Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why I dislike TAG, and why I dislike social media

I saw a tweet a week or two ago about the upcoming TAG ("Theoretical Archaeology Group") conference. I made an offhand negative comment, which set off a series of negative tweets about me. 

"Wow, not a single session I'd want to attend! Am I just out of it, or is "theoretical archaeology" out of it???

I tried to engage with my critics, but it just led to accusations that I am a troll and a bully. Finally I tweeted "I give up." So, I thought I would put down some of the reasons I dislike TAG, and some comments on social media.

Social media first. 

Here are a few things I dislike. Please note that my reference here is social media in relation to professional and scholarly issues.

(1) Ad hominem attacks.  As soon as I made a negative remark about TAG, I was attacked personally. I must be a bad person. I should shut up. This attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.

It's really unfortunate when senior scholars would rather bully and troll than actually have conversations.

I guess my initial tweet shows that I am a bully and a troll. Huh??

(2) Sensibility is more important than facts. My tone of voice had negative overtones (which shows I am a bad person). Maybe I should be more careful in my phrasing so as not to suggest anything negative about anyone or anything. 

came across snooty, elitist and arrogant. Like othet people's ideas arent good enough for you

This is TWITTER, with short cryptic statements. I don't agonize over proper phrasing. I tend to be a direct person, and I try to express myself clearly. Again, the dominance of sensibility over content is antithetical to science and scholarship.

(3) There are "Like" buttons, but no "Dislike" buttons. This is built into social media today. You can like something, but there is no way to express dislike other than some kind of comment or textual response. Criticism and questioning are of less importance than joining a band-wagon. Again, this attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.


To start with, if you care about how I think about theory, science, scholarship, and archaeology, please read my publications. I am a scholar, and what I say in Tweets (and in this blog) is ephemeral. I do discuss real issues here, but what matters is the published record. So, please look at the three papers cited below for my views on theory. These should make it clear why I dislike TAG. But here is a quick version.

First, for me, theory is a tool, something archaeologists use to learn about the past. The domain of "archaeological theory" is pretty small (ideas about formation of the archaeological record, recovery methods, etc.), but the domain of productive theory for archaeologists is huge. It encompasses many disciplines, from political science to ecology, from urban planning to geomorphology, from cultural anthropology to complex systems theory. For many or most people into TAG, archaeology theory is something important on its own, not just a tool to use to explain our findings. Instead of using theory to explain data (the norm in the social sciences), many archaeologists want to use data to "theorize" an issue. My goal is not to create more theory, but to use LESS THEORY (Besbris, Max and Shamus Khan,  2017,  Less Theory. More Description. Sociological Theory 35(2):147-153), or Healy, Kieran,  2017,  F**k Nuance. Sociological Theory 35(2):118-127.

Second, most theory considered at TAG is interpretivist, humanities-based high-level social theory. What is wrong with that? Read my publications. If you want to speculate about the human condition, such theory is great stuff, but if you want to provide rigorous explanations of human behavior and society, it is all but worthless. Please check the citations in my articles about this. My claims may seem outrageous to TAG types, but I am just repeating standard social-science epistemology. 

Here are some comments from my Twitter detractors.

(1) I should engage with TAG, go to a meeting. Here is my reply:

Because most TAG sessions are epistemologically incompatible with my own perspective. Not worth my time to sit through such sessions. If others care about my views, they should read my publications, e.g., ((I provide links to my 2015 and 2017 papers in the tweet)).

(2) I should open myself up to different perspectives and points of view

what's wrong with exposing yourself to new ideas? If you only ever listen to people lile yourself its kinda dull

I have spent a career listening to the postprocessualists, actor-network theory, materiality, and such, and I have rarely found much of use or of interest in this material. Yet given the trandisciplinary turn of my own research trajectory since moving to ASU in 2005, I would guess that I have exposed myself to more new ideas in that period than most archaeologists. Read my publications.

(3) I am arguing for a single narrow view of archaeology that excludes many, "including a lot of marginalized voices." My response to this has two components: (A) for the kind of empirical social-science research that I favor, I believe strongly that the kind of epistemology and theory I promote is the most productive approach. (B) for other kinds of approaches to archaeology, with other goals, other approaches are fine.

I appreciate a lot of your work, but you draw these boundaries and say that it's the only real or valuable archaeology and it leaves a lot of the discipline out, including a lot of marginalized voices. I think you can dislike something without being dismissive of it.

So, here we are back to sensibilities. If you care at all about these issues, please read my publications, and forget about Twitter (or this blog). You can look at my series of three posts about my view of a scientific archaeology:

The 2017 publication covers these issues in a more compact form (although the blog posts do have much more complete bibliogrphies, given the limitations on the Antiquity paper). and the earlier papers have more on the structure of arguments (2015) and the nature of non-asbtract theory (2011).

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