Friday, January 3, 2014

Why can't people cite me correctly?

We all like to be cited in print. I like to be cited. But recently I've come across a troubling number of citations of my work that attribute to me a position or claim that is the opposite of what I actually said. In the process they make me the poster child of the negative consequences of holding those (erroneous) positions. These are all in publications by good scholars who are not known for sloppy scholarship, so I find the errors puzzling. Here are three recent cases.

1. Just because I use the term "urban function" does not make me a functionalist in terms of social theory.

Joyce, Arthur A.  (2009)  Theorizing Urbanism in Ancient Mesoamerica. Ancient Mesoamerica 20:189-196.

Urban functions are activities and institutions located in cities that affect people and society in a broader hinterland. Another term for these might be impacts. If markets and merchants in a city impact the hinterland, then retail market exchange is an urban function. If ceremonies at a big urban temple are attended by rural people, or are seen to affect an entire polity, then religion is an urban function. I have published quite a bit about this. But does that make me a “functionalist”? Evidently so. “Michael Smith relies on a functionalist view of cities” (Joyce 2009:191). He had previously dismissed the bad old theoretical approaches to cities used by outdated archaeologists as “cultural evolutionist, functionalist, and elitist” (p. 189). Joyce uses the term “functionalist” in the first part of his paper is in terms to refer to the social theory of functionalism associated most strongly in anthropology with Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. Many of the new archaeologists had a functionalist view of social complexity, explicated and criticized very clearly by Brumfiel and Earle (1987) under the label of “adaptationist.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read that paper.

In anthropology today, functionalism is usually portrayed as hopelessly out of date and only of value for the history of anthropology. The term “functionalist” and “functionalism” have never been used in relation to urban functions (in geography or other urban literature). So the fact I have published on urban functions in ancient cities, or that I’ve trumped their value in defining urbanism, has nothing to do with functionalist social theory. I don’t think I’ve ever espoused functionalist views. So why did Art Joyce brand me a “functionalist”? I have no idea.

2. It is bad enough to be cited as making a claim I never made, but then please don't attribute to me all of the negative consequences that come from making that erroneous claim.

McAnany, Patricia A.  (2013)  Artisans, Ikatz, and Statecraft: Provisioning Classic Maya Royal Courts. In Merchants, Markets, and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Kenneth G. Hirth and Joanne Pillsbury, pp. 229-254. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

I’ve been reading this book carefully for a book review. Most of the chapters are very good and I found them interesting, glad that the book review forced me to read things I might otherwise be tempted to just skim over. But I got a rude surprise at the end of Tricia McAnany’s chapter, when I saw my 2004 ARA paper (Smith 2004) cited as the cause of a list of negative consequences for understanding Maya economies. Here is the quote:

“Likewise, categorizing Maya economies as noncommercial (Smith 2004) rules out the possibility of marketplace exchange before it can be explored, ignores the commercial intensity of tribute negotiation, and misses the historical dynamism of Maya exchange networks” (McAnany 2013, p. 246)

In my 2004 paper I present a continuum or scale of commercialization in ancient state economies, divided up into the following categories: uncommercialized, low commercialization, intermediate commercialization, and advanced precapitalist commercialization. I list the Classic Maya as an example of the “low commercialization” category. I did NOT call the Maya economy “noncommercial” or “uncommercialized.” So the first problem is that my published categorization of the Maya economy was misstated. But I am also listed as the poster child for a series of negative consequences that flow from failing to acknowledge some level of commercial exchange for the Maya. This is very frustrating, because I largely agree that “primitivising” the Maya economy (by denying commercial exchange) has negative consequences. But please don’t blame me for a position I didn’t take.

3. I don't view the main purpose of my archaeological research as validating prior historical categories.

Steere, Benjamin A. and Stephen A. Kowalewski  (2012)  Wealth Stratification in Ancient Mesoamerica. Social Evolution and History 11(1):20-48.

These authors present two approaches to studies of social stratification in ancient Mesoamerica. The good approach, which they follow, “is etic and offers inductive description of the social distribution of wealth” (p.20). The bad approach, which evidently means me, is “to identify legal or emic status positions as these may be defined by indigenous documents ... or by prior theory” (p.20). Archaeologists who follow this approach, “look for material patterns consistent with the historically named social categories (see, e.g., Smith et al. 1999). The archaeology then illustrates what is already known.” The problem with these statements is the same as for the McAnany case: I am cited as taking a position opposite to what is actually stated in the cited source, and in the process I am made the whipping boy for the negative consequences of that (erroneous) position.

Here is an outline of Smith et al (1999).
1.      Describe houses we excavated at Yautepec.
2.      Compare their forms to other Aztec houses known from archaeology and ethnohistory.
3.      Present the sizes of the Yautepec houses in a table and graph.
4.      Discuss briefly some of the theoretical and comparative literature linking house size to wealth.

We did NOT begin with Aztec emic categories, and such categories did NOT structure the fieldwork or the analysis of the data. And even if we had followed this kind of procedure, it would be hard to claim that “archaeology then illustrates what is already known” because no one knew much about Aztec house size prior to my excavations at Yautepec and other Morelos sites; such information is not found in the documentary record. But we didn’t structure the paper this way.

What really steams me about this mischaracterization of my work is that it claims my archaeological interpretations are limited to validating the historical record, and are thus structured by that record. But one of the methodological contributions I like to think I have made to the discipline lies precisely in this area of how archaeology and ethnohistory should be compared and related to one another. My basic position is that the archaeological record needs to be analyzed independently of documents so as to avoid bias, and thus detailed comparisons of archaeology and ethnohistory, or joint models, should only be done after each record has been analyzed independently. For my methodological contributions to this theme, please check these works: (Smith 1987a; Smith 1987b; Smith 1992a; Smith 1992b; Smith 1993). After 1993 I didn’t harp on this theme as much, but it certainly informs all of my Aztec research since then (e.g., Smith 2008; Smith 2012; Smith, and Berdan 2003). So it really bothers me when it is suggested, in error, that one of my papers violates my own methodological precepts. Arghhhhhhhhh.

I’m somewhat puzzled by these errors, and I will refrain from trying to figure out why they were made. These are all good scholars whose work I read and admire. But for some reason, I am cited as the bad guy in their straw-man arguments. Perhaps being cited in error is better than not being cited at all. As they say, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” But still, I’d much rather be cited for what I really say.

Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. and Timothy K. Earle  (1987)  Specialization, Exchange, and Complex Societies: An Introduction. In Specialization, Exchange, and Complex Societies, edited by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Timothy K. Earle, pp. 1-9. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (1987a)  Archaeology and the Aztec Economy: The Social Scientific Use of Archaeological Data. Social Science History 11:237-259.
Smith, Michael E.  (1987b)  The Expansion of the Aztec Empire: A Case Study in the Correlation of Diachronic Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Data. American Antiquity 52:37-54.
Smith, Michael E.  (1992a)  Braudel's Temporal Rhythms and Chronology Theory in Archaeology. In Annales, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, pp. 23-34. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (1992b)  Rhythms of Change in Postclassic Central Mexico: Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and the Braudellian Model. In Annales, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, pp. 51-74. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (1993)  Houses and the Settlement Hierarchy in Late Postclassic Morelos: A Comparison of Archaeology and Ethnohistory. In Prehispanic Domestic Units in Western Mesoamerica: Studies of the Household, Compound, and Residence, edited by Robert S. Santley and Kenneth G. Hirth, pp. 191-206. CRC Press, Boca Raton.
Smith, Michael E.  (2004)  The Archaeology of Ancient State Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:73-102.
Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Smith, Michael E.  (2012)  The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
Smith, Michael E. and Frances F. Berdan (editors)  (2003)  The Postclassic Mesoamerican World. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
Smith, Michael E., Cynthia Heath-Smith and Lisa Montiel  (1999)  Excavations of Aztec Urban Houses at Yautepec, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 10:133-150.


Marcus said...

Seems to me that in each case you had a nuanced position that got 'abducted' to an absolutist one. Function to functionalist, less commercial to noncommercial, and a willingness to consider Aztec documents to their structuring your research design.

I think this is very common in archaeological writing, though. Maybe it has to do with the enormous amount of texts that have to be read by scholars with some ambition. Another factor might be that more established professors need to have a professional opinion about everything (as if that is humanly possible). So, if one cannot NOT cite a paper, but given lack of time can only skim-read it (focusing on keywords), some errors can follow, regardless of the quality of the researcher.

Not saying that this is what happened in these three cases, but the general frequency of such mistakes seems to me to point to something like this. Publish or perish is probably to blame.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Marcus - You may be right about simply changing a nuanced position to a more absolute one.

Here is a positive, egotistical spin on the matter. Scholars often like to promote their own findings by showing how they are superior to prior findings. The higher the status of the prior scholar you can top, the better for your argument. If I say my model is better than something proposed by a student in a regional conference paper, that isn't saying much. But if I can claim I have a better model than Colin Renfrew, then people will take note.

So, here is my egotistical interpretation. These three scholars want to promote their own findings, so they picked the top scholar they could think of to represent the bad old view that they are overturning. So I should be flattered that they think so highly of me! How's that?

Marcus said...

Haha, you may be on to something there.

My tendency would be the other way around: to gather as much previous research in support and make nuanced statements on earlier researchers (tracking down their writings and citing them with page numbers). Maybe that's actually a very bad strategy in psychological terms!

Marcus said...

Btw, it could be worse, what about "Michael Smith, a well-known supporter of postmodern social theorists like Giddens and Bourdieu" as a misrepresentation?

Michael E. Smith said...

That would be fun. Actually something like that happened once. At an event in Mexico (a "presentaciĆ³n de libro" for my book Aztec City-State Capitals), discussant Tom Charlton stated that some of my analyses were very postmodern. My students almost fell out of their chairs. Later, I neglected to press Tom on his remarks.

Jason Jackson said...

I am so glad to you wrote about this here so that at least your specific instances are in the open and eligible for further discussion. I hope the authors in question show up to discuss the matter.

I am sure it feels weird to be treated this way. Among the few upsides is that being willfully plagiarized would probably feel worse.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of one of the pitfalls of scientific research discussed by Rene Descartes. He said that one tendency was for people to make famous philosophers into straw men or just completely bastardize the nuance of their original arguments. That led him to wonder how the philosophers became famous in the first place. Descartes' point was that we should go back to the original texts instead of relying on what others say.

Michael E. Smith said...

I'm flattered to be considered in a similar position to famous philosophers. But about the closest I get to philosophy, famous or otherwise, is in disguise as one of the other Michael Smiths, who wrote the book, "Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty." But the basic point you mention, from Descartes, that one should check original sources is a good one. But we all have too much to do, and we all cut corners in this direction. When I want to know what Marx said about something, I am more likely to pick up a book of recent Marxist scholarship than I am to go digging around in the Gundrisse itself.