Monday, October 12, 2015

How to make stronger arguments

My paper "How can archaeologists make better arguments?" has recently been published in the SAA Archaeological Record. While this is just a short paper in a non-peer-reviewed newsletter, I think it is one of my more important publications. Many aspects of contemporary archaeology -- particularly the archaeology of complex societies -- annoy and depress me. I use this blog to blow off steam about issues of data, theory, empirical adequacy, quality control, and such. I have come to the realization much of my dissatisfaction with publishing today revolves around the low quality of the empirical arguments in much of the literature today. People draw conclusions that are not warranted by the data, and then those results become enshrined as facts for future research and publishing (they are published! by a well-known archaeologist! they must be true!). Yet they are not facts at all; they are speculations with little empirical content.

I did some sniffing around the internet for my graduate theory seminar last year. I found that the topic of making arguments, like other epistemological topics, was rarely covered in graduate theory classes in the U.S. This surprised me at first, but then it made sense. If graduate students weren't getting training in how to make a rigorous argument -- how to test models with data, how to use theory to construct causal arguments -- then this helps explain the sorry state of archaeological argument. The alternative to rigorous empirical epistemology is philosophical, abstract theory, without much empirical content.

It seemed to me that rather than just ranting and raving about theory and epistemology in this blog, I should write a clear and direct guide to empirical arguments in archaeology. Some of the intellectual background is provide in my 2011 urban theory paper, but the new article is short and direct. So, if you haven't seen it yet, please download the paper and read it. And then please follow the advice. I want you to have a clearer view of archaeological epistemology, and I want you to make better arguments. This is not altruism on my part; instead, this advice comes from my distress at the state of archaeological knowledge today. If everyone were to make better arguments, the whole field would be vastly improved and perhaps I could stop being embarrassed when I have to explain away sloppy archaeological papers to my colleagues in other disciplines.

Smith, Michael E.    2015    How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15(4): 18-23.

Smith, Michael E.    2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.


Jason Baird Jackson said...

I tried to get your paper through and it forced me through a lot of hoops trying to make me become more deeply involved in the site and in the companion services on which it relies. I gave up before getting to it, but thankfully the SAA seems to have made it freely available to the rest of us at:

Thanks Michael, Thanks SAA.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Jason - Not sure what your problem was. It seems to work well for me. you have to click on "Download" rather than click on the title, though.

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