45(4):509-526.

Ferguson, Christopher J.  (2013)  Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the Scientific Community in the Wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist 68(2):57-74.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright and Melinda Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79(1):5-24.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright and Melinda A. Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122:879-880.

Reimer, Bill and Matthew Brett  (2013)  Scientific Knowledge and Rural Policy: A Long-distant Relationship. Sociologia Ruralis 53(3):272-290.

Smith, Michael E.  (2007)  Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

  (2010)  Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

. (editor)  (2012a)  The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, New York.

  (2012b)  The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

  (2014)  Can Archaeologists Make their Results Useful in the Modern World? Paper presented at the iHOPE Maya working group, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Tseng, Vivian  (2012)  The Uses of Research in Policy and Practice. Social Policy Report 26(1):1-22.

Van Langenhove, Luk  (2011)  Social Sciences and Policy Impact: The Case for a Participatory Approach. In Social Science and Policy Challenges - Democracy, Values and Capacities, edited by Giorgios Papanagnou, pp. 95-111. UNESCO, Paris.


marcus said...

Good point on the impact of science on policy. I think another interesting angle is provided by historical archaeology, as argued for by Mrozowski in this article:

Mrozowski, S. A. (2014). "Imagining an archaeology of the future: capitalism and colonialism past and present." International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18: 340-360.

It would be complementary to reaching out to other disciplines to also consider the relation between prehistoric archaeology and that of the 'near present'. Perhaps even to compare specific issues. Historical archaeology could (very ideally) also lead to some reflection on our own society, replacing the kind of high-level theorizing that is now used for this. Just some loose ideas.

Michael E. Smith said...

Marcus - The situation with historical archaeology is somewhat different, since there are clear direct historical connections between past and present. There is a British organization focused on the policy relevance of history (called "History and Policy"), but it covers only the recent past. For those of us doing prehistoric archaeology and ancient times, the comparisons have to be broader and at a higher level of generality, which is much harder to do, and much harder to convince anyone that it is valid.