Tuesday 18 November 2014

Some Prefatory Thoughts on TAG 2014 Manchester [Updated]

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.

Marvin Harris
I went on to be educated as a Cultural Materialist—in the Marvin Harris mould—and a Processual (or New) Archaeologist. As were so many others in the 1970s and '80s I was persuaded to embrace the nomothetic-deductive philosophy of science championed by Hempel and other late Logical Empricists. As a result I looked askance at Structuralism, and was dismissive of the Old archaeology. [Keep in mind that this was in the mid 1980s, when, unbeknownst to me, there was already considerable post-modern theoretical foment in archaeology.] 

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.

Meg Conkey
The Structuralist I was to be wary of was Margaret W. Conkey, who, as it turned out, had moved well beyond structuralism in her thinking and in her fieldwork. Meg's work had been brought to my attention through her 1980 paper, "The Identification of Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Aggregation Sites: The Case of Altamira" (Current Anthropology 21:609-630). Structuralist or not, that paper was data driven, and its arguments cogent. But what was really exercising most of the archaeologists I knew was Meg's and others' successful efforts to expose gender bias in archaeology, and to introduce the study of gender in archaeological cultures. I heard many a male archaeologists' whispered diatribes aimed at the very idea that an archaeology of gender was worth pursuing. Most were just re-cast anti-feminism, anti-affirmative action, anti-female, and often homophobomania [my word for the utterly despicable worldview that causes ostensibly sane men to presume that to be a feminist a women must be, deep down, a lesbian, and that to be supportive of women's causes, a man must be short a testicle or two—more homophobomania, I presume].

Diane Gifford-Gonzalez
I'm very glad that despite the warnings, some said in jest, I chose to pursue a PhD at Cal, and that Meg Conkey chaired my committee, which also included Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (UC Santa Cruz) and Clark Howell. In my first year there, I was exposed to strident post-modern critiques of science and archaeology, many of which I discovered to be well-founded when aimed at the unreflexive anthropological theory then practiced by many archaeologists—especially the then-popular 'adaptationist' stance taken by most who drank the Marvin Harris Kool-Aid. Just to refresh your memory, I'm talking about the processualist view of culture as "Man's [sic] extra-somatic means of adaptation." Lots of good archaeological fieldwork was carried out under that banner; however, much more would have been achievable with a less-limited theoretical framework.

Karl Butzer
[Insider note: I was asked to guide Karl Butzer from a reception at one place on the UCB campus to the place he was to give an invited public presentation. He was on my list of archaeological deities because of Archaeology as Human Ecology. In that Cal presentation he nearly apologized for his former strictly adaptationist leanings, and came down in favour of a more nuanced examination of past human behaviour.]

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.

Alison Wylie
Meg arranged for Alison Wylie to facilitate a seminar in my second term. I had not been swayed by the proclamations that science was dead, or hopelessly flawed, or inherently androcentric, and yet I had nothing but my 'faith' that there was value in a body of knowledge that was based on empirical observation and evidence-based reasoning. Alison's work and her frequent mini-lectures in that seminar have enabled me to think differently from most post-processual archaeologists—because of my exposure to a [relatively] new way of thinking about how scientific knowledge is constructed.

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.

The Subversive
ready to do battle
with bad inferences
I hope you'll forgive me for a rather lengthy blurt about not much of anything.

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.]


  1. Interesting you'd mention Kuhn. Once upon a time in a graduate seminar, Mike Schiffer happened to mention to us that he'd had the chance to meet Kuhn during the heady days of the "New Archaeology" in the late 60s. After telling Kuhn all about the changes sweeping the world of archaeology, he convinced Kuhn to read some of the work of Binford, Longacre, and others. Kuhn's response: "I don't see anything resembling a scientific revolution here."

  2. Rob. I am really looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts at TAG. Thanks for this post I really enjoyed it and I think you make some very significant points and fortuitously many of the ones that I have been driving at in the abstract and will speak on. That is, Like you I received a great theoretical education- in theory or rather the history of philosophy of thought of both science and archaeology. So I understand the importance of both a firm methodological apparatus as well as the interpretive framework that we use, plus the paradigmatic biases we tend to have. Thus you are right that the statement is unnecessary for those of us who have been educated properly or have a thorough understanding of the philosophy of science and archaeology. That is realise there is no artificial polemic in theory or science- that they are actually part of the same thing.

    1. Hi, Paul,
      Thanks for elaborating on the impetus for this session. Prior to reading the paper abstracts I was afraid that I was going to be at a disadvantage with respect to the empirical findings that would be presented. I see that the subject matter spans the Lower Paleolithic to the Chalcolithic. So, now I KNOW that I"ll be out of my depth only part of the time!

  3. continued....However, and this a the big However- the issue I raise in the abstract and specifically what is exposed in the highlighted section of the abstract is actually so very necessary for a number of key reasons.
    Firstly, it was not aimed at those like you or me who have an acute grasp of the philosophy of science and archaeology. The issue is ― without wanting to pre-empt my introduction paper to much― many archaeologists in the UK simply see thier given periodic study topic, archaeological theory and method as separate sub-disciplines. There is no joined up thinking only unnecessary and binary thinking- which is why the session aims to highlight some of the issues you raise.

  4. continued 2....
    Secondly, the highlighted section you have discussed actually has been aimed at a growing number of archaeologists in the UK―especially the majority of whom tend to go to TAG―who now seem to have a myopic and extremely binary view of theory and science. Here I mean younger archaeologists who were taught in the early to mid-noughties in the UK and their lecturers― who I call 'hyper-theorists'― who have been too influenced by the likes of Shanks and Tilley and think all you need to appropriate bits of the work of some fashionable philosopher. They seem to think you can come up with a model (without knowing that is exactly what they have built) keep repeating it and it will be true- without presenting any data, testing hypotheses etc or explicitly stating their methodology. In short thier work is non-replicable and speculative.

  5. Cont 3...
    Thirdly, this group of hyper-theorists think you don't need the scientific method. I know as I have had to try to re-train some who were taught this nonsense. In effect they seem to reject wholesale as 'bad' everything that went before post Processualism including scientific method (because they erroneously equate science as 'Processual').
    Fourthly, there is another group of 'scientists' who are the 'don't do theory group' who equally polemically reject theory. They fail to appreciate the paradigmatic structures we have to interpret through and naively think just doing science and produceing data is all we do and the data speaks for itself. That is they fail to see the interpretational edifice built on top of their data.

  6. cont 4...
    My Point, like yours, is that both extreme positions are wrong and illusory. As you rightly point out we need scientific method to get the data and we need an inferential framework to interpret them. Thus, the conceit of my abstract was in deliberately caricaturing a very real issue which is now beginning to hamper British archaeological discourse. You only need to read a great deal of the work on the British Neolithic and unfortunately some in the Mesolithic to see how pervasive the 'i don't do science' has become. There are some brilliant ideas but I always say- yes but where is your data? How do you get from one to the other! It is also good you mention Palaeolithic studies which has virtually become a theory free zone and where many of the 'I don't do thoery group' I have heard saying it-'hail' from.
    Im really looking forward to our session and your insights. I'm pleased to say- as you can see from the abstracts i sent you a while ago- we have the whole range of the debate and importantly from people doing it right- in my view. There are some exciting papers on your favourite topic of Levallois as well as some others. It should be a great session! Thanks for your contributions so far.

  7. Well my 2c worth is that not even the scientists embraced Hempel's characterisation of their work and if people are really interested there are quite a few discussions on how science really works including a great anthropological study called "Life among the Scientists: An Anthropological study of an Australian Scientific Community". While Kuhn's work was important a more developed study of the working of science was of course Foucault's early work "the birth of the clinic" and "Madness and derangement" (terms that seemingly could apply to TAG) which emphasised how the process of scientific work was enmeshed in power rather than discovering natural phenomena (which Foucault demonstrated were not natural at all but created categories and entities).

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about Foucault s work is that it is data ridden - he looks for evidence and this is not denying that there is disputation about the concepts and ideas he draws from the evidence but the evidence is there. Similarly with Binford the bigger picture stuff and the language particularly in his early papers is used by many to through all his stuff out whereas I have found his later writings on hunter-gathers extremely thought provoking.

    I have never understood why you cannot apply different theoretical approaches to different archaeological problems instead of trying to make one approach fit everything.

  8. Hi, Iain. Thanks for your comments. I'll try to be brief. [Yeah. I know. *sigh* Good luck!] I find it very useful to distinguish between what philosophers of science call the Context of Discovery—where our ideas come from—and the Context of Justification—how we decide between competing knowledge claims. The former is the playground of Foucault and Kuhn. The latter has been the stronghold of Logical Empiricism for centuries. Perhaps I should have been more explicit in my "Prefatory Thoughts.”

    As often as bigots of all stripes have tried to pervert their observations to prove a point—whether unconsciously or not—there have been cases where "the data" have simply put a stop to the nonsense. What this tells me, and many others, is that the way we judge competing knowledge claims IS important. If someone wants to say that they think science is radically flawed because it's practiced by misogynists, or racists, or zealots, let them say so. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference to the phenomena we're trying to understand. Those phenomena are what they are, regardless of our 'created categories.' But, as you point out, one of the most strident voices of post-modernism, Foucault himself, uses evidence—empirically verifiable evidence—to support his claims, whether he would have liked it or not, it means that he’s creating knowledge in what we’ve come to know as a scientific way, a way that gets us closer to a more truthful understanding of a phenomenon—even if the phenomenon under scrutiny is Science, itself. That's the important take-home message to my mind: Science isn't a monolithic body of knowledge, it's a word that describes the process of us puny humans edging closer to an accurate—empirically grounded—account of what we find interesting and in need of explanation. How we characterize that process—i.e. the flavour of scientific philosophy we follow—has no effect on our successes. Scientific Realism is just a tune-up of the way one group of people—philosophers of science—view the process of making scientific knowledge. From that perspective, it’s possible to see that Logical Empiricism has had a profound and at times detrimental effect on the Contexts, both of Discovery and Justification. And I’m hoping that more people than you and I will come to realize it, and that they’ll cease these essentially ideological battles about the Context of Discovery, see that science is an incremental process of making knowledge that can be—at a minimum—assessed “on the evidence” within the Context of Justification. Thanks, again, for popping in!


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