Friday, December 16, 2016

Why I Find Foucault Useless



People periodically try to convince me that I should pay attention to the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, because it will enrich archaeological interpretations of the past. Maybe. But here is why I remain dubious, after reading various books and articles by and about Foucault.

Highly abstract theories and concepts—such as Foucault’s governmentality, power and discipline (things archaeologists have mentioned)—describe the operation of the world on a very general level. This kind of approach, termed “grand theory” by C. Wright Mills, is “so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts” (Mills 1959:33). This is pretty basic stuff in social science epistemology: grand theory is so abstract that it cannot explain individual cases or variation among cases (Abbott 2004:218; Ellen 2010; Mjøset 2001; Smith 2011). My post. "What is wrong with abstract social theory" has links to other posts and resources.  Foucaultian power and governmentality simply exist—presumably for all societies—so how can they explain change and variation?

In Abend’s (2008) classification of types of theory in sociology, Foucault’s concepts are examples of theory type 3 (a statement about the meaning of social phenomena, an interpretation, a reading, or a way of making sense) or type 5 (a weltanschauung, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world). What this means is that Foucault’s concepts are of limited utility in explaining specific social phenomena, and their empirical adequacy cannot be tested. In the words of Kevin Fisher (2009:440), for archaeoloigsts, abstract theory like this “does not offer the tools needed to analyze the material remains on the ground.” I discuss this notion further in Smith (2015, n.d.). See my previous post on Abend's scheme of theory.

Pierre Bourdieu recognized this problem with Foucault’s work. As reported by Callewaert (2006:92), Bourdieu complained that “the philosophical method was used [by Foucault] for answering questions that are basically empirical sociological questions.” Foucault’s methods were faulty from the perspectives of both historiography and social science methodology (Garland 1987). In fact, his method of social analysis has been called “politically engaged journalism” (Vallois 2015). If one is interested in abstract, philosophical notions about the human condition, then the work of Foucault may be full of insights. But if one is interested in a social-scientific explanation of the dynamics of past cities and human societies, one has to look elsewhere for concepts and models.


In the social sciences, theory that is more grounded and testable is termed “middle-range theory” (Hedström and Udéhn 2009; Merton 1968:39-72; Sampson 2010). In Abend’s (2008) scheme, this corresponds to theory type 1 (a general proposition about the relationship between two variables) and type 2 (an explanation of a particular social phenomenon). In this approach explanation consists of identifying the causal mechanisms responsible for observed changes: “to explain a fact is to exhibit the mechanism that makes the system tick” (Bunge 2004:182). This is part of a basic scientific approach to archaeological knowledge. See my post, "Why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology?"

So, if you don’t care about explanation and causality, or about being able to tell when your interpretation is wrong, then the work of Michel Foucault may be fine for you. But for me, I cannot find anything interesting or useful in his work. 

(And, of course, I am really bugged by Foucault using the term "archaeology" to refer to the past history of any old thing. It is insulting that Google searches for archaeology plus something else turn up Foucault instead of turning up archaeology!)


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

Abend, Gabriel
2008 The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.

Bunge, Mario
2004 How Does It Work?: The Search for Explanatory Mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34 (2): 182-210.

Callewaert, Staf
2006 Bourdieu, Critic of Foucault: The Case of Empirical Social Science Against Double-Game-Philosophy. Theory, Culture and Society 23 (6): 73-98.

Ellen, Roy
2010 Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16: 387-404.

Fisher, Kevin D.
2009 Placing Social Interaction: An Integrative Approach to Analyzing Past Built Environments. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28: 439-457.

Garland, David
1987 Foucault's Discipline and Punish: An Explosition and Critique. Law and Social Inquiry 11 (4): 847-880.

Hedström, Peter and Lars Udéhn
2009 Analytical Sociology and Theories of the Middle Range. In The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, edited by Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, pp. 25-49. Oxford University Press, New York.

Merton, Robert K.
1968 Social Theory and Social Structure. 3rd ed. Free Press, New York.

Mills, C. Wright
1959 The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.

Mjøset, Lars
2001 Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

Sampson, Robert J.
2010 Eliding the Theory/Research and Basic/Applied Divides: Implications of Merton's 'Middle Range'. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 63-78. Columbia University Press, New York.

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

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

n.d.   Archaeology and Social Science Inquiry. Antiquity  (accepted for publication).

Vallois, Nicolas
2015 Michel Foucault and the History of Economic Thought. Œconomia: History, Methodology, Philosophy 5 (4): 461-490.



2 comments:

bookandsword.com said...

Foucalt wrote in French. He and his fellow travellers do have a reputation for redefining common words (or inventing new ones) and feeling clever about themselves for it. But couldn't it be that Fr. archéologie included both the narrow English sense, and the older Greek one "the study of old things"? In my experience reading and translating academic German, that kind of mismatch in scope between terms in two languages is very common.

Michael E. Smith said...

Hmmmm, that sounds possible. My French is good enough to read a dissertation now and then, but not good enough to evaluate how philosophers use words! I have a French postdoc starting up in January - I can ask her about this.