Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology?

This is the second of three posts on my view of a “scientific archaeology.” It follows the post, “Science, social science, and archaeology: Where do westand?” The intervening post, on Pascal Boyer, is a kind of appendix to that earlier post. The third will be, “Why is a scientific archaeology so hard to achieve?”

So, why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology?

Reason 1: To produce a more rigorous understanding of past human societies and their changes through time.

The goals of archaeology, in my view, are—first—to discover and document the nature of past human societies, and—second—to explain social variation and change through time with causal explanations. If this seems retrograde, impossible, or misguided, then you probably do not work from a scientific epistemology. That is fine on an individual level. I have no desire to tell individuals what they should believe or do, or what kind of archaeology they should pursue. But on a disciplinary level, the fact that large parts of the discipline do not follow a scientific epistemology has certain consequences. It means that archaeologists will find it difficult or impossible to integrate their work with the other social sciences (Reason 2 below), and that it will be very difficult or impossible to contribute useful knowledge about human societies that is relevant and useful today (Reason 3 below).

Many archaeologists tuned out of discussions of the philosophy of science back in the 1960s and 1970s, and many younger archaeologists have never explored this terrain. If you think that explanation consists of subsuming a particular case under a covering law, then your philosophy of science is more than a half-century out of date. I’ll go into this a bit more in my third post. For now, I want to emphasize that the current model of explanation in the social and historical sciences is based on causal mechanisms. In the words of Mario Bunge (Bunge 2004:182), “to explain a fact is to exhibit the mechanism(s) that makes the system tick.” Or, here is how Charles Tilly (Tilly 2001:365) puts it:

       “Explanation consists of identifying in particular social phenomena reliable causal mechanisms and processes of general scope. Causal mechanisms are events that alter relations among some set of elements. Processes are frequent (but not universal) combinations and sequences of causal mechanisms.”

In a recent analysis of Charles Tilly’s ideas about mechanisms, processes, and actors, Krinsky and Mische (2013:16) say:

·         “Mechanisms allow for the direct identification of transactions, interactions, social ties, and conversations at a number of different scales without constant recourse to either “large structures” or inferences of actors’ states of mind. It involves a fairly simple epistemology: This approach accepts social categories as socially constructed, but argues that this should not impede our observation of the processes of social construction itself (implicitly including the academic constructions of social science)."

These epistemological ideas are important if archaeologists are to achieve a more rigorous understanding of past human societies. Perhaps it is useful to have a richer, more nuanced interpretation of particular events or episodes or settings in the past, as provided by postprocessualist archaeologists. But such interpretations do not produce the kind of solid, cumulative knowledge that allows us to build an increasingly more satisfying picture of the past. If we want that picture to be explanatory, then we need to follow a scientific epistemology. If you don’t care about explanation, that is fine. But as a discipline, we need more attention to ways to achieve a scientific epistemology.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to ask yourself the question “How would you know if you are wrong?” (Smith 2015). When you give some kind of explanation or interpretation to some data, do you have some way to tell whether your ideas are right or wrong? Or, at a more basic level, when you classify a sherd using a typology, when you label a soil layer as a floor, or when you claim that a feature was a hearth or a temple or a latrine—do you have a way to judge (and for others to judge) whether your idea is correct or not? If not, then you may very well be guilty of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is “the inappropriate bolstering of hypotheses or beliefs whose truth is in question” (p.179). “There is an obvious difference between impartially evaluating evidence in order to come to an unbiased conclusion and building a case to justify a conclusion already drawn” (Nickerson 1998:179-180). I did a quick check today. Nickerson’s paper is the classic account of confirmation bias. Of the several hundred papers citing this work (in Google Scholar), none were by archaeologists. Hmmmmmmmmm. I’d say many of us in archaeology are guilty of confirmation bias. I don’t excuse myself here; in some of my earlier works I was trying hard to use evidence to support a point, rather than using evidence to try to prove a point wrong.

Reason 2: To facilitate integration with other social and historical sciences.

One of the more pleasant surprises of my increasing interaction with non-anthropological social scientists in the past few years has been the discovery that most of them would agree fully with my Reason #1 above (adapted to their field, of course). That is, they are strongly devoted to creating rigorous scientific knowledge about society, and they use a scientific epistemology to pursue that goal. It has been interesting to see the reactions of some of these colleagues when they read archaeological accounts that are not very rigorous. They see this easily, and tend to discount or dismiss such works. I will avoid giving specific examples here, to protect the guilty.

If you haven’t read much in the other social sciences, you may be surprised at how much attention is devoted to epistemology and methods, topics like evidence and argument, explanation and causality, models and data. Check out some of these textbooks; you might be surprised at how relevant they are for archaeology: (6 and Bellamy 2012; Gerring 2007, 2012; Luker 2008; Ragin and Amoroso 2011). Postmodernism hit disciplines like sociology and political science, like it hit anthropology and archaeology. But these other disciplines weathered the storm, and soon got back to (scientific) work, whereas anthropology and archaeology are still wallowing in the mire of post-postmodernism. Yes there are few poststructuralist sociologists out there, but they are much rarer than mainstream scientific sociologists.

If we want to integrate archaeological knowledge with comparative findings from history, social history, historical sociology, comparative political science, economic history, and the like, they we need to follow a scientific epistemology. This is needed both to produce rigorous findings that can be compared and analyzed with other social-science findings, and to enable us to talk with, and exchange ideas with, other social scientists.

Those of us who study topics like ancient urbanism, inequality, economies, or resilience should all be concerned with relating our findings to those from the social sciences. We should be reading in these fields, and we should be publishing our archaeological research in journals in these fields. I have been pursuing that strategy since 2007, and it has paid off in many ways. Here are a few examples: (Harris and Smith 2011; Smith 2007, 2009a, 2009b). Of course this cross-disciplinary strategy has its drawbacks: these papers are less likely to be read by archaeologists than if they had been published in archaeological journals. My point here is that archaeologists should relate to other social scientists, in person and in print, and this is greatly facilitated if we adopt a scientific approach.

Reason 3: To contribute knowledge about human societies that is relevant and useful today.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine two contrasting scenarios. For both, we start with the situation where an archaeological team has learned something interesting about ancient social inequality at a series of urban sites in a region. Perhaps they have found parallel patterns of trimodal distributions in house-size wealth and in burial goods. They interpret their results as indicating a pattern of three social classes ranked by wealth and status (yes, this is an imaginary example; trimodal wealth distributions are pretty rare. But we continue to search....).

Scenario 1. The archaeologists avoid scholars in other disciplines. The think that sociologists only care about contemporary mass society in capitalist nations, and thus sociologists probably don’t have anything useful to say about burials and artifacts at ancient cities. These archaeologists publish their findings in the journals Ancient Mesoamerica and the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. They claim—in the archaeology journals—that their results provide important new insights on social inequality and that they have relevance for contemporary society. Ok, maybe so, but if no one but archaeologists sees them, how relevant can they really be?

Secnario 2. The archaeologists actively seek out colleagues in other social science disciplines, they read some of the literature outside of archaeology on inequality and social classes, and they get feedback from, say, some sociologists on their model of three social classes. These archaeologists also publish in Ancient Mesoamerica and the Jr. Anthropological Archaeology, but they also co-author a paper on class organization in ancient and modern societies with a sociologist, and publish it in a comparative social science journal, or perhaps a sociology journal.

Which of these scenarios is more likely to result in archaeological results becoming known outside of archaeology? Which is more likely to lead to archaeology making an impact on thinking about modern society? Now think about our imaginary archaeological team here. What if their epistemology is non-scientific and they avoid the testing of their results, and report their findings as their personal and contingent interpretations, not as scientifically-supported inferences? Would the other social scientists be likely to pay attention? I doubt it.

What are the social sciences all about? This is a big issue with a big literature, but consider just one account. Daniel Little is a philosopher of science who focuses on social science. His work is interesting, insightful, and very relevant to archaeology. His blog, Understanding Society, is incredibly good. When I taught a class on theory in archaeology, I had students read a bunch of his posts. So here is a quote from one post, called “Social scienceand social problems” Feb 16, 2008):

“The social sciences ought to be directed towards addressing important social problems, and that the research agenda for social science ought to be influenced or shaped by the constituencies in society who are most affected by these social problems. At bottom – the social sciences ought to be engaged in a serious way in improving the quality of life for the people of the globe. They can best do this, it would seem, by discovering some of the causes of persistent social problems and providing a sound basis for designing policies that have a chance of ameliorating them. And they can focus their research agendas by working closely with practitioners and the ordinary people who experience these social problems.”

Does archaeology have a role to play here? I’d argue that discovering the “causes of persistent social problems” can benefit from our knowledge of ancient societies. I agree with the literature on transdisciplinary research that holds that “many, if not all, of the traditional approaches, as well as many heterodox tactics, fail to answer the most pressing issues plaguing the world” (Polimeni 2006:2); see also Baerwald (2010) or Wallerstein (2003). That is, most of the major social problems today need the insights, methods, and results of a number of scholarly disciplines, with scholars working together, to understand and solve. The deep time perspective of archaeology should put us into the mix, but only if we follow a scientific epistemology. I explore these issues, with respect to the topic of cities and urbanism, in Smith (2012).

So, if it is important to strive for a more scientific archaeology, then why is it so hard to achieve in practice? That will be my third post in this series.


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