Saturday, 22 March 2014

Why Are Subversive Archaeologists A Rarity?

Click here for this guy's bio.
What do a) the dead white male at left, b) archaeology, and c) the three antitheses 
  • Scientism vs Scientific
  • Empiricist vs Empirical
  • Deductive vs Inductive
have in common? Moreover, what do the three dichotomies denote that'd be of any interest to a green, or even a full-fledged 
subversive archaeologist? 

The Fictional Master Po and
"Grasshopper" (Kwai Chang Caine).
If, Grasshopper, you know the answers, go straight to the head of the class, because you possess the raw materials for a thoroughgoing and rigourous understanding of archaeological epistemology. As my friend would say, "Good on you, Mate!" But, if your experience of archaeology hasn't taken you into such matters, I'd ask you to be patient. First I want to elaborate on matters of professional conduct and advancement.

As the Beowulf story-teller famously began, so I shall.
 Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellen fremedon! *
Having thus laid the foundation for an epochal blurt** I turn now to the business at hand. 

[Note to Self: Electropsychometer now in need of repair, due the insane randomness of what I've just written, and its extreme irrelevance to. well.  anything.]

In a future outing, I promise I'll make good on my promise to explain the three dichotomies listed up top,
and what they have to do with archaeology and palaeoanthropology. For reals!
As far as I'm aware, the sort of commentary you find here at The Subversive Archaeologist is a phenomenological rarity. The SA is the only critic of archaeology, not just here on the intertubes, but in the literature as well. Why so? I can hear you whispering, "So, what's the big deal?" Listen closely. 

Let's face it. It's not as if there's a shortage out there of dumb archaeological inferences and theories—knowledge claims, as philosophers of science call them. Regular SA readers will know that I have little trouble finding juicy targets for the SA treatment. So, if [bear of little brain that I am] even I can manage a steady stream of empirically well-founded refutations of archaeological knowledge claims, you'd think, wouldn't you, that there should be a lot more criticism floating around—and concomitantly more critics. 

Putative self-portrait. Leonardo da Vinci: 
a man possessed of the range of 
knowledge required to explain, adequately, 
the reasons for there being no tradition of 
criticism in archaeology, specifically, and of
science, in general.
The explanation, as it turns out, is manifold and ramified. [I've always wanted to use that expression.] Explaining the absence of criticism in our field involves possessing a modicum of expertise in 
philosophy of science
informal logic [AKA critical thinking], and
all the archaeological background required to be a halfways decent archaeologist.
[I'll leave it up to you to decide which are the halfways decent ones.]

Today's blurt suggests some of the reasons for there being so little criticism of problematic archaeological knowledge claims—it is an labour-intensive and professionally expensive undertaking [even with the modern ability to operationally define crap, first of all, and second, the availability of objective measurement instruments like the Crap-o-meter shown at right, virtually eliminating inter-observer variation]. 

Needs no introduction, nor should it need explication.
It's also expensive for the time it takes to acquire the background knowledge of a site and its constituents, the range of depositional processes that figure in the site's formation, and many other classes of information. Moreover, one's critical appraisal requires not just examining the premises of the argument in question, but also those of the work that's referenced. In other words you have to dig as far as the bedrock of an argument, however noxious, however off-putting [see below]. And then you work back through the 'evidence' to form a reasoned assessment of the claim. 

I suspect that limitations on one's background knowledge are enough to dissuade oneself from embarking on such a voyage. I further suspect that limited background knowledge contributes to mute acceptance of a great many archaeological knowledge claims.

An ivory tower, as symbol of Mary, 
in a "Hunt of the Unicorn Annunciation" 
(ca. 1500) from a Netherlandish book of hours. 
Okay. So. Given the time involved in becoming thoroughly critical of others' work, it's understandable that academic archaeologists (and referees) simply can't afford the time. Besides, the resulting critiques wouldn't impress the tenure or promotion committee, unless it's published in a peer-reviewed journal. What's more, it's likely never to be published as anything other than a comment, which are not refereed, and therefore don't attract the attention of Very Serious Scholars. It also pisses off your peers [just ask me]. 

So who does that leave? Students with more energy than political savvy [of which I was one once upon a time], and underemployed, ageing, ex-academic archaeologists with nothing to lose and nothing better to do with their spare time than pour out their bile in cyberspace. Neither is taken very seriously, so it's no wonder that the Grown-ups in our discipline have no time to spare for such activities.

All ready for the slings and arrows!
All righty. I've said before that I learned too late of the major reason that an archaeologist should be reluctant to retrace the steps of another archaeologist’s inferential process: it could be profoundly damaging to their career. That's because there are no funding sources for such reappraisals, nor tenure committees that would value the enterprise as a first line of research. Besides, most archaeologists are quite happy to employ those authorities whose inferences bolster their own argument of the moment. Thus only someone secure in their position (unconcerned by the career treadmill) could or would undertake such examinations. This, as much as anything, explains why re-examinations of previous findings are usually undertaken by graduate students whose careers have yet to blossom, and who have not yet developed the self-preservation instincts of tenure-track and tenured academics.

Nevertheless, such activities are capable of propelling nascent careers into the intellectual stratosphere by virtue of their “game-changing” implications.

Sadly, few are bold enough (or naïve enough) to question the conclusions of a senior principal investigator (while said PI is still living, or still considered reliable by their peers). Caution prevails even when, for example, there is a general suspicion that a long-accepted narrative is flawed. Adding to the peril is the risk of alienating those whose interpretations and livelihoods are likely to be threatened because they rely on the authority’s interpretations to shore up their own findings. As a result, those who presume to call into question the “standard story” are often dealt with harshly, if stealthily. This may be direct and in print. Usually, however, punishment is less overt—for example, limiting access to collections, giving negative reviews on grant proposals, or whispering campaigns that can influence hiring or promotion. Either way, careers can and do suffer. 

Next time: in search of further factors that work against a critical stance in the archaeology literature, a tiptoe through the tulips of epistemology and philosophy of science. 

I'll bet you just can't wait!
* “How we have heard of the might of the kings.”
** Blurt is my own synonym for a blog post. One day I was announcing an SA post on Twitter. As you know, Twitter posts are called tweets. I immediately became jealous of the logical—almost poetic—relationship between the thing, a post, and the verb used to describe the act of uploading it. I thought about it for a few moments. If, I said to myself, a Twitter member tweets, could not a blogger be said to bleat? Sadly, for most in my culture, the kind of animal that makes such noises—most notably sheep—isn't considered a stand-on-your-own-two-feet sort of animal. Indeed, sheep, when used to describe a person, or sheepish their action, connotes weakness or submission. So, I thought 'bleat' might not be such a good analogue for 'tweet.' And so, I settled on 'blurt,' because it captures the nature, both of the act of blogging, and what is usually, for me, an forceful ejaculation inserted in the 'conversation' that is archaeology. So, blurts these are, and blurts they will be called. So sayeth the Lord of this bare pinprick on a period in the sphere known as Blogi.     

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