Monday, August 24, 2015

Why was my paper rejected ?

Just got a tip from Retraction Watch for this paper:

Phillips, David
    2015    Who gets published? Comparative Education 51(3): 303-304.

Phillips present a list of common reasons for the rejection of manuscripts from journals in the field of education research:
  1. ·         wrong journal;
  2. ·         too long/short;
  3. ·         journalism;
  4. ·         extract from report/dissertation unadapted;
  5. ·         no clear topic;
  6.          too little context;
  7. ·         too little theory;
  8. ·         clear gaps in literature;
  9. ·         polemical;
  10. ·         research not fully explained;
  11. ·         failure to relate findings/conclusions to aims/theory/literature;
  12. ·         language/style not checked;
  13. ·         text not proofread;
  14. ·         not situatedin comparative education [or in the appropriate discipline]
  15. ·         plagiarism/legal issues.
My first reaction was, "I'm not sure how helpful this is." Anyone who is a graduate student or a professional ought to know these things. They are taught in graduate seminars, they are taught in the professional socialization that goes on in graduate programs and academic departments. They should be pretty obvious. But then I thought about the most recent paper I have reviewed for a journal. It was the second-worst paper I have reviewed in over 30 years of reviewing manuscripts. This paper had defects #: 2, #5, #6, #7, #8, #10, #11, and #14. So perhaps lists of factors like this do have some value.

So, why are MY papers being rejected these days? Not counting rejections from Science or Nature (see discussion here), I have have a bunch of rejections over the past 3 years, compared to only a single rejection (that I can recall) in the rest of my career. I don't think the quality of my work has declined. A major reason for the rejections is that the work is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary. My colleague Sander Van Der Leeuw warned that as I got into transdisciplinary research, I might have trouble getting papers published. Most journals are disciplinary in focus, an orientation that is reinforced by the reviewers they use. The metaphorical disciplinary silos are alive and well in the world of academic journals.

 I had two papers rejected by American Anthropologist. In both cases I was using methods and concepts from  one or more (non-anthropological) disciplines, and made the point that perhaps anthropologists might want to pay attention to these other fields. Well, maybe not..... (click here for my intellectual dissatisfaction with the discipline of anthropology). One paper was resubmitted to the top journal in the field of Urban Studies (with a higher impact factor than AA. Ha!), and it is now published. The other is still being revised. An interdisciplinary paper that I think is important and exciting has now been rejected by three journals. Maybe fourth time around is the charm.

While I hate to admit this, the lesson here may be that younger scholars should refrain from publishing transdisciplinary papers. It's much easier to get a straight archaeology paper published than a paper that mixes archaeology with disciplines that might seem unlikely (e.g., economics, political science, sociology). Some of my recent (published) transdisciplinary papers have had graduate student co-authors, though, so perhaps the lesson is for younger scholars to avoid transdisciplinary single-author papers. Think about getting a senior co-author for anything out of the ordinary. I do make a bigger effort to get rejected papers with student co-authors into print elsewhere right away; I have less urgency for papers with faculty co-authors (yes, I feel very guilty about one particular paper..... Sorry!).

BUT, you can't get a paper accepted OR rejected if you don't submit it. If you are a graduate student in archaeology and you haven't published a paper yet, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What is wrong with abstract social theory?

A lot of archaeologists like to use high-level, abstract social theory. I think that such theory is not only a waste of time, but harmful to archaeology. It is harmful because such theory does not explain variation and change in past human societies, and it diverts attention away from the kind of middle-range theory needed to explain past social developments in a causal framework. I am NOT talking about Binford's concept of middle-range theory; I refer instead to the standard social-science meaning as described by Robert Merton). See Smith (2011) for discussion.

Here is a passage from Smith (2011):

“High-level theoretical schemes describe how the social world works on a very abstract, philosophical level, and as a result their utility in the analysis of particular empirical cases is rather limited (Ellen, 2010). In the words of [sociologist C. Wright] Mills, grand theory is “so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts” Mills, 1959:33). In their empirical studies, archaeologists who enjoy high-level theory typically cite such authors in their introductions, and perhaps again in their conclusions, but rarely during the course of their analyses of data"

Abstract social theory, "grand theory" in Mills's terms, is fine for archaeology IF:
  • If one conceives archaeology as more in the humanities than the sciences.
  • If one is and idealist and not a materialist.
  • If one is only interested in particular sites/cultures/regions, but not interested in comparisons with broader spatial and social contexts.
  • If one is not concerned with creating a body of reliable empirical knowledge about the past.
  • If one has no concern for causality and explanation of past social patterns and changes.
  • If one thinks that archaeology constitutes the total relevant scholarly universe, and thus one is not interested in other disciplines.
  • If one doesn’t care whether scholars in other social science disciplines find archaeological data useful or not.
  • If one thinks that archaeological findings have no relevance to understanding, explaining, or solving the problems of the contemporary world.

 I've written a lot about this topic previously. Check out my urban theory paper (Smith 2010), or a paper due out in the SAA Archaeological Record next month (Smith 2015). Or look at some of my prior posts in the blog:

"How would you know if you are wrong?"

"How do archaeologists make arguments?"

"Why do I dislike archaeological theory?"

"Do grad students have to know social theory?"

"Problems with Bourdieu? We can help! Call now"

"Why don't archaeologists talk about causality, explanation, and epistemology?"

"Theory, theory theory. What do we mean by theory?"

Ellen, Roy
    2010    Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:387-404.

Mills, C. Wright
    1959    The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.

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 (in press).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

An article that isn't very memorable


I think I fired off the following post to hastily. I took the time to actually read/skim the paper in question, and its really not too bad! In fact, I think it does a good job in synthesizing quite a bit of material on state formation in Postclassic Mesoamerica. So I have posted the paper in case anyone is interested.

I'll leave the post unchanged below. I think it points out an issue about scholarship and publishing that doesn't get discussed too much: the emotional side. I am emotionally invested in my research and publishing. I am a scholar. This is what I do, and I have strong emotions connected with my publications. Most of these are positive. But sometimes when there are unpleasant experiences associated with writing or producing a written work, I end up with a vague negative feeling about that work. In the present case, an unpleasant experience with the edited volume (which tapped into long-standing resentments about how Old World scholars ignore the New World), led me to almost forget about a paper I wrote just a couple of years ago. Hence the post below.

Having a strong emotional investment in one's research is usually a positive thing. It spurs one on, keeps one interested and working, even when rewards are small and obstacles are large. But such emotion can also be a negative force, if a scholar gets so strongly invested in a particular idea or interpretation, a pet theory, that he or she is willing to cut corners and even commit academic fraud to support the notion. Just see the blog Retraction Watch for some of the fraud that goes on in the sciences. So as scholars we need to be constantly vigilant to not let our biases or emotions get in the way of our scholarship.  Well, enough rambling. Here is the initial post:

.      We've all seen papers that don't seem interesting or useful. They look boring and superfluous, and you don't want to read them. I have better things to do!  I just came across such a paper, a book chapter saved as a pdf on my server. I looked at it and tried to figure out why this was published and why I should care. The odd thing is, I am the author! I read the title of the paper and thought, "Yes, this is something I might have written." So I paged through and tried to remember writing this paper. I figured it must be 10 or 15 years old, and that's why I had forgotten. But then I looked it up in my  Endnote file, and found that it was published in 2015! Oh yes, now I recall.

Here is the paper:

Smith, Michael E.
2015    Mesoamerican State Formation in the Postclassic Period. In Expanding Webs of Exchange and Conquest, 500 CE - 1500 CE, edited by Benjamin Kedar and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, pp. 598-624. Cambridge History of the World, vol. 5. Cambridge University Press, New York.

I tend to black out negative experiences. I don't remember them as well as more positive experiences, and I think this is probably a normal psychological strategy. When I was invited to contribute to this work, I was honored, because historian William McNeil was involved. He is a big shot in the field of world history, and the author of one of my favorite books of comparative history, Plagues and Peoples. The volumes are organized by time period. Each volume has one or more prominent editors, and each sponsored a conference to get the authors together. Norman Yoffee edited an earlier volume, which had a bunch of chapters on early cities. He had good authors (many archaeologists), and he did some innovative things with his conference and volume structure. I am jealous of the authors in that volume!

I was not familiar with most of the authors in my volume, all historians. But when paper drafts were circulated, I was appalled. A number of the chapters were syntheses of themes that were supposed to cover the entire world for the target period (topics like education, migrations, demography, gender, courtly culture, and the like). The authors were European historians who either ignored the New World entirely, or else wrote mostly about the Old World with some bad coverage of the New World thrown in. (This seems par for the course in many textbooks in "global history" or "world history") One paper draft had silly, inaccurate, and demeaning descriptions of a New World culture, and the main cited sources were elementary school curriculum materials posted online! I am still astounded that a professional scholar could even think that such a source was acceptable for a publication (particularly when there is in fact a published literature on the topic in question among New World societies in that time period).

I fired off a letter of complaint to the editors, and threatened to withdraw my paper if they couldn't do better than that. Perhaps I should have followed through. When I was invited to their conference, in a nice foreign city I wanted to visit, I turned down the invitation. These were not people I wanted to hang out with. I went ahead with my chapter, and then the book came out I saw that at least the worst problems in the comparative chapters had been fixed. I guess I had my chapter scanned (it turns out it was only a month or so ago), and now I am wondering if it is worth posting online with my other publications.

I should probably read the paper and decide whether to post it or not. My hope is that the chapter is not too bad, and that my negative associations have to do with the volume itself, with the early chapter drafts I saw, with my reservations about "world history," (see prior posts here,   here,   and here) and with my jealousy for not being in Norm Yoffee's volume. Maybe it will turn out to be a memorable paper after all.

Monday, July 13, 2015 takes a step backward

I have been using increasingly. I now post all of my current papers there, and sometimes for displacement activity I'll take a few minutes to post some older papers. There are more and more people on the service, and it has turned into a very useful resource. A few years ago I posted,   'How useful is" My evaluation then was generally positive, with a few negative features. Since then, they have fixed a couple of the negative features, and others don't seem quite so serious now.

It would be useful if all academics should set up a page on I always urge students to set up their own page; its a good way to become an active part of a wider professional and intellectual community, to make yourself known, and to get access to current research. I won't urge colleagues to use the service, though. Archaeologists can be rather ornery people, and in my experience if you preach to them they will either ignore you or perhaps do the opposite.

But there is one HIGHLY NEGATIVE FEATURE on Linked co-authors. You post a paper, and then invite your co-authors to link to it. Then the paper is listed with the various coauthors (and their logo and links) on your page. Sounds great doesn't it? The problem is that if your co-authors are NOT members of Academia,edu, then they won't be listed! You can list them in your own custom metadata on the paper, and of course they are listed on the paper itself. But it means that the basic listing for the paper omits authors.
  • The listing is incorrect.
  • It is unscholarly.
  • It violates professional practice, and
  • It violates scholarly ethics

Consider an imaginary paper:

"The nugatory puff as a cultural imaginary" by Foucault, Derrida, and Latour.

If only two of these authors are on Academia, the paper will appear like this:

"The nugatory puff as a cultural imaginary" by Derrida and Latour

 (assuming Foucault is not a member of  I don't think Foucault will be too pleased, and authors Derrida and Latour should not be happy either, to have their paper inaccurately represented. Unless they are trying deliberately to cut Foucault out of the action........

Academia has at least thought about this, and you can add a non-member as a co-author and they will automatically invite the person to join. But I am not interested in harassing my colleagues to join a service. This is what ResearchGate does, and that is the main reason I resigned from that service.

If is going to portray itself as a scholarly resource, then they must adhere to professional standards and ethics in the way they portray papers.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

World's worst book review?

A scholarly book review should do three things: (1) Describe the contents of the book. What is the book about, and what does it cover?  (2) Describe the scholarly context of the book. Where does the book fit within the literature, how does it relate to other works in terms of data, theory, or methods, etc. and, (3) Evaluate the book critically. I've written a lot about book reviews in this blog; for an overview, see my earliest such post.

I have just read what may be the worst book review I have ever seen. I'll keep this anonymous to protect the guilty. Scholar A is reviewing an edited volume. In the first paragraph of the review, this person states that they will review here Scholar B's chapter on Topic C, "because as a lead editor, Scholar B's chapter may set the tone for much of the volume, and also because it is an archaeology I know." The review goes on to talk about this one chapter, with almost no mention of the other chapters. Amazing.

A review of one chapter in an edited volume is not a credible book review. But wait, there's more: the review fails to evaluate that one chapter critically. It describes the content of the chapter, and pays minimal attention to its context. But was this a good or a bad chapter? What about the rest of the book?

This inappropriate review casts doubt on the quality of the editing of book reviews in the journal. How did this get past the book review editor? I don't have to disguise the title of the journal, because I don't know it. I printed out the review a while ago, and the pages do not indicate the journal title. The headers, on both left and right pages, say "Book Reviews." I was all set to look up the name of the journal, but then thought better of it. I would feel obligated to complain to the book review editor, getting at least one colleague riled up and reinforcing my reputation as a busy-body critic with nothing better to do than hassle colleagues who do shoddy work.  (I've been this way since graduate school, when I criticized both a book reviewer and the editors of American Antiquity for what was an ethical lapse; I can't seem to help it.) If you check my old critique, be sure to read the responses that followed).

Given that there is a book review crisis in New World archaeology, it is irresponsible of the reviewer and the journal to waste valuable journal space on such a poor review. The space for book reviews in journals is limited; when I was a book review editor, I spent a lot of time agitating for a higher page count for reviews. This is valuable space. Scholars have a responsibility for using it wisely. There is  no excuse for writing such a bad review, and no excuse for publishing it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bad revisonist history: The postprocessualists invented household archaeology!

I was quite surprised recently to read that postprocessualists were responsible for developing the household archaeology approach. This is so wrong that I'm not sure where to start. I was reading William Fowler's introduction to a special section of the journal Ancient Mesoamerica (vol 25, no. 2, 2014, pp. 367-68). The section is called "Households make history in ancient Mesoamerica. Some of the articles are pretty good, and some are pretty bad.

After reviewing some aspects of postprocessual archaeology in an approving tone, Fowler states:
 "It should be clear by now why a true focus on households did not come into archaeology until the 1980's ushered in a concern with the individual, agency-structure, and practice. The emphasis on cultural evolution, complexity, and hierarchy in processual archaeology obscured the importance of the household and individual action." (p.368).

Problem 1: Chronology;  Household archaeology, with a "true focus on households," started before the 1980s. "Household archaeology" got its start in the 1970s. The Early Mesoamerican Village was published in 1976, describing work done in the early and mid-1970s (Flannery 1976). This was a highly empirical work, focusing on house form, household activities, and the integration of households into communities. (A personal note: this book, which I read during fieldschool at Cahokia in 1976, had the greatest influence on my research and career of anything I've ever read).  By 1980 research around the world was focusing on the house and household as units of analysis. The first major self-conscious synthesis of "household archaeology" as a distinctive approach was published in 1982 (Wilk & Rathje 1982), and by 1983 major syntheses of Mesoamerican household archaeology were appearing (e.g., Rathje 1983, Tourtellot 1983). By 1988, Mesoamerican household archaeology had arrived (Wilk & Ashmore 1988), but still with little influence from postprocessual archaeology.

Problem 2: Intellectual context of early household archaeology. These early studies in household archaeology rarely cited Hodder and cannot by any means be labelled as "postprocessualist" approaches. Postprocessualists typically offer a simplistic view of the theoretical landscape of archaeology, suggesting that strict Binfordian processualism was the only major alternative to postprocessualist thought. This seems to be Fowler's position. But the early household archaeology did not fall into either the processualist or the postprocessualist camps. The major theoretical inpetus came from the rational-choice models of households that were common in the social sciences and social history in the 1980s. The major theoretical and empirical synthesis of this approach was the volume Households: Comparative and Historical Studies of the Domestic Group (Netting, Wilk & Arnould 1984). Robert Mc. Netting's comparative and theoretical work on households was particularly influential among the early household archaeologists. He participated in a number of archaeological conferences in the late 1970s, which was one reason his approach to households was so influential in archaeology (Netting 1977, 1982). Richard Wilk was also very important, since his archaeological background helped bridge the gap between archaeology and the realm of theoretical and comparative household studies. Netting and Wilk cannot be placed into either the processual or postprocessual camp, and neither can the early household archaeology approach.

Hodder didn't publish Symbols in Action until 1982, and his major statement of postprocessual archaeology appeared in 1985. The early household archaeology was able to free itself from the constraints of processual archaeology by adopting the rational-choice theoretical approach of Netting, Wilk and others. But its practitioners had little or  nothing to do with postprocessualist archaeology.

I'm not sure just when postprocessualist household archaeology got started. The earliest clear example in my database are some papers in Samson (1990). But since I don't consider postprocessual archaeology to be rigorous or useful, it is seriously underrepresented in my Endnote file. But in the case of the origins of household archaeology, you don't have to be a rabid anti-postprocessualist / anti-poststructuralist / anti-postmodernist like me to acknowledge that household archaeology developed and grew into a major archaeological topic without any influence from those approaches.

And if you really think that processual and postprocessual are the major theoretical alternatives in archaeology (as Fowler seems to think, and as Gillespie 2013:307 argues), then please read some works by Richard Blanton, or check my urban theory paper, or just read some social science literature outside of anthropology or archaeology.


Flannery, Kent V. (editor)  (1976)  The Early Mesoamerican Village. Academic Press, New York.

Gillespie, Susan D.  (2013)  Early monumentality in North America: another comparative perspective for Africa. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48(2):301-314.

Hodder, Ian  (1982)  Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hodder, Ian  (1985)  Postprocessual Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 8:1-26.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1977)  Maya Subsistence: Mythologist, Analogies, Possibilities. In The Origins of Maya Civilization, edited by Richard E. W. Adams, pp. 299-334. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Netting, Robert McC.  (1982)  Some Home Truths on Household Size and Wealth. American Behavioral Scientist 25:641-662.

Netting, Robert McC., Richard R. Wilk and Eric J. Arnould (editors)  (1984)  Households: Comparative and Historical Studies of the Domestic Group. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Rathje, William L.  (1983)  To the Salt of the Earth: Some Comments on Household Archaeology Among the Maya. In Prehistoric Settlement Patterns: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Evon Z. Vogt and Richard M. Leventhal, pp. 23-34. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Samson, Ross (editor)  (1990)  The Social Archaeology of Houses. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Tourtellot, Gair  (1983)  An Assessment of Classic Maya Household Composition. In Prehistoric Settlement Patterns: Essays in Honor Gordon R. Willey, edited by Evon Z. Vogt and Richard M.
Leventhal, pp. 35-54. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Wilk, Richard R. and Wendy Ashmore (editors)  (1988)  Household and Community in the Mesoamerican Past. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Wilk, Richard R. and William L. Rathje (editors)  (1982)  Archaeology of the Household: Building a Prehistory of Domestic Life. Special Issue of American Behavioral Scientist vol. 25 (6).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Archaeological concepts of community confront urban realities today

Yesterday I spent my Saturday at a meeting of the Phoenix organization, "Neighborhoods Connect." The goal was to gather together neighborhood organizers and others interested in improving social life in Phoenix neighborhoods, to share experiences and examples of successful practices. The impetus for this first stakeholders meeting was to increase civic participation within the city of Phoenix. The State of Arizona has low levels of civic participation compared to other states, and the Neighborhoods Connect initiative grew out of several organizations  to improve civic participation, including "The Arizona We Want", and the Center for the Future of Arizona. Of particular concern to the neighborhoods program is a recent Pew poll finding that only 12% of the people of Arizona believe that the people in their community care about one another.

The organizer of Neighborhoods Connect, Susan Edwards, roped me into the organizing committee after reading some of the posts on my urban blog about neighborhoods and communities (one exampleanother example). My archaeological knowledge of ancient neighborhoods didn't contribute much to this program, but my broader knowledge of the social scientific study of urban neighborhoods turned out to be very useful to the group at a few key points in the planning process. In particular, I circulated a paper by John McKnight, which helped the group articulate their goals.   (McKnight, John   2013   Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide. National Civic Review 102(3): 22-24). For more information on McKnight, see his website.

During a lull in the meeting yesterday, I reflected on how this effort related to archaeological research on neighborhoods and communities. This was a very practical group of people: neighborhood organizers, police officers, people from key institutions (churches, schools, hospitals, the Mayor's office), an explorer post, a bunch of energetic junior-high kids form the Phoenix Police Department's "Wake-Up" program, a couple of city officials, and a few academics from ASU. These people want to get more city residents to know and interact with their neighbors, which will help reduce crime, increase civic participation, and improve the quality of life in the city.

It occurred to me that the definition of "community" that I favor, and one used by many archaeologists in Southwest archaeology, related very well to the activities and goals of Neighborhoods Connect. This concept focuses on the interaction among people as the key defining features of social communities. In the words of Bowles and Gintis:

“By community we mean a group of people who interact directly, frequently and in multi-faceted ways. People who work together are usually communities in this sense, as are some neighbourhoods, groups of friends, professional and business networks, gangs, and sports leagues. The list suggests that connection, not affection, is the defining characteristic of a community. Whether one is born into a community or one entered by choice, there are normally significant costs to moving from one to another.” (p.F420)

Then I considered an alternative definition of community as promoted by interpretivist archaeologists: "the community as a social constituted institution”(Yaeger and Canuto 2000). In this approach, the focus is:

"on the constitution of past social groups through dialogic relations to other subjects as well as the material world. In this approach, community is a social group with an explicit discursive identity that develops through participation in meaningful practices, at meaningful places, and using meaningful objects.” (Canuto & Yaeger 2012:702).

The Bowles and Gintis definition is understandable and useful to the people struggling to improve Phoenix neighborhoods. My participation included some discussion of their concept. On the other hand, I doubt that the Canuto and Yaeger concept would have any resonance at all. In fact, I can't imagine even saying those words in such a gathering, much less trying to explain to people what the definition might mean. Part of the problem is writing and semantics, the contrast between plain and clear scholarly writing (Bowles and Gintis) and postmodern obfuscatory prose. But part of the problem is conceptual. The 150 participants yesterday agreed that social interaction is THE key attribute of successful neighborhoods, and there was little emphasis on neighborhood or community identity or meaning.

While community activism in a contemporary city is a very different enterprise form trying to make social sense of archaeological remains, I believe strongly that our archaeological concepts and research should transcend the specific research setting of our fieldwork. If a definition of community or neighborhood makes little sense in the modern world,  why should we expect it to make sense for the distant past? I explore some of these issues of defining community in Smith (n.d.).

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis
2002    Social Capital and Community Governance. The Economic Journal 112 (483): F419-F436.

Canuto, Marcello A. and Jason Yaeger
2012    Communities in Ancient Mesoamerica. In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher Pool, pp. 697-707. Oxford University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
n.d.    Quality of Life and Prosperity in Ancient Households and Communities. In The Oxford Handbook of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology (book in preparation), edited by Christian Isendahl and Daryl Stump. Oxford University Press, New York.

Yaeger, Jason and Marcello A. Canuto
2000    Introducing an Archaeology of Communities. In The Archaeology of Communities, edited by Marcello A. Canuto and Jason Yaeger, pp. 1-15. Routledge, New York.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Is archaeology relevant? Is "relevance" irrelevant?

The topic of relevance seems to be cropping up more frequently in archaeology. Our findings from the past are claimed to be relevant to contemporary concerns. I have no quibble with this viewpoint (Smith 2010), and indeed, my urban blog, Wide Urban World, is based on this premise. But the way the topic of relevance is used by most archaeologists today seems off the mark. The typical format is to assert, with little context or warrant, that some particular archaeological findings are relevant to some modern concern. This is usually done in an archaeology or anthropology journal, or other disciplinary work, in places that guarantee it will NOT to be seen by anyone outside of our field. As a result, such claims of relevance are irrelevant. If there is virtually no chance that policy-makers and politicians will read these claims, and even if someone in the policy world were to read our journals, the chances that our claims of relevance would be acted upon are nil. In this sense, claims of "relevance" are irrelevant.

I am prompted to write this after seeing a few recent examples of such irrelevant relevance claims. For example, the recently released American Anthropological Association's "AAA Statement on Humanity and Climate Change" includes this text:

"6. The archaeological record reveals diverse human adaptations and innovations to climate stresses occurring over millennia, providing evidence that is relevant to contemporary human experience" (emphasis in original). 

And then yesterday I read a review of a book about ancient markets and commercial economies that suggested that the book is relevant to the recent economic turndown. The review stated that "this book could easily be subtitled 'Ancient Widsom for Wall Street'." Incredible. Some Wall Street trader is going to read an archaeology book about ancient non-capitalist economies and act on what he or she learns. Give me a break. This is a pipe dream.

I gave a talk last fall at a workshop of the iHOPE-Maya group. The work of that group is described in Chase and Scarborough (2014); my talk is Smith (2014). I do not have a written version of the talk. The following is a brief outline of my talk.

To start, comparative analysis is hard (Smith 2012a), and it is particularly difficult to compare ancient and modern social phenomena when archaeologists have yet to produce reliable, synthetic, quantifiable findings about the past (Smith 2010). So, what is needed to claim that a particular archaeological finding is "relevant" (in a useful and realistic way) to some modern concern?

First, we need a good scientific basis for the archaeological find. That is, we need an explicit, evidence-based conclusion that most reasonable people will accept as correct. Abstract theory and speculation are not helpful. They may be useful to some people, in some contexts, but if you want someone to pay attention to an empirical finding, it needs to be a strongly-supported scientific conclusion. My point in Smith (2010) was that for ancient cities, we so far have few such conclusions that extend beyond a single city. It is easy to say, "At Teotihuacan, they did such-and-such," but much harder to say that "at all large ancient Mesoamerican cities, they did such-and-such."

Second, someone has to take up the archaeological claim and use it for some purpose: a policy-maker, a journalist, or another scientist. This is the tough part. These folks are just not going to read our technical literature and come up with useful findings. Some journalists do engage with archaeologists, but they are more likely to get things wrong than to report accurately on a find and its scientific significance. There is a scholarly literature on the relationship between social sciences and policy, and I draw on that literature here.

van Langenhove (2011) identifies several levels of impact on policy makers:
  1. Policy makers need to be aware of the new knowledge
  2. They need to pay attention to the new knowledge
  3. They need to form opinions/ attitudes about the knowledge
  4. They need to initiate actions based on that knowledge

Since policy makers are not going to read our journals, and few of us have the skills or fortitude to make our results known in the realm of policy, how might these processes of impact work? A major concept is translation: how technical findings get translated into simple terms that policy-markers can understand (Tseng 2012).  Most commonly in the social sciences, this is through intermediaries: entrepreneurs, advocacy groups, think tanks, and media consultants. But these things just don't exist for archaeology. The SAA and AIA do a very limited job in this arena. Most such work is actually done by university public relations offices, and they do a terrible job.

A big topic in the social science policy realm is "evidence-based policy" (e.g., Cherney and Head 2011, Bogenschneider and Corbett 2010). Empirical studies show that most policy is made with little or no consideration of the relevant social-science research. Politicians drafting laws about school lunch programs pay no attention at all to research on those programs. When the California legislature drafted a law about the purported relationship between video games and teen violence, they ignored the relevant research and let themselves be guided by biased promoters with inaccurate data. This is a fascinating case (Ferguson 2013); it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended up making a decision on which scientific evidence was valid and which was not (something the California legislature evidently had trouble with).

In a study of rural how policy gets made in rural  municipalities in Canada, Reimer and Brett (2013) found that:

“The results indicate that the respondents [local government officials] seldom provided justification for their claims and when they did, scientific evidence was infrequently used. Instead, the respondents most often used examples from their personal experience or public meetings as support [for their policy decisions]."

I recall seeing an estimate that of all the considerations that go into creating a piece of policy, the contribution of relevant evidence is almost always under 5%. Given these (and other) findings from research on social science policy, I see the chances of archaeological results being taken up and acted on by policy makers as just about nonexistent.

I have a different strategy. If social science research is going to be accommodated at all in the policy world, it is going to come from the best known specialists, not from archaeologists. It is going to come from the broader domain of knowledge about some phenomenon (urbanism, economics, demography, sustainability, whatever), rather than the limited domain of archaeological knowledge. I think archaeologists will advance farther in getting out our message beyond archaeology by trying to contribute to these broader domains. This has two advantages. First, we can help scholars create more realistic and better models of, say, urban neighborhoods, by expanding the domain beyond contemporary western cities. Second, this strategy can produce indirect influences on policy.

On the first front, I have been engaged in exercises of this sort for a while now, publishing in journals and attending conferences in other disciplines. There is a downside, of course. The time I spend in learning about these other disciplines is time I am not spending on my own Mesoamerican research. I published what I consider a major paper on ancient urban planning (Smith 2007), that is rather poorly cited by archaeologists because it is in a strange journal (Journal of Planning History). But these efforts have had some payoff in broadening perspectives on urbanism among some scholars in other disciplines.

On the second front, no policy maker is going to pay attention to my research on ancient urban neighborhoods, but they may very well pay attention to the work of people like Robert Sampson or Robert Chaskin.  These are two of the top researchers on neighborhood issues in contemporary cities, and both have been involved in policy work. If I can convince people like Sampson or Chaskin that archaeological research on neighborhoods is important and has something to say, that knowledge can become incorporated into their personal scholarly views, and perhaps have a policy impact (Smith 2012b). I do know that Sampson has taken an interest in ancient neighborhoods and has cited me, which is an encouraging first step.

Sorry to go on at such length. But rather than make unwarranted and decontextualized claims for the relevance of archaeological findings, I think we should be trying to refine our data, methods, and findings, and then we should promote them to scholars in other disciplines. If you think archaeology is "relevant" to some contemporary concern, then do the work needed to generate reliable knowledge. Translate it into nontechnical terms, and get it out to other scholars. Publish in non-archaeology journals. Contact other scholars and make your point. Put your money where your mouth is. Telling other archaeologists that you think your work is "relevant" may make you feel good, but it doesn't accomplish very much in the real world.


Bogenschneider, Karen and Thomas J. Corbett  (2010)  Evidence-Based Policymaking: Insights from Policy-Minded Researchers and Research-Minded Policymakers. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Chase, Arlen F. and Vernon L. Scarborough (editors)  (2014)  The Resilience and Vulnerabilityof Ancient Landscapes: Transforming Maya Archaeology through iHOPE. Archeological Papers vol. 24. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC.

Cherney, Adrian and Brian W. Head  (2011)  Evidence Based Policy and Practice: Key Challenges for Improvement. Australian Journal of Social Issues 45(4):509-526.

Ferguson, Christopher J.  (2013)  Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the Scientific Community in the Wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist 68(2):57-74.

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.

Reimer, Bill and Matthew Brett  (2013)  Scientific Knowledge and Rural Policy: A Long-distant Relationship. Sociologia Ruralis 53(3):272-290.

Smith, Michael E.  (2007)  Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

  (2010)  Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

. (editor)  (2012a)  The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, New York.

  (2012b)  The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

  (2014)  Can Archaeologists Make their Results Useful in the Modern World? Paper presented at the iHOPE Maya working group, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Tseng, Vivian  (2012)  The Uses of Research in Policy and Practice. Social Policy Report 26(1):1-22.

Van Langenhove, Luk  (2011)  Social Sciences and Policy Impact: The Case for a Participatory Approach. In Social Science and Policy Challenges - Democracy, Values and Capacities, edited by Giorgios Papanagnou, pp. 95-111. UNESCO, Paris.