Sunday, September 4, 2016

Activist ethnoarchaeology?

I just read a bizarre paper, "Occupy Archaeology! Towards an Activist Ethnoarchaeology of Occupy Denver" by Crystal Simms and Julien Riel-Slavatore in the SAA Archaeological Record (May 2016, pp. 33-39). I am interested in the campsites of the occupy movement because I think they have lessons to teach us about human settlement dynamics. I've published an article that includes discussion of the Occupy Portland campsite (Smith et al 2015), based on ethnographic fieldwork by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman (You can see a summary of our project here).  So, I was interested to see what these authors had to say about Occupy Denver.

But I found, much to my surprise, that they have very little to say about the campsite. They do describe aspects of the campsite. But their goal was to use archaeological or ethnoarchaeological methods to answer a very specific question. When the Denver authorities claimed that the campsite was dirty, were they telling the truth? The authors make an argument about why this is an important question. The authorities seemed to be making ideological and biased claims to justify their possible destruction of the camp. One such claim was that the camp was dirty and a danger to public health. If the archaeologists could show that this was not actually the case, they would be exposing lies or biases in the words of the authorities.

To me, this does not seem like an interesting research question. Of course the mayor and authorities didn't like the camp. Of course they used biased rhetoric to make it sound worse than it is. Even if researchers could catch the mayor in a lie here, would that change his mind? Would those who oppose the camp change their minds? Would this finding substantially help or promote the cause of Occupy Denver (which seems to be the goal of this activist research)? But let me set my skepticism aside for a minute. Let's assume that this was indeed a useful and valid research question. What did the research show?

Well, it turns out that this research needed to be done in fall, 2011, when the camp was in full swing. But the researchers didn't get a project together until summer, 2012.  By then, not only had the population of the camp had declined markedly, but the composition was radically different. Instead of studying committed political activists who camped out in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, they could only study homeless people and drug users whose relationship to the political movement was unclear. So they decided they could not do the research they planned, and the project was scrapped.

If this was just the story of a failed research project, then I would have no objections. We all have failed projects in our history. Ideally such failure has not wasted a lot of time and funds. I can think of a bunch of failed research projects I have been involved in. Thankfully, none of them has involved external grants or months of effort. But here, the authors decide to forge ahead and claim victory for activist archaeology:

"we believe that this study demonstrates that archaeological research can serve as a potential tool for social resistance" (p. 38)

Say, what?  Just what is a "potential tool"? What does it mean to "demonstrate" that something is a "potential tool"?  I could claim, following their logic, that this research can serve as a potential tool to bring about the closure of public parks in Denver, or to marginalize the homeless, or to show the futility of archaeology. These are all equally meaningless claims.

This was a failed research project, so just how does it promote activist archaeology? The pursuit of activist archaeology does not mean that we have to throw our empirical standards out the window. See some of the good studies in Saitta (2007) or McGuire (2008).

There is nothing wrong with having a project turn south and produce no results. This happens all the time. But why would one write about it as if it contributed to the cause?

Occupy Portland campsite. Photo by Katrina Johnston

McGuire, Randall H.
2008    Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Saitta, Dean J.
2007    The Archaeology of Collective Action. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland2015    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198.


Anonymous said...

Even if they had been able to test their hypothesis, their activist perspective makes me wonder how objectively their test would be. Say they had 10 measures of how dirty and dangerous to public health the camps were and 7 showed that they were dangerous and dirty and the other 3 not so much. My guess is the authors would be heavily biased (consciously or not) to dismiss the 7 measurements not in support of their hypothesis as somehow flawed and retain discussion of the other 3. Or to design their test from the outset to be more likely to support their hypothesis. This is a major concern of my about activist anthropology---it constrains what is acceptable to find or publish and throws away our credibility as scientists in the process.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, maybe. I am skeptical about overtly activist social science research for these reasons. But that does not mean that good empirical research cannot be done for activist goals, or within a context of active engagement. So I wouldn't want to pre-judge these authors. See my post from a few years ago on Pasteur's Quadrant: