Sunday, November 18, 2012

GIS, Phenomenological Landscapes, and Epistemology

The current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory has a special section on "Archaeological spatial techniques and experiential theory." The goal, as stated by the section editors, is to examine "the possibilities and potentials of combining quantitative spatial studies with more human-centered and theoretically explicit approaches to past landscapes" (McEwan and Millican 2012:491). That is, can we bring together the rigorous and scientific approach of GIS and spatial analysis with the postmodern and interpretivist approach of phenomenlogical landscape archaeology?

No, we can't. Why not? Because these two approaches have fundamentally opposed epistemologies. This is a case of using scientific techniques in the service of anti-scientific research goals. In the terms I suggested in a prior post on the meaning of science in archaeology, many of the authors are employing Science-Definition-2 (use of scientific techniques from other disciplines) in opposition to Science-Definition-1 (a scientific epistemology of research). It is certainly possible for one of these approaches to appropriate aspects of the other; this is what Marcos Llobera (2012) proposes in his paper. And the GIS folks can probably learn a thing or two from the subjective landscape folks. But to truly "combine" these approaches, to find a real "middle ground," is hopeless.

Economic historian Stephen Haber (1999) has a nice discussion of issues of epistemology and ontology in history that is very relevant to archaeology. Haber discusses: “the fundamental question of all serious fields of scholarly inquiry: How would you know if you are wrong?” (p.312). He is examining the logic of works in the "new cultural history," a postmodern genre quite similar to postprocessual archaeology. Haber focuses on subjectivity and objectivity at both the epistemological and ontological levels, and his observations are directly relevant to the GIS-landscape issue:

“Knowledge can be advanced even if a discipline is ontologically subjective (informed by shared sets of values) as long as it is epistemologically objective (informed by clearly defined rules of evidence and reason that do not privilege individual experiences or beliefs that cannot be replicated). Ontological subjectivity does not mean that there is no objective world, that observation cannot be disentangled from the subjective beliefs of the observer, and that we cannot establish systematic methods to study human behavior that produce useful and replicable results. Behavior can, in fact, be objectively studied even if it is based on an intersubjective shared understanding.” (Haber 1999:315)

[Marginal comment: hard-core postmodernists would probably disagree with Haber here]. 

But in contrast to ontological subjectivity, which probably cannot be avoided in the human sciences, epistemological subjectivity prevents scholars from answering Haber's fundamental question: "How would you know if you are wrong?" His characterization of the subjectivist epistemology of the new cultural history fits phenomological landscape archaeology and its lighter versions as advocated in the JAMT section. These approaches show: “ambivalence about the canons of logical reasoning. Indeed, the new cultural history has elevated the lack of analytic clarity to a virtue.” (Haber 1999:315).

So the claim by various authors that melding scientific GIS analysis with anti-scientific interpretive landscape research will be difficult (Llobera 2012, and other papers) is an understatement. It is probably impossible. The equation of this chasm with differences between "quantitative and qualitative techniques" (McEwan and Millikan 2012: 492) is completely inadequate.

So why would archaeologists try to claim that a deep epistemological contrast is really only a shallow methodological contrast (qualitative/quantitative)? Perhaps by doing this, non-scientific scholars can benefit from some of the techniques provided by science (science-2 against science-1), as Llobera (2012) wants to do. Or perhaps if they look scientific enough, they can get funding from science agencies. I'm really not sure. I am not a very good abstract thinker, and I am approaching the limits of my own understanding. But I do recognize a deep epistemological divide when I see it, and no amount of seeking a "middle ground" is going to bridge the gap.

Check out Fleming's (2006) critique of the phenomenological landscape archaeology, and take a look at Steve Haber's discussion of the new cultural history.

Fleming, Andrew
2006    Post-Processual Landscape Archaeology: A Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16: 267-280.

Haber, Stephen
1999    Anything Goes: Mexico's "New" Cultural History. Hispanic American Historical Review 79: 309-330.

Llobera, Marcos
2012    Life on a Pixel: Challenges in the Development of Digital Methods Within an "Interpretive" Landscape Archaeology Framework. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19: 495-509.

McEwan, Dorothy Graves and Kirsty Millican
2012    In Search of the Middle Ground: Quantitative Spatial Techniques and Experiential Theory in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19: 491-494.


dogscratcher said...

Excellent post. It seems to me that the depth of this epistemological divide isn't recognized by most people in the social sciences. After wading through "Creating Consilience" edited by Slingerland and Collard (2012), it seems like they totally miss this point: since the postmodern turn, the fundamental goals of the humanities are diametrically opposed to those of the sciences. Whereas an implicit goal of science is to clarify and de-mystify the world, it seems as if those in the humanities are seeking to obscure and mystify.

Michael E. Smith said...

@dogscratcher - I have been meaning to look at the book Creating Consilience. I've talked about Pascal Boyer's paper previously, but I haven't seen any other parts of the book.

Sarah1965 said...

I suspect that this comment is tangential to the discussion here because it speaks from experience rather than theory (I find even hard core subjectivists rarely talk truly from the first person).

While there are landscape theorists who seem to believe that applying modern experience/subjectivities *correctly* will allow us to understand past experience/subjectivities; I've always preferred work that seeks more simply a richer understanding of place through experience, recognising that many past people will have had such richer senses of place.

Coming from that stance, the use of Scientific techniques in GIS is not at cross purposes with this approach, its what I did in my doctorate on BA landscapes in Ireland. The analyses operate as a further enrichment to my experience. I experience the place from my own standpoint, then I break it apart and put it back together different ways.

Such a 'way of seeing' is very much part of my own subjectivity, that kind of analytical thinking underpins much modern culture, or which I form a part.

As an aside, I don't believe that any approach will lead us to a 'true' understanding of the past. But embracing our own culture (including its scientist stance) allows us a firm place to stand and build interesting and useful understandings of difference.

Marcus said...

Sarah, why would a 'true understanding of the past' be out of reach? In your last sentence you almost seem to be saying that science should be embraced as a subjective perspective.

I believe that a GIS map or the decipherment of the Rosetta stone is actually a true understanding of the past. You would not deny that, would you? Ways of seeing, as you refer to it, seem to be much more part of further interpretation (I'm certainly not denying the importance of that!).

Michael E. Smith said...

"Archaeology is about facts. If you want the truth, go next door to the Philosophy department." -- Professor Indiana Jones.

The word "truth" is tricky, since it means lots of different things. If one talks about the absolute, complete, understanding of something, then we will never arrive at the truth. But if one means an empirically correct understanding of some limited domain, then perhaps we do approach the truth. My preference is to avoid the term. I don't know where I heard this, but I like the quote: "Science is not about the truth. It is a method for reducing error."

@Sarah, on experience. It all depends on one's goals. If the goals is to explain or understand the past, then my personal experience today is a rather poor guide, of taken alone as the primary method. But on the other hand, all archaeological research is filtered through the personal experiences of archaeologists. These are very relevant and important for how we understand the past. But in my view, such experience is only one of many relevant methods and considerations. If it is elevated to a major part of the analysis, as in phenomenological approaches, then they become "epistemologically subjective" in Haber's terms, and this casts doubt on the resulting interpretations.

There is a lot of subtlety here, and many of my posts are done without much subtlety, in order to make a point and to be very clear about basic issues.

dogscratcher said...

Regarding "Creating Consilience," I thought Boyer's article and talk were the best of the bunch, but there are good articles by Pinker and Shore and Whitehouse as well, though some of them seem kind of off topic.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting and important issue. I do think, however, one must take care not to lump together all epistemologies that diverge from positivism as post-modern. On the other hand, I am troubled by many phenomenological approaches to landscape, particularly the turn toward romanticism and myth(just read C. Tilley's 94 book). Tilley constructs a monolithic "premodern mind," which is not very different from Levi-Strauss' savages and Levy-Bruhl's ideas in anthropology. Hell, even recent work in science and tech studies (a la Latour), which is getting trendy, contest this absolute difference between modern and non-modern. But that there's the rub. Post-modernism is not epistemological in this sense. It is only a form of consumption and superficial regurgitation. So, as long as Tilley sticks to phenomenology, he is not being post-modern at all. But if he moves from his phenomenological romance to contradictory views without noting the contradiction, then THAT is post-modern. Phenomenology itself is not post-modern. Neither is hermeutics, nor symbolic, nor structuralist, nor, etc., etc. But if one carelessly moves between these sub-paradigms of thought without noting their intra-paradigmatic tensions then one is being a post-modernist. Indeed, I truly believe that whatever post-modernism originally intended to be has shifted to be entirely a form of intellectual consumption centered on self-subjectivity and the superficial qualities of that which is popular. Anyway, thank you for another intriguing post


Michael E. Smith said...

Yeah, you are right - I do tend to throw around the term postmodern to refer to non-scientific approaches. Perhaps "interpretivist" is a better term. Even those who ARE explicitly postmodern don't like the term - this is the observation of Ed Soja, that people use the term "poststructuralist" to mean the same thing because it is a "safer-sounding" label.

This is a very nice paper on interpretivist approaches in the social sciences:

Gerring, John (2003) Interpretations of Interpretivism. Qualitative Methods: Newsletter of the American Political Science Association Organized Section on Qualitative Methods 1(2):2-6.

This paper IS online, but it will take some hassling to find it.