Thursday, January 21, 2016

Don't create confusion by redefining standard concepts

Archaeology sometimes seems to exist in its own little scholarly world. Compared to other disciplines, we have strange kinds of data—sites and artifacts. These weird data require odd specialized methods, from lithic refitting to grave-lot seriation to dog-lease surface collecting. Scholars in other disciplines don’t do these things, and they don’t need labels for them. Quite naturally, archaeology requires its own specialized vocabulary. Does it matter whether our terms match up with those in other disciplines? After all, we are doing our own thing, and we rightly assert our ability to define our own terminology.

This is fine, up to a point. But there is a tendency for archaeologists to take this disciplinary autonomy—and its associated terminology—too far. We have a habit of adopting terms that have a standard definition in other fields, and giving them an entirely new meaning within archaeology. I am not referring to adopting a standard term (say, stratigraphy from geology) to the peculiarities of the archaeological record and maintaining a very similar meaning. I am referring to the practice of giving established terms an entirely new, unrelated definition for archaeology. Then the terms come into archaeological use, aided by the fact that too few archaeologists keep up on other disciplines. The result is confusion. When I run into the term “normative,” I have to stop and think. Does the writer mean normative in its standard definition in urban planning? Or are we talking about normative in Lewis Binford’s idiosyncratic vocabulary?  To me, this confusion is a serious problem. It helps isolate archaeology from other disciplines. It promotes conceptual sloppiness. And it helps keep archaeology down on the farm, and away from the scholarly centers where the intellectual action is.

I just found a new example is an article I read on the airplane returning from Aarhus. Norman Yoffee redefines two terms: infrastructure, and infrastructural power (Yoffee 2015), giving them definitions very different than understood in other disciplines (and in archaeology as well). So here are a few examples of this process that come to mind. I’ll start with Binford. At one point I had a list of four or five such terms that Binford blindly adopted, but right now only these two come to mind.

Middle range theory.
The term middle-range theory was invented by sociologist Robert Merton in the 1950s for a kind of empirical theory that applied to people and societies and their operation. It was devised as a contrast to “grand theory” or high-level theory, an abstract, philosophical brand of social theory. Then Binford came along and used the very same term for something completely unrelated: formation process. This had nothing at all to do with Merton’s concept, so the reason for the re-invention of the concept must have been ignorance on Binford’s part. Raab and Goodyear (1984) sorted this out decades ago, but because few archaeologists bothered to look at sociological epistemology, we kept on using Binford’s term. This created a real mess, and it had a seriously negative affect on archaeological theory and epistemology, since we very badly needed Merton’s insights decades ago. I discuss the situation elsewhere (Smith 2011). I sometimes wonder if the crisis in archaeological argumentation (Smith 2015) might have been avoided had we paid attention to Merton and other methodological works in the social sciences back in the days when Binford and Hodder were shouting at one another and filling the need for stock exam essays for archaeology students.

I remember back in grad school days when Binford’s concept of normative was a pejorative label for models he didn’t like. Normative meant a theory that relied on any kind of ideas in people’s heads to explain something in the past. Binford and the materialistic new archaeologists would say disgustedly that Hodder and the post-processualists used normative theories. When I started reading in the urban planning literature, I was surprised to find that the term was a basic concept with a very different meaning. Normative theory refers to theories about good or positive values in urban design, “a theory of the kinds of urban environments town planning should seek to create” (Taylor 1998:22). Kevin Lynch’s excellent book Good City Form (Lynch 1981) is built around a single question: “What makes a good city?” (p.1). Normative theory in planning is usually contrasted with “descriptive theory,” which is theory without value judgments. I must admit that initially I had a strong negative reaction to normative theory in planning, since the cultural relativism of anthropology was strongly imprinted on my decades ago. How can one claim that some cultural feature or practice is “better” than another? But think about buildings and cities that you know. It should be obvious that some are better designed than others, and normative theory deals with how to achieve superior outcomes in buildings, cities, and built landscapes. I discuss normative theory relevant to archaeology here: (Smith 2011).

Top-down and bottom-up.
These terms are widely used in the social sciences to distinguish different types of dynamics and causality in complex systems. For example, in discussing governance, a top-down process is one where policies are made and implemented by a high-level authority with little input from the grass roots, whereas a bottom-up process is one carried out by the actions of people organizing on their own, typically outside of formal institutions. Laws are often created, and always implemented, by top-down actions of governments, whereas the Occupy Wall Street movement was a bottom-up process. Top-down and bottom-up are rarely considered analytical terms, but they are used informally (and frequently) as labels for things that have clear analytical definitions. The term “generative process” is often used for bottom-up social processes. As archaeologists become more sophisticated about things like governance, economic systems, and other manifestations of complex adaptive systems, we will turn increasingly to the analytical concepts behind the terms top-down and bottom-up. In fact I predict that an increasing understanding of generative processes in the next decade will revolutionize our understanding of ancient states and ancient cities.

So, how have archaeologists used these phrases differently? I have seen an increasing number of archaeologists use "top-down" to describe research that looks at kings and elites, while bottom-up refers to research that focuses on households. This is a very different concept. Both top-down and bottom-up processes (in the standard terminology) can implicate both elites and households. The new archaeological usage is a static descriptive concept, whereas the standard social-science usages describes dynamic processes. I have seen many cases of the new uses, particularly in research on the Classic Maya, but I haven’t been keeping track. My resources here in Dulles Airport are limited (with a delay; I’ll arrive in PHX at 6:AM Aarhus time, close to 24 hours traveling.....). I just saw an Andean example in a recent Latin American Antiquity. Again, this usage serves to isolate archaeology from other disciplines, and it causes confusion by the concurrent use of different definitions for the same words. If you are analyzing households, then say households; don’t use an irrelevant term badly.

Infrastructure and infrastructural power.
I find Yoffee’s reinvention of these terms the most puzzling case. Most or all of the above cases arose form ignorance. The archaeologists in question had no clue about developments in other disciplines, and were probably not aware they were sowing confusion. But Yoffee is clearly aware that his definitions diverge from accepted definitions, both in archaeology and outside. His article takes off from sociologist Michael Mann’s concept of “infrastructural power” (Mann 1984, 2008), and he cites Mann’s definition as the ability of the state to penetrate civil society. But then he redefines infrastructure. In normal scholarly discourse, infrastructure refers to the “sinews” of a city or a society, the physical features that bind different places together (Boone and Modarres 2006:95). Mann’s usage extends this concept to include facilities and practices that bring the state down to the level of neighborhoods and communities to interface with people. Mann contrasts this with “despotic power,” which means the power of the ruler to carry out his wishes unencumbered by other forces.

Yoffee defines infrastructure in an odd way: “By infrastructures, I mean groups of people and their leaders who stand apart from or are not a part of the institutions of the state” (unpaginated). Most scholars would call such groups “civic associations” or “institutions” (guilds, councils, religious institutions, neighborhood watch groups and the like). I can’t find an explicit definition of infrastructural power in the paper, but the usage suggests that Yoffee is referring to the power of such civic associations. He discusses cases where such associations have the power to resist the rulers of early states. This is an insightful discussion, and I like many parts of Yoffee’s argument. But why change the meanings of established terms? “Civic associations” works fine for these phenomena, and that term is common in fields outside of archaeology such as social history and urban studies (Friedrichs 2010; Prak 2011; Read 2008). Also puzzling is his avoidance of Blanton and Fargher (2008), the one source by archaeologists that deals most closely with Mann’s concept of infrastructural power!

I hope we can cut down on such terminological sloppiness in archaeology. It breeds confusion and it isolates our discipline from other fields. With increasing scholarly resources, it is easier now to follow, or at least check up on other disciplines now and then.

We all need to be more careful about this, and journal editors and reviewers should not give a pass to these confusions.

2008    Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

2006    City and Environment. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

2010    What Made the Eurasian City Work? Urban Political Cultures in Early Modern Europe and Asia. In City Limits: Perspectives on the Historical European City, edited by Glenn Clark, Judith Owens, and Greg T. Smith, pp. 29-63. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal.

1981    A Theory of Good City Form. MIT Press, Cambridge.

1984    The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25: 185-213.

2011    Citizenship in Pre-Modern Eurasia: A Comparison Between China, the Near East and Europe. Paper presented at the Modern and comparative economic history seminar, London.

1984    Middle-Range Theory in Archaeology: A Critical Review of Origins and Applications. American Antiquity 49: 255-268.

2008    The State's Evolving Relationship with Urban Society: China's Neighborhood Organizations in Comparative Perspective. In Urban China in Transition, edited by John R. Logan, pp. 315-335. Blackwell, Malden.

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

1998    Urban Planning Theory Since 1845. Sage Publications, London.

2015    The Power of Infrastructures: a Counternarrative and a Speculation. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory  (published online).

Posted during a flight delay in Dulles airport. Check out my post on the Viking Museum in Aarhus.

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