If you've been frozen in a glacier somewhere and have just now thawed out, you might not know that yours truly has been invited to be the discussant for a session at the Theoretical Archaeology Group in Manchester, England, in mid December, 2014. [For more information there's a link in the sidebar.]
Most of you are acquainted with the mechanics of conferences like this. So, you'll already know that I've not seen
an abstract, much less a draft of any papers. Nonetheless, I thought it might be valuable to offer some thoughts about the session, as it's described by the organizers. [Update: A few hours after this was posted, I received a reminder that I had been sent abstracts of the papers. Apologies to all involved for my omission. However, in my defense, those abstracts came while I was in the midst of working non-stop for the last three weeks of a very difficult reporting project about which some of you may already have heard.]
Bridges Over Troubled Theoretical Waters: Crossing the Divide between Data-based Archaeology and Archaeological Theory in Prehistoric Studies
Organized by Paul R. Preston (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation), Katie Davenport-Mackey (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, and Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester), Seosaimhín Bradley (Archaeology, School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire), and Tom Elliot (Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation, and Institute of Science and Environment, University of Worcester). Vicki Cummings (Archaeology, School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire) will chair the session.*
During recent workshops of the MESO-Lithics project, a number of issues have arisen that have far-reaching implications for archaeology as a whole. Namely, interpretations derived from archaeological theory in prehistoric studies are becoming ever more ambitious, ranging from low-order functional or economic theory to higher-order socially or stylistically mediated narratives. However, such interpretations are presently limited by the legacy of ideological upheavals and profound revolutions in thought over the last sixty years. From Culture History to the post-Post-Processual fragmentation of theoretical perspectives. Added to this is the prevalence of following fashionable philosophers such as Bourdieu, Heidegger and Deleuze (to name just a few). However, a common feature that has remained a detriment to archaeological studies is the tendency of disciples of each theoretical movement to reject that which went before ―throwing out of [sic] the methodological and conceptual baby with the theoretical bathwater― irrespective of the value of certain approaches. One of the major casualties of these ‘revolutions’ is the use of data to support interpretations – especially by theorists. As a result, many have apparently forgotten the role of, or indeed how to marshal, data in their interpretations. Instead narratives have become ideologically led, as archaeologists increasingly prefer ‘top down’ theoretical approaches. This session aims to redress this by promoting a discussion on how this impasse may be redressed by showcasing recent attempts by archaeologists to bridge this important, conceptual divide between data and theory.
I'd like to focus on the passage I highlighted above. In part, because I believe that it's factual. But the 'fact' that it exposes is so unnecessary, for a variety of reasons, as I attempt to flesh out in what follows.
As an archaeological infant I was weaned on what Binford called Normative anthropological theory—the idea that Culture is all about the norms of a society—something which he, especially, decried as useless for archaeologists interested in the Paleolithic. He likened it to 'paleopsychology,' and gave it short schrift.
When I was offered a Regent's Internship-Fellowship at the University of California at Berkelely [Cal to those of you familiar with such matters], one of my Simon Fraser University mentors warned me that there were Structuralists there. 'There' also boasted J. Desmond Clarke, F. Clark Howell, Kent Lightfoot, Vince Sarich, Ruth Tringham, and Tim White.
Along with archaeologists Meg the Structuralist and Ruth the Marxist, there were many post-modern sociocultural anthropologists in the Department, who didn't have much time for archaeologists and physical anthropologists in general—presumably because they saw us as lacking the requisite theoretical credentials, and among our other faults we were still focussed on practicing archaeology as a scientific enquiry. Anti-science critiques abounded, although, as I was to learn, some of them used plain ol' empirical evidence to shore up their arguments [otherwise known as scientific reasoning], and they were still thinking about Science in its positivist philosophical mould, which I now see as a self-inflicted wound that went unnoticed within that circle.
And it's to Meg whom I owe the bear's share of gratitude for expanding and deepening my theoretical toolkit. Hers was my first graduate seminar, "Issues in the Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers." Despite the presence of a strident post-modernist and several reconstructed Cultural Materialists in the group, I was delighted by the breadth of empirical observation that was levelled against what was then popularly called the New Archaeology, or ProcessualArchaeology. Regardless of people around me proclaiming that science was dead, I was learning more about the value of archaeology as an empirical undertaking at the same time as I was being shown that the theory I'd been fed was, to put it bluntly, limited.
I'm guessing that everyone reading this is familiar with the notion of the Scientific Method. It goes back hundreds of years. Put simply, it holds that you can't make a scientific inference unless you can observe the phenomenon. Hempel and others—sometimes referred to as Logical Positivists—belong to a group of philosophers of science known generically as Logical Empiricists. "If A, then B" pretty much sums up the Logical Empiricist stance. If you can't show that when A occurs, B follows, you don't have a scientific construct. I can't explain in detail here—and many have done it far better than I ever could—although I do a reasonably good job of it in one of the papers I wrote prior to being made a PhD candidate, "What is Archaeology, Really?"
As Wylie points out, empiricist philosophy of science effectively ruled out our discipline as a science, because we attempt to make knowledge of something that, literally, doesn't exist: the past. As it turns out, Positivism also rules out early universe physics. And, I know from experience—having worked with astronomers and astrophysicists for nearly a decade—those so-called hard scientists make knowledge of the past using the very same reasoning that we archaeologists do. [Nostalgic note: the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn, was nearly canonized by New Archaeologists, because they loved the idea of overturning the 'Old' archaeology 'paradigm.' Yet, as Alison Wylie pointed out to our graduate seminar, Kuhn's was essentially a social critique. His 'data' were currents of thought, which should be a lesson to any hold-out empiricist who seeks to confine 'data' to observations of physical phenomena.]
Just because we make knowledge in ways that don't fit with Logical Positivism doesn't mean that we're not doing 'Science,' or that our science is weak, or soft, in contrast to the likes of physics or chemistry. Indeed, the philosophy of science that held sway for hundreds of years has been in need of a facelift. That 'lift' is an account of how scientific knowledge is made that's often referred to as Scientific Realism. There are many philosophers of science, in addition to Alison Wylie, who can tell you all about it. I'll just say this. Empiricist philosophy of science couldn't even adequately describe the true nature of well-established scientific knowledge, because so much of it depends on recognizing and building on abstract models for physical processes that were inherently unobservable—the atomic structure is one example of a scientific finding that's been arrived at without anyone ever having seen an electron or a proton, much less an atom in the wild. Scientific Realism is an epochal shift for philosophy of science, and someday, I hope, the rest of the world will catch up. In the meantime, there is much "throwing out of the baby with the bathwater," as the TAG 2014 session organizers suggest.
ready to do battle
with bad inferences
Mostly, I wanted to foreshadow my 'discussion' of the theoretical issues that will no doubt be raised by the papers we'll be seeing at TAG 2014 in Manchester.
* I look forward to meeting all of you. Paul Preston a long-time friend of the Subversive Archaeologist. [And yet it hasn't hurt his career to the best of my knowledge. Note to self: warn Paul of imminent danger.]