Saturday, January 2, 2016

Some consequences of viewing archaeology as a social science

“Making warranted inferences is the whole point and the only point of doing social research.”
(6 and Bellamy 2012:14)

If one views archaeology as a social science, then the poor record of many archaeologists in making arguments is a serious professional problem. I point out problems with a number of common archaeological approaches to argumentation in a recent paper (Smith 2015); see also Smith (2011). I have just started reading a book (6 and Bellamy 2012) that covers similar material as my article, but on steroids. That is, the book is an extended treatment of the process of argumentation in the social sciences. Although I am only on chapter 2 now, the book has stimulated me to think about the implications of faulty argument techniques for a social-scientific view of the discipline of archaeology. If you have other views of archaeology--perhaps considering it a branch of the humanities, or as consisting of practical fieldwork and not a scholarly discipline--then the following argument does not apply.

What are the social sciences?

Here are a few quotes that describe what social science is. These are mainstream social science perspectives that--in my opinion--are congenial to much of archaeology.

  • “Social science is about human beings and what goes on in their institutions and interactions .... Social science studies all levels from the family to the global society, and how the various levels affect each other” (Steuer 2002:5).
Ragin and Amoroso (2011:33-56) list the following as the main research goals of research in the social sciences:
  1. Identifying general patterns and relationships
  2. Testing and refining theories
  3. Making predictions.  [But see Lieberson and Lynn (2002) for a good discussion of sociology as an observational, not a predictive, discipline. Ditto for archaeology.]
  4. Interpreting culturally or historically significant phenomena
  5. Exploring diversity
  6. Giving voice
  7. Advancing new theories

What is the purpose of the social sciences?

  •  “The main structural features of what society can be like in the next generation are already given by trends at work now. Humanity’s freedom of maneuver lies within the framework created by its history. Social scientists and allied scholars could help to widen the area of choice by analyzing the historical trends that now limit it. They could show, impartially, honestly, and free from the special pleadings of government and vested interests, the range of possible alternative and the potentialities for effective action. Such has been, after all, the aim of inquiry into human affairs in free societies since the Greeks” (Moore 1958:159).
  •  “The purpose of social science, let us say, is to help citizens and policymakers better understand the world, with an eye to changing that world. Social science ought to provide useful answers to useful questions" (Gerring 2012:396)

What do social scientists have to do to reach the goals identified by Ragin and Amoroso, and to accomplish the social purposes described by Barrington Moore and John Gerring? The mainstream social science answer to this question is that social scientists need to do two things:  First, conduct research using scientific methods; and, second, reach conclusions based on rigorous forms of scientific argumentation (any of the methods textbooks in the social sciences will elaborate on this claim; e.g., Abbott 2004; Ragin and Amoroso 2011; Gerring 2012). In the words of John Gerring, 

  • “The willful avoidance of scientific methodology has doleful long-term consequences for social science, and for those who would see social science playing a role in the transformation of society" (Gerring 2012:399).
My focus here is on the second requirement of social research: good argumentation (Smith 2015). The epigram, a quote from 6 and Bellamy, strikes me as crucial:

  • “Making warranted inferences is the whole point and the only point of doing social research.”
Then were does this leave those many archaeologists who are satisfied to quote a bunch of abstract, philosophical social theory, then describe their data, and end up with a bunch of speculative conclusions? These authors are not making what 6 and Bellamy call "warranted inferences." To my mind, this non-rigorous form of argumentation is harmful to an archaeology that strives to be part of the social sciences. It may be okay for a postmodern archaeology, or for an archaeology that eschews science to focus on literary theory or some other kind of humanities epistemology. But to my way of thinking, if we can't make rigorous, warranted arguments, then why bother doing archaeology? 


6, Perri and Christine Bellamy
2012    Principles of Methodology: Research Design in Social Science. Sage, New York.

Abbott, Andrew
2004    Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. Norton, New York.

Gerring, John
2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Lieberson, Stanley and Freda B. Lynn
2002    Barking up the Wrong Branch: Scientific Alternatives to the Current Model of Sociological Science. Annual Review of Sociology 28: 1-19.

Moore, Barrington, Jr.
1958    Political Power and Social Theory. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Ragin, Charles C. and Lisa M. Amoroso
2011    Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method. 2nd ed. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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

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

Steuer, Max
2002    The Scientific Study of Society. Kluwer, New York.

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