Monday, April 30, 2012

Archaeology as a social science

Excavated house at Calixtlahuaca
I haven't been posting very often lately because I have been on sabbatical leave, working hard to finish a book manuscript: Aztec Communities and Households: Archaeologists Discover a Sustainable Way of Life. I have gotten a draft finished, and now I am looking for a literary agent so that I can attract a publisher to provide a broad, nonspecialist, readership.

Today this paper was posted online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris
    2012    Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:(published online).

I have posted the paper here.  ||  There is some ASU publicity about the paper here.

We argue that because of recent fieldwork and methodological advances, archaeology is now starting to contribute knowledge to the social sciences beyond anthropology. We illustrate this point with several examples:
  • Early village society
  • Cities and urban planning
  • States and markets in deep history
  • Standards of living.

 These are topics covered to some extent by various social sciences (economics, political science, historical sociology, urban studies), and for each, archaeologists now have data that relate to current concerns in those fields.

 A brief section on urban planning includes the figure shown above to illustrate the point that cities with unplanned neighborhoods (e.g., the Yoruba city Ado Ekiti) were much more common in the ancient past than fully-planned orthogonal cities (e.g., the Greek city Priene), despite the common assumption that ancient cities were mostly like the Greek example.

This is a topic I've blogged about before, for example:

Spatial order, visual order, and urban planning

Are shantytowns a normal form of urban residence?

If you want a copy of the PNAS paper, CLICK HERE.


  1. Good to give attention to archaeology as a social science in this way, but I have actually always regarded archaeology as a social science.

    Archaeology studies human beings and makes attempts to understand society/societies and their development better. This is necessarily the realm of social science, is it not? Sure, there are those methodologies in archaeology that only focus on studying certain materials or explain how certain empirical techniques could be used. All of that, however, is only relevant to archaeology when it starts aiding such understanding. The way I see it, there is one approach or strand in archaeological thinking that is decidedly not a social science and that is the ethological approach of evolutionary archaeology. There the human species is studied as a biological being. Something that can be observed and measured, not understood as it is necessarily placed outside of our own position, condition and situation. For sake of argument, one could say social scientific archaeoogy is archaeology as defined by the common goal to understand human beings and the societies it evolved in better, and evolutionary archaeology is biological and aims to explain according to or demonstrate a certain set of rules. This is a very crude argument and division and of course what is binding both is their boundedness to studying material remains. Nevertheless, the aims are different: explain by rules (evolutionary), or understanding process (social scientific). It may be the empirical study of human related material remains that connect to two into a single discipline at the moment, but what they want to achieve is decidedly different, incommensurable even in terms of the questions asked and the way their outcomes inform. Which is not to say that the correlation between both could not be of interest.

    Archaeology as a Social Science, yes! But archaeology is a social science and always has been. It's just what many in archaeology do and have done that makes us forget this is the case. There may be a uniqueness about using physical remains to get to social understanding, and this poses theoretical and methodological challenges we have to face, but when we stop being interested in that I think we stop being archaeologists and start being long term biologists.

  2. Benjamin- I agree with your comments. But evolutionary archaeology is not the only kind of archaeology that doesn't fit with "social science." I think that much of "social archaeology" (post-processual, post-structural, post-colonial, etc.) sees itself as part of the humanities rather than the social sciences.

    One other purpose of our PNAS article is to suggest that viewing archaeology as part of anthropology is too limiting, and we wanted to show its relevance to issues in sociology, political science, economics, etc.

  3. I suppose that connection to anthropology as per definition is of course a very American issue. I think there is absolutely no harm in emphasising all the other social scientific links. Personally I'm not sure how humanities and social sciences differ. Completely a shortcoming on my end of course.