Sunday, February 21, 2016

Why is a scientific archaeology so hard to achieve?

This is the third of three posts on my view of a “scientific archaeology.” The first two were, “Science, social science, and archaeology: Where do we stand?”, and “Why is itimportant to strive for a more scientific archaeology?

I will give four reasons why a scientific archaeology is hard to achieve:
1. The new archaeologists picked the wrong model of explanation, and we are still paying for their mistake
2. Confusion about “archaeological science” and “scientific archaeology”
3. Ignorance of the social sciences
4. A widespread commitment to abstract and philosophical social theory

Reason 1:  The new archaeologists picked the wrong model of explanation, and we are still paying for their mistake

Lewis Binford and the New Archaeologists latched onto the covering law model of explanation, as promoted by Carl Hempel and the other logical positivists. This is a very restrictive model that does not work in the social sciences. Explanation consists of subsuming a particular case under a general or universal law. But the new archaeologists could not identify any general laws that would help, other than trivialities famously labeled “Mickey Mouse laws” by Kent Flannery. Philosophers of science had already shown the limitations of covering laws for the social sciences, even before the new archaeologists started promoting Hempel. A philosopher of science pointed this out in an archaeology journal (Morgan 1973). The archaeologists replied that Morgan was not an archaeologist and didn’t understand archaeology, and so his critique did not count (Watson et al. 1974)!

A number of archaeologists were highly critical of the covering law approach (Flannery 1973; Sabloff et al. 1973), but they did not have a viable alternative model of explanation. For a while it seemed that systems theory might fill the gap. When I was in graduate school in the late 1970s, systems theory was the cool new thing, and I even published a paper with boxes and arrows (Smith 1983). I published it in Mexico, in Spanish, figuring I could help spread the word on systems theory. Later, I was slightly embarrassed about the paper, glad it was published in an obscure journal!

Explanation via causal mechanisms didn’t become popular until ca. 1990 (Elster 1989; Stinchcombe 1991). But it should be obvious to anyone interested in the archaeology of social processes or in social history that causal mechanisms provide a far more appropriate and satisfying account of explanation than covering laws (see the quote from Charles Tilly in my prior post). This table, from Hedström (2005), contrasts covering laws, mechanisms, and statistical explanations.

Strangely, some archaeologists have continued until recently to argue in favor of explanation by covering laws (Kuznar and Long 2008). But covering laws are most often encountered today either in historical accounts of archaeology, or in works by archaeologists who want to critique natural-science epistemologies as a basis for archaeological argumentation (e.g., Martinón-Torres and Killick n.d.). Get over it, folks. Covering laws are dead. They were superseded by causal mechanisms over 30 years ago!

Reason 2: Confusion about “archaeological science” and “scientific archaeology”

Riddle: What is called “science” but is not science?

Answer: Creation science and “archaeological science.”

That riddle is not entirely fair, but it does bring out an important issue in the way the term “science” is used in archaeology. Consider two dichotomous schemes. The first is one I have talked about several times in this blog (original discussion; see also here). I talk about Science-1 to refer to archaeology with a scientific epistemology and Science-2  describes the use of techniques from the natural sciences, whether or not employed within an overall scientific epistemology. I point out the irony of using the term scientific for non- and anti-scientific archaeological epistemologies, even if used by scholars who employ “scientific” techniques.

The second scheme, as described by Martinón-Torres and Killick (n.d.) distinguishes “scientific archaeology” (the use of a natural-science epistemology in archaeology) and “archaeological science” (the use of natural-science techniques by archaeologists). These are parallel schemes, but quite distinct in their implications. Do you see the difference?

These authors write from the perspective of high-level, abstract social theory. To them, “scientific archaeology” describes the bad guys—new archaeology, behavioral archaeology, and evolutionary archaeology—all of whom are accused of being neo-positivists under the spell of Hempel et al. I don’t want to speak for those three approaches, but from my perspective, the scheme of Martinón-Torres and Killick ignores the kind of social-scientific epistemology that I am promoting.

Their second concept, “archaeological science,” is ironic when describing archaeometric work by archaeologists who fail to follow a scientific epistemology.  Martinón-Torres and Killick give an extended discussion of how “archaeological science” has helped further high-level abstract social theory in archaeology (e.g., materiality, social constructivism). But those applications are not science; that is, they do not follow a scientific epistemology. Perhaps the simplest “litmus test” of the scientific status of an argument is to pose the question “How would you know if you are wrong?” (Smith 2015); based on Haber (1999). Look at archaeological papers on materiality or poststructuralism, and see if they pass this litmus test.

I want to be clear here. I do NOT claim that any work that invokes high-level abstract theory is unscientific by definition. It is entirely possible to use such theory within a paper that also includes lower-level empirical theory in a scientific fashion. But if the ONLY theory on the table is abstract social theory, then it is very unlikely that a scientific epistemology is being followed. I'd love to be proven wrong here, but I don't see it.

I apologize if you are sick of reading the term “epistemology.” But I find it necessary to navigate these waters where non-scientific arguments and research design can be labelled scientific, and scientific approaches are omitted from descriptions of "scientific archaeology."

Reason 3: Ignorance of the social sciences

My graduate training was quite isolationist about archaeology and other disciplines. Classical archaeology was portrayed as silly and irrelevant. I remember when this bubble was popped for me. Shortly after I started teaching, at Loyola University of Chicago, I attended a workshop on survey archaeology in the Mediterranean at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Having been socialized that Mesoamerican survey archaeology was the best in the world, I was flabbergasted to learn that some of the Classical archaeologists had better methods than we used in Mesoamerica! More rigorous collections, better calculation of surface counts and densities, and a more rigorous and intensive approach to surface archaeology. This was not silly or irrelevant! (Alcock and Cherry 2004; Barker and Mattingly 1999-2000).

A second component of disciplinary isolation was the message that other social sciences were not of interest to archaeology. We were part of anthropology, the story went, and anthropology stood alone as the light through the forest of nonwestern and ancient cultures. Archaeology got its theory from anthropology (remember the nonsense about archaeology not having any theory of its own, we got it all from anthropology? Good for a laugh today). Disciplines like sociology and political science, I was told, were irrelevant. When I started working on comparative imperialism in the 1990s, it quickly became clear that political scientists and comparative historians had better things to say about empires than did anthropologists (surprise, surprise). But when my interests turned strongly to urbanism, there was no contest. Anthropology had very little useful theory or comparative data (with some notable exceptions, such as urban ethnography in the developing world in the 1960s-1970s), whereas other fields were full of extremely worthwhile material. See my paper on urban theory (Smith 2011) for examples of relevant theoretical perspectives that are mostly non-anthropological and entirely non-philosophical, non-abstract, and non-highlevel.

There is no excuse in 2016 for remaining ignorant of the social sciences. To claim that the choice offered by C.P. Snow in 1959—natural science or humanities—is still relevant is absurd. Killick (2005:186) does point out, in a historical discussion, that “Snow himself acknowledged that he had overlooked the role of the social sciences as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences.” But in his other writings (Killick 2015; Martinón-Torres and Killick n.d.), there is little indication that he identifies social science as a “third culture” (Kagan 2009), not just something vaguely “intermediate” between natural science and the humanities, but fully distinct from those two approaches to knowledge. I apologize for dumping on Martinón-Torres and Killick’s paper so much here. It is not an especially egregious example of the problems I am discussing; its views seem pretty widespread. But it does discuss major issues clearly and explicitly, making it easier to pinpoint some of the key epistemological points.

If you have any doubt about the relevance or the usefulness of the social sciences for archaeology, see my prior posts. Check out some of the works cited in those posts. Go read some Charles Tilly.

Reason 4: A widespread commitment to abstract and philosophical social theory

In case you hadn’t noticed, I have a strong antipathy toward high-level, abstract social theory (also called grand theory) in archaeology. It is not that I think there is anything inherently wrong with this type of theory. Rather, an obsession with this material by archaeologists has slowed progress in the development of archaeology as a social science. Let me try to express my views here as clearly as I can. I will describe five propositions and three conclusions.

First, there is an epistemological hierarchy, as illustrated in the above diagram. This should not be controversial, although some postprocessualists have argued that all theory exists on the same level (See Smith 2011 for citations). But the overwhelming consensus in the social sciences and in the philosophy of science is that the notion of a hierarchy of levels of theory is useful and relevant. I review some of this material in Smith (2011) and will not repeat it here. The number of levels, their specific labels, etc. can vary, but the basic idea of an epistemological hierarchy is fundamental. Here is a simlar scheme, from Alexander (1982), and included in Abend (2008).

 Second, different levels of theory are useful for different goals. The clearest expression of this principle I am aware of is Gabriel Abend’s (2008) paper on the meaning of “theory” in sociology. I discuss Abend’s analysis in an earlier post. It is a brilliant paper. Abend identifies seven different ways that sociologists use the term “theory.” He is not claiming that there are seven types of theory that exist in the world, but that the varying definitions and meanings of theory by scholars tend to fall into seven clusters. Each has its uses.

Third, high-level, abstract social theory is useful for making sense of the world. Abend’s Theory-3 consists of statements about the meanings of social phenomena. Theses accounts provide an “interpretation,” a “reading, or a “way of making sense.” His Theory-5 consists of an overall perspective from which to view, and interpret, the world. His examples include postmodern theory, poststructuralist theory, feminist theory, critical theory, Marxist theory, structural-functionalist theory, and rational choice theory. High-level social theory, of Abend’s types 3 and 5, is fine for abstract thinking about the social world on a very general, conceptual level.

Fourth, because of its very generality and abstractness (see the diagram)—high-level social theory cannot provide accounts of concrete, on-the-ground social events, processes, or conditions. It cannot account for social variation on the level of individuals and institutions. If you doubt this, check out the quotes from sociologist C. Wright Mills and archaeologist Kevin Fisher on page 168 of Smith (2011). Check Roy Ellen’s (2010) discussion of this issue. High-level abstract social theory cannot be proven wrong, and thus fails to conform to a scientific epistemology.

Fifth, the kind of social theory that DOES provide explanations of on-the-ground social events, processes, conditions, and institutions is called “middle-range theory” (do I need to say it? Mertonian middle-range theory, not Binfordian middle-range theory, which is fine but is something completely different)  Again, I have an extensive discussion of this in Smith (2011), where I identify several bodies of such theory that are useful for analyzing ancient cities. Abend includes this domain under his Theory-1 (a general proposition about the relationship between two variables) and Theory-2 (an explanation of a particular social phenomenon). This latter is the kind of account provided by causal mechanisms. These are the kinds of theory that are used in conjunction with a scientific epistemology. This is what we should be doing in archaeology.

When I examine these five propositions in relation to the current state of theory in archaeology, I draw three conclusions:

First, many archaeologists seem unaware of causal mechanisms and kinds of middle-range theory needed to generate causal explanations of social phenomena in the deep past. This is a direct consequence of Reasons 1, 2, and 3 above.

Second, many archaeologists apparently believe that high-level abstract social theory is the only kind of theory that matters. Or, more precisely, it is the only kind of theory that they write about.

Third, until there is a more widespread recognition of the value of a scientific epistemology, of middle-range theory, and of causal explanations, archaeology will to find it hard:

  •          To create a corpus of rigorous scientific knowledge that can be built upon and expanded as new research is done;
  •        To develop accounts of patterns and change in the past that are acceptable to other social scientists, and potentially contribute to general social-science knowledge; and,
  •          To communicate to the public just what we are up to, in words that most people can understand. The public loves archaeology. Wouldn’t it be great if they appreciated our ideas and results as much as they do our spectacular finds? Abstract social theory will not accomplish this.


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

Alcock, Susan E. and John F. Cherry (editors)
2004  Side-by-Side Survey: Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

Alexander, Jeffrey C.
1982    Theoretical Logic in Sociology, Volume 1: Positivism, Presuppositions, and Current Controversies. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Barker, Graeme and David Mattingly (editors)
1999-2000  The Archaeology of Mediterranean Landscapes. 5 vols. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

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

Elster, Jon
1989  Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Flannery, Kent V.
1973  Archaeology with a Capital S. In Research and Theory in Current Archaeology, edited by Charles L. Redman, pp. 47-58. Wiley, New York.

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

Hedström, Peter
2005  Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Kagan, Jerome
2009  The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Killick, David
2005  Is there Really a Chasm betwen Archaeological Theory and Archaeological Science? Archaeometry 47 (1): 186-189.

2015  The awkward adolescence of archaeological science. Journal of Archaeological Science 56: 242-247.

Kuznar, Lawrence A. and Kenneth Long
2008  Deductive-Nomological vs. Causal-Mechanical Explanation: Relative Strengths and Weaknesses in Anthropological Explanation. In Against the Grain: The Vayda Tradition in Human Ecology and Ecological Anthropology, edited by Bradley B. Walters, Bonnie J. MacKay, Paige West, and Susan Lees, pp. 159-173. AltaMira, Lanham, MD.

Martinón-Torres, Marcos and David Killick
n.d.    Archaeological Theories and Archaeological Sciences. In Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Theory, edited by Andrew Gardner, Mark Lake, and Ulrike Sommer. Oxford University Press, New York.

Morgan, Charles G
1973  Archaeology and Explanation. World Archaeology 4 (3): 259-276.

Sabloff, Jeremy A., Thomas W. Beale, and Anthony M. Kurland, Jr.
1973  Supplement: Recent Developments in Archaeology. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 408: 103-118.

Smith, Michael E.
1983  El desarrollo económico y la expansión del imperio Mexica: Una perspectiva sistémica. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 16: 135-164.

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.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L.
1991  The Conditios of Fruitfulness of Theorizing About Mechanisms in Social Science. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 21: 367-388.

Watson, Patty Jo, Steven A LeBlanc, and Charles L Redman
1974  The covering law model in archaeology: Practical uses and formal interpretations. World Archaeology 6 (2): 125-132.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this series and the blog!

I agree that post modernism is a cul de sac for a discipline. But I am less convinced that the kinds of arguments you outline here will be effective in moving archaeology forward. The fundamental problem is that in the academy, with the exception of classical archaeology, archaeologists are hired, tenured, and promoted in anthropology departments controlled by sociocultural anthropologists 90% of whom worship the pomo hegemon and view any attempt to evaluate knowledge claims objectively in a scientific frame as apostasy. Given norms of academic governance, departments dominated by socioculturals exclusively hire pomo archaeologists and perpetuate the bad equilibrium. It is hard for me to see how this situation will change any time soon.

Anonymous said...

This has been a great series! Thank you.
I have to agree with Anonymous above. While your arguments are powerful, the fact that ethnographers* control hiring in the discipline. Archaeologists (and, increasingly) bioanthropologists make choices that appeal to the majority, whether or not this is a sound scholarly decision. As ethnography has been relentlessly transformed from a research project to (strident, intolerant) faux-activism over the last 40 years, this has placed enormous pressures on others in the discipline ...

*As archaeologists, many bioanthropologists, linguists, sociologists etc. all study culture, I refuse to grant this general research domain to this one tradition.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Yes, I agree completely with both comments. I have seen this process in place at various universities. My gut feeling is that these considerations have a major effect on archaeological hiring in some cases, and a minor effect in many cases, but I don't have hard evidence on the extent of this problem. I can certainly identify cases where social-theory archaeologists with poor empirical standards have been hired over more empirical scholars with equivalent or stronger professional records. But this is a very hard phenomenon to talk about objectively, partly because good evidence is scarce, and partly because hiring decisions are typically based on many intangibles that don't relate easily to theoretical orientation, research interests, or other easily definable traits.

Given professional obstacles like this, it is essential that empirically- or scientifically-oriented archaeologists not only do good research, but also be able to clearly articulate the benefits and implications of this kind of work.