Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is the "social production of space" a bad concept?

I spent years trying to figure out what the "social production of space" means. I read the works people were citing and recommending (Lefebrve, Setha Low, Gottdeiner in sociology, etc.). Lefebvre was a wash-out: incomprehensible. (And when I read his statement that humans only reach their full potential when living in cities, the anthropologist in me barfed. So all those poor slobs, our ancestors, living in the world before the urban revolution. They couldn't reach their potentials. Give me a break.) The other authors seemed to make sense while I was reading them, but then 30 minutes later I couldn't for the life of me recall what the concept meant. I had a real block about this idea. Finally, in talking with an archaeologist colleague who was fully committed to the social production of space, it dawned on me why I had so much trouble with the concept.

After hearing her explanation, I asked whether there was such a thing as space that was NOT socially produced. Space, that is, that had been the setting for some kind of human activity, not space on Mars or in Greenland 30,000 years ago. No, of course not! Space is always socially produced. Aha! If space is always socially produced, then how is this a useful concept? Space is socially produced by definition. Fine, but how does this advance our understanding of variation among human spaces? This marketplace and that ceremonial plaza are both socially produced. But I want to know how they differ, as well as how they are similar. This platform was once a ceremonial structure, and then it became a housefloor in a later period. I'd like to understand that process of change. But if the space of that platform was always socially produced, how can that concept help me understand change through time?

The problem, for me, is that the social production of space is a humanities concept, and I think like a social scientist (in case you haven't guessed). The social production of space is one of those highly abstract, philosophical concepts that describes the way the world works in general; it is not a concept that explains specific social contexts on the ground. For fans of Abend (2008), this concept is theory type 5, and/or perhaps theory type 3; it is certainly not a workhorse causal concept that pertains to theory types 1 and 2. See my discussion of Abend here., or better, go read the paper yourself. It's a great paper that will open the eyes of archaeologists. As I detail in my paper on arguments in archaeology (Smith 2015), abstract and philosophical social theory is not useful for explaining social processes on the ground (see also Smith 2011). It is for high-level musing about how the world is structured in general

For the social production of space, see Lefebvre, Low or Soja. Unwin provides a critique (references below)

I was reminded of my original reaction to the social production of space while reading an excellent treatment of social science methods (6 and Bellamy 2012). In their chapter on concept formation, they discuss "four closely related methodological reasons for ensuring that concepts are sound and appropriately structured" (p. 131). And, guess what? The social production of space is NOT a sound and appropriately structured concept from the perspective of social science epistemology. It may be a fine concept in the humanities; I couldn't say. What are the four reasons?

(1)  "If we define and/or operationalise concepts wrongly, then our research questions will lack precision, and we shall not be able to choose the right cases or population to test them. That is to say, our research will lose external validity." [SPS is not a very precise concept]

(2)  "If we specify and structure our concepts poorly, we cannot develop appropriate research instruments and apply them accurately and consistently. So the reseach will not achieve measurement validity and reliability."  [Does the social production of space have any research instruments at all?]

(3)  "Without getting concepts right, we cannot select appropriate populations and cases and thus make appropriate comparisons between them:"

(4)  "Quite simply, if we specify concepts wrongly, we will draw incorrect inferences in explanations and interpretations."  (all quotes, pp. 131-133)

So, quite simply, the social production of space does not make the grade as an adequate social science concept. Gerring (2012) has a nice discussion of concept formation in the social sciences, even better than 6 and Bellamy (and yes, the surname is "6"). I didn't have the heart to trot out Gerring and evaluate SPS in terms of his criteria.

If you view archaeology as part of the humanities, then much of what I write in this blog may not make much sense. But if you view it as a social science--a discipline that can contribute to the task of understanding human societies and their transformations over time in a rigorous fashion that will be accepted by other social scientists--then you should pay attention to your concepts, and think about whether they can carry real explanatory weight or whether they are just abstract hot air.

6, Perri and Christine Bellamy
2012    Principles of Methodology: Research Design in Social Science. Sage, New York.

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

Gerring, John
2012    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Lefebvre, Henri
1991    The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell, Oxford.

Low, Setha M.
1996    Spatializing Culture: The Social Production and Social Construction of Public Space in Costa Rica. American Ethnologist 23: 861-879.

Smith, Michael E.
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.

Soja, Edward W.
2000    Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. Blackwell, Oxford.

Unwin, Tim
2000    A Waste of Space? Towards a Critique of the Social Production of Space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 25 (1): 11-29.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Academia.edu wants to commercialize its "recommendations"

Academia.edu has a system of "recommendations" for publications that I have never been fond of. Now they want to commercialize them by selling commendations. The way the recommendations work is that some scholars are invited to submit recommendations. I can't find the criteria listed on the website, but as I recall the only criterion was that one had published one or two papers ever. The recommenders are then supposed to recommend papers by clicking a button on the paper in question. This information become public, and the number of views on those papers increases. Individuals are given an "Authors rank" based on the number of recommendations their papers have received, adjusted for the rank of the recommenders. My author rank is 3.6, but I have no idea if that is high or low; the nature of the scale is not revealed.

I tried being a recommender for a while. I recommended some things, and then I'd get messages stating that views of those papers had increased dramatically after I had recommended them. Wow, I am an influential guy in Academia.edu! I'll put that on my CV. But without information on why one is recommending a paper, these recommendations don't carry much weight. And when the system got started I snooped around to see who was doing the recommending. Some recommenders are serious scholars whose views I take seriously (people like Gary Feinman and Linda Manzanilla). Others are low-quality scholars whose views I do NOT take seriously (I won't name names here. I manage to get enough people pissed off at me as it stands, I don't need make a bunch more people mad). So having one's papers recommended by someone like Gary Feinman (one of the top archaeologists, in my opinion) has the same weight as having them recommended by low-quality scholars. Not a very good system.  Plus, there is no way to give a negative recommendation. Some papers are terrible and deserve to be described as such, but that is not possible with this system. This is one more example of the facebookization of online scholarship. You can like something, but you can't dislike anything.

I just got the following email from someone on the Academia.edu staff:

 Hi Dr. Smith,
   My name is XXXXX, here at Academia. I noticed you had received a few recommendations on your papers. Would you be open to paying a small fee to submit any upcoming papers to our board of editors to be considered for recommendation? You'd only be charged if your paper was recommended. If it does get recommended then you'll see the natural boost in viewership and downloads that recommended papers get. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Here are my thoughts (this was my email reply) - I don’t have a very high opinion of your system of recommendation. As it stands, you have a bunch of low-quality scholars making recommendations, and I don’t consider the recommendations any kind of rigorous or useful measure of anything. Getting visibility through Academia.edu is useful, I guess, but it is not very high on my list of professional goals. The idea of paying a fee for recommendations sounds ludicrous. Who is on the “board of editors” to make these decisions? Non-professionals? Low-quality scholars? I have previously looked at Academia.edu as an alternative to the trend of increasing commercialization of scholarship. But now you want people to pay for some kind of recommendation? The recognition that matters to me is citations, not some social-media type of “liking” or fee-based recommendations. Please leave me out of it.


 Academia.edu is strange. It will have some very positive scholarly practices, and then it will introduce a retrograde, anti-scholarly features like co-authors listing. I think the whole idea of recommendations, as currently implemented, is a pseudo-scholarly feature, and I don't trust it. One could design a better and more transparent system but that might be too complex. But this idea of selling recommendations is terrible. If this is implemented, I might consider leaving Academia.edu and posting my papers elsewhere.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A grand challenge for archaeology: To say something useful about past human societies

We do archaeology in order to learn about the past. This is a pretty broad purview. We learn about an amazing variety of past things from archaeology, from Richard III’s posture to the causes of the Maya collapse, from what the Natufians ate for breakfast to how the Plains peoples hunted bison. We work hard to recover treasure, garbage, dirt, tools, cathedrals and latrines, and we use them to make statements about what happened long ago. We ask all sorts of questions: Whodunnit? What the heck is that? Why is this particular coin sitting in that specific layer? What were they thinking?

We do archaeology for many diverse purposes, from reconstructing the lives of ancient kings and queens to creating historical narratives, from helping communities reconstruct their past to complying with government regulations. In this essay I will discuss one of those purposes—creating reliable information about past human societies. This is the primary goal of the archaeology I do, and to my mind this is the most important contribution archaeology makes to human knowledge. Another way of saying this is to claim that archaeology is a social science (Smith et al. 2012). That is, we contribute to the stock of knowledge about human societies around the globe and into the past. Our special brand of knowledge is distinctive in several ways that most of us can rattle off easily. We have access to human societies not documented by any other discipline (e.g., Natufian society). We can study change over longer periods of time than can historians. And we learn about aspects of past societies that cannot be studied well by other fields (e.g., material culture).

Over the past decade I have become involved in several transdisciplinary research projects. I have learned to interact with scholars in other disciplines (including geography, planning, sociology, political science, economics, and physics), and I have had to read widely in disciplines far outside my comfort zone of archaeology and anthropology. These experiences have made me simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about the ability of archaeology to generate reliable information about past human societies.

My optimism has several components. First, our findings really do stand out as unique and important in bringing to light societies not accessible in any other way. I take examples from comparative urbanism, one of my research foci. Archaeology now describes quite a few fascinating and unique past cities and urban traditions—huge dense Tripolyan settlements (urban or not? How did so many Neolithic people live together?); the low-density urbanism of Mesoamerica, Africa and Asia (how did these cities work in a jungle setting?); or Çatalhöyük. Second, archaeology really does produce unique and important data—even on “historical” societies. No other discipline can study past settlement patterns, and archaeology has an incredible record of data on settlement sizes in many past regions. Third, a growing number of scholars in other disciplines actually take archaeological findings seriously and want to engage with archaeologists to learn more and to use our data. I am still surprised at this situation. Prior to going interdisciplinary ten years ago, my colleagues in cultural anthropology rarely expressed any interest at all in archaeology or my research. Now I interact with scholars in different disciplines who think our data can contribute to their research agendas. Amazing.

But I am also depressingly pessimistic about whether archaeological data can really contribute to social science knowledge and research beyond a couple of small projects here and there. Another way of putting this is to say that I think it will be hard to respond adequately to the many “grand challenges” to archaeology identified by Kintigh et al. (2014a, 2014b) until this higher-order challenge is pursued (click here for my take on those earlier grand challenges). This is my grand challenge here—to make the effort to change many entrenched archaeological practices to allow us to create reliable knowledge about past societies. We do good fieldwork, and our methods are constantly improving. We have access to a growing suite of sophisticated analytical techniques. But the results of our fieldwork and analysis are not yet building a solid foundation of evidence and data about past societies. Why not?

I see two major roadblocks:

  • Our data are not available;  and, 
  • Our epistemology is inadequate, particularly in the areas of theory and argument.

(1) Our data are not available

The “gray literature” of unpublished and poorly available contract archaeology reports is a vast sink of archaeological data. Some of it is reported in formats that can be used by other scholars, and some is not. Some is posted online, much is not. There is more contract archaeology going on around the world than grant-funded academic research, yet most of the results contribute little or nothing to building a systematic foundation of knowledge about the past. This needs to change. There are far too many academic archaeological research projects that are never adequately published, leaving important artifacts moldering in a dusty lab or analyzed data locked up in individual idiosyncratic data formats. And even archaeological data from projects that are published can be difficult to access; we need datafiles—not printed tables of numbers—and more excavation photographs—not the few that made it into the report.

This is getting uncomfortably personal now. My current project will be published and the data archived on tDAR before too long (I hope!). But the primary data for my earlier projects are sitting in ring binders, negative holders, a bunch of Excel and Access databases, and my own head. Should I start another fieldwork project, or spend my time archiving old data? The former is more fun, but perhaps the latter is of greater value to the discipline.

The challenge here is to change the behavior of individuals (like me) and to promote institutional solutions that will make our data available. Even when data ARE available, they will often need cleaning and sorting and recoding if we are going to compare our data to social science data about the present (Smith 2010).  Creating and using data archives is a big part of this challenge, and that is why archives like tDAR are so important. But a change in the culture of archaeology may also be required. When an economic historian publishes a study that uses quantitative data, the datafiles are regularly posted and made available for others to use and reanalyze. Could anyone reanalyze my data that way? Not yet. We don’t have a culture within archaeology that promotes the easy sharing of data. A change in these norms would be a big improvement.

(2) Our epistemology is inadequate

Archaeology is a science, in the standard social-science conception of science as having these traits:

  • Knowledge is responsive to evidence
  • Claims are exposed to challenge
  • Findings should be internally coherent
  • Arguments should be judged on the basis of explanatory power, generality, simplicity, and replicability.  For discussion of these traits, see: Gerring (2012) or Wylie (2000).

For those of my colleagues who view archaeology as a branch of the humanities, or who are hostile to science for reasons postmodern or other, please ignore the following discussion; it does not apply to you. But if one accepts the notion that archaeology does indeed (or can) conform to the model of science as outline above, then one has to be depressed about the current state of archaeological epistemology. Propositions are rarely tested, claims are too infrequently challenged, and formal arguments are rarely examined for adequacy. I explore this situation and provide suggestions for improving our arguments in Smith (2015). One result of our sloppy epistemology is that we have failed to create a solid body of empirical knowledge that can be improved, refined, and extended as research proceeds.

When postmodernism hit the social sciences in the 1980s, disciplines such as sociology and political science gave it a look, made a few changes, and got back to work. But in anthropology or archaeology, postmodernism settled in as a systemic infection and pushed empirical, scientific approaches to the margins. In the archaeology of complex societies, postmodernism is still festering (post-processualism, post-structuralism, post-humanism, etc.). The assumptions of postmodern approaches contradict the principles of science as listed above. Postmodern approaches are incapable of testing empirical propositions or carrying out rigorous comparative analysis. This is not just my peculiar view of the world; this is basic social science epistemology, discussed in a rather extensive literature rarely considered by archaeologists (6 and Bellamy 2012; Gerring 2012; Hedström 2005; Mjøset 2001; Tilly 1994, 2008).

Although few archaeologists use the phrase “postmodern” these days, this anti-science perspective is rampant in the discipline. As noted by a noted postmodern geographer, scholars now prefer to use the term “post-structuralism” because it is a “safer sounding label” than postmodernism (Soja 2001:11863). A major goal of scholarship from this perspective is to deconstruct or problematize knowledge. That is, the idea is to break down established knowledge. In science, on the other hand, the goal is to build and extend reliable bodies of knowledge. In several blog posts (here, and here), I have discussed two types of “science” in archaeology. Science type 1 is research with a scientific epistemology as discussed here. Science type 2 is work in an interpretivist or non-scientific framework that employs scientific techniques from other disciplines as part of the research process. Archaeologists pursing this model can sometimes fool scientific granting agencies by touting their use of archaeometry or “archaeological science,” while hiding the fact that their research is governed by a non-scientific epistemology.

Only research carried out with a scientific epistemology, making rigorous empirical arguments about data and about the past, serves to build a body of archaeological knowledge that is capable of generating reliable conclusions about past human societies (beyond descriptions of individual sites or finds). The prevalence of non-scientific epistemologies in archaeology (all the “post-“ approaches) makes it difficult to create this reliable knowledge. Yet for many of us, the goal of our work is to say something useful about past human societies. As in the case of the first roadblock—data availability—the promotion of a scientific epistemology will require a change in the culture of archaeology. If we want to contribute to a body of empirical evidence about human societies and their change over time, then we have our work cut out for us. If we fail to meet this "grand challenge," then it is hard to see how we can meet all the other grand challenges identified by Kintigh et al. (2014a, 2014b) and by the other bloggers participating in this event.

6, Perri and Christine Bellamy
2012 Principles of Methodology: Research Design in Social Science. Sage, New York.

Gerring, John
2012 Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright, and Melinda Zeder
2014    Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79 (1): 5-24.  

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder
2014    Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122: 879-880.

Mjøset, Lars
2001 Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2010  Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20: 229-253.
2015 How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4): 18-23.

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: 7617-7621.

Soja, Edward W.
2001 Postmodernism in Geography. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 11860-11865. Elsevier, New York.

Tilly, Charles
1994 Softcore Solipsism. Labour / Le Travail 34: 259-268.

2008 Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Wylie, Alison
2000 Questions of Evidence, Legitimacy, and the (Dis)unity of Science. American Antiquity 65: 227-237.