Post-processualism

Discussions unearthing human history including cultural anthropology, linguistics, etc.

Post-processualism

Postby psionic11 on November 19th, 2013, 2:24 pm 

In response to the discussion regarding the informal use of the word "theory" and the mention of processualist and post-processional archaeological schools of thought, I did some quick research on Wikipedia. These are my notes below:

Processualism
-- supersedes culture-historical archaeology (an old-school (and debunked) nationalist political agenda to reduce modern nation-states merely to ancient ethnic links)
-- cultural evolutionists (long-term, continuous changes in sociology and culture itself)
-- objective positivists
-- scientific method, hypothesis
-- material artifacts


Post-processualism
-- emphasis on the subjective interpretation of the archaeologist "submerged" in the field
-- processualism seen as limiting, biased, politically irresponsible
-- processualism seen as endorsing social injustice; racism
-- argue for human agency (individual will) vs the societal automatons produced by processualist views
-- society is conflict-driven

Bruce Trigger identified post-processualism's three main influences:
-- blending/reconciling of Marxism with structuralism (cultural elements viewed as part of a larger whole or structure)
-- postmodernism, which "emphasized the subjective nature of knowledge and embraced extreme relativism and idealism"
-- New cultural anthropology: "denounced studies of cultural evolution as being ethnocentric and intellectually and morally untenable in a multicultural, post-colonial environment."

American archaeology works with both schools concurrently.

United Kingdom archaeology (sometimes lumped under "history") operates assuming that processualism and post-processualism are separate, opposing schools of thought.

Elsewhere, post-processualism has made less of an impact.

My personal assessment is that the objective scientist can be informed by subjective immersion, if only to reach a perspective not immediately apparent via objective analysis alone. Criticisms of ethnocentricity are valid; however, this does not rule out the possible validity of provable, coherent ethnocentric hypotheses. Moreover, the claims by post-processualists -- 1) that knowledge is inherently subjective, 2) that the human freewill is not to be ignored, and 3) that the objective positivism of processualists are somehow degrading to the human spirit -- all these claims yet do not justify abandoning the scientific method.

Granted, elitism in scientific circles should raise red flags. But progress is made evaluating the data, forming coherent and testable hypotheses, and finally formulating predictive and comprehensive theories. Progress helps humanity. Political agendas, not so much.

/jest mode on

Perhaps post-processualists should just call themselves sociologists instead. Leave objective analysis of material evidence and subsequent theorizing to the archaeologists. Studying the origin of mankind is within the domain of processualism; the future quandaries of man may wander more down the post-processual alleys...

/jest mode off
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on November 19th, 2013, 9:35 pm 

Well you are definitely in an area that I have spent more time thinking about since the 70s than sleeping. I suppose I could recommend a few dozen books on the topic as a starter. I think most now (including me) might call themselves as being into processualism-plus but sometimes I also call myself a historical processualist (following Pauketat) but I also dabble into structuralism, cognitive theory, agency theory, etc. Suffice to say I am not sure your Wiki notes would hold up long. Let me give you an example from off the top of my head. Levi-Strauss came up with structuralism as a theoretical umbrella that subsumes Marxism. Think about it - one key component of Marx's ideas is that the economy, market forces, etc., are what drives or is an over-riding whole or structure for our "western" culture (which would be equally true whether you are on the political/economic left or right - this is from his earlier analytical writings such as Das Kapital).

But of course, there can be other over-riding structures in other cultures. (And by the way, Levi-Strauss's structures writ small would be memes writ large.) "Classical" Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory (in both biology and archaeology where it is actually very robustly developed) could be viewed as a kind of subset of Marxism since of course NDT is ultimately economic in rationalization (i.e., something that is more fit is able to harness more energy (i.e., eat better) and reproduce more, not to mention that "survival of the fittest", etc., was one of those things originated by Spencer that was ultimately all about industrial economics. In fact, there was a fascinating exchange of Darwin's ideas between Marx, Herbert Spencer and Lewis henry Morgan, a New York industrialist (who was also the author of an extremely important ethnography of the New York Iroquois) that led to the first theories about the evolution of cultures from all three. But I digress).

But pure Darwinian theory in archaeology, while being very robustly developed in some ways, is also hampered by some of the same problems Darwin faced. We can see that, to at least some degree, some human traits may be weaned out by selective factors. Hence the interest in environmental factors leading to cultural ecology, technological design, etc. But while we can definitely see how some cultural traits or whole cultures can evolve and some can be selected against (to the point of being weeded out as it were), etc., one problem that can be cited is where does variation come from in the first place? I actually have a paper published in a pretty good journal opining that "agency theory" (a la Giddens and Bordieu) can help out here in that part of agency theory is that there are not really solid "cultural" structures but merely people with imperfect knowledge and the lack of solid mental templates, etc., can act to create the kinds of behavioural variation that then gives selection something to work on.

Yeah, there can be lots to play with here.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby psionic11 on November 21st, 2013, 7:24 pm 

Oh yes, much to play with. There are so many ideas presented here, both old and new. I would love to read your paper on agency theory if you'd like.

I just finished reading a chapter on anthropology's view on the definition of and origins of culture. When Levi-Strauss' structuralism came up, I recalled this post and my notes above and so was ready to place it into context. I can see how structuralism would subsume Marxism, as both argue for a general universal "container" which drives or guides cultural evolution.

What I find fascinating is the comparison of NDT to economics. I did read Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene, and vaguely recall him using some economic and game theory models to explain genetic drift. It makes sense to see the analogies in economic agents and gene flow. But as you point out, one must be a bit cautious attributing the whole kit and caboodle of an economic game where all agents act rationally for maximum gain. This assumption minimizes variation, which contradicts what is apparent in the real world. In fact, I see a tendency already in my anthropology text for "theories" that not only come and go, but also tend toward an all-or-nothing approach. Only as theory matures past its initial stages -- whether as a rebellion to the previous school of thought or as a realization of an inherent political/ethnic/cultural bias -- does that theorizing finally become more heterogeneous rather than homogeneous. Agents acting totally rational is homogeneous thinking. It's neat and tidy, but it's not accurate. Complex life is full of irrationality, deviation, accident, and free will.

Another specific example: the initial theories regarding the origin of human nature. One school of thought argues that it stems mostly from innate biological tendencies. Another school counters saying that it is primarily environmental, meaning social or cultural in origin. Both have plenty of examples to support their viewpoint, so which is correct? Through dialectical synthesis (or common sense), we arrive at the conclusion that human nature is formed from *both* biology and environment -- the interactionist perspective. Well, duh. Hopefully the schools of thought pre-dating the interactionist view were short-lived, as the anthropologists realized the error of their ways, lol...
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on November 24th, 2013, 9:33 pm 

psionic11 wrote:What I find fascinating is the comparison of NDT to economics. I did read Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene, and vaguely recall him using some economic and game theory models to explain genetic drift. It makes sense to see the analogies in economic agents and gene flow.


It is also worth pointing out that one of Darwin's key influences was Malthus. And that Darwin's voyages on the Beagle were a part of mapping and taking stock of the empire. BTW, ever notice that "The Selfish Gene" has almost nothing to say about the fossil evidence of evolution? Thats was one of the things I never liked about Dawkins - he never really shows any knowledge of the intricacies of the fossil evidence of evolution. Gould is better.

psionic11 wrote:the initial theories regarding the origin of human nature. One school of thought argues that it stems mostly from innate biological tendencies. Another school counters saying that it is primarily environmental, meaning social or cultural in origin.


Yes, earlier simplistic views of the environment, even when dealing with humans alone, considered the environment to be only the weather, amount of consumable biomass, etc. But of course we humans (actually like other animals) create our own environments and those environments are often very symbolic. After all, many people's genetic fitness is heavily dependent upon which god they worship, what kind of electronic numbers appear on their electronic bank statements, etc. Its been a long time since chest beating alone was good enough.

Post-processualism, though, ultimately has mostly been about a wide variety of critiques of processualism and it is debatable whether there can be a coherent research program attributed to the posties. The earliest critiques actually revolved around the role of inductive logic as the earliest processualists maintained, following Hempel, the hypothetical-deductive approach was the only valid scientific approach. But of course there were other important critiques and Hodder's papers on symbols was definitely a key post-processualist critique. Detailed studies on depositional and postdepositional processes impacting artifacts (including where they are found, how they are found, decay, etc.) have also been hugely important as critiques of the classic first generation studies by Longacre, Plog, etc.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby AsmartBataev on December 4th, 2014, 1:19 am 

Postprocessual Archaeology is based on the ideological framework of postmodernism. Postprocessualism, as a movement in archaeology, is a movement only in the loosest sense of the word. While Processual archaeologists had, if not a "codified" theory to unify them, then at least a common overall goal and spirit that drove them: scientific archaeology. Conversely, Postprocessual contains ideologies as diverse as Neo-Marxism, feminist archaeology, cognitive archaeology and contextual archaeology. These viewpoints are all very different. As a group, they are only unified by their critique of Processualism, which they consider a positivist outlook on culture.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on December 4th, 2014, 7:28 am 

AsmartBataev wrote:Postprocessual Archaeology is based on the ideological framework of postmodernism. Postprocessualism, as a movement in archaeology, is a movement only in the loosest sense of the word. While Processual archaeologists had, if not a "codified" theory to unify them, then at least a common overall goal and spirit that drove them: scientific archaeology. Conversely, Postprocessual contains ideologies as diverse as Neo-Marxism, feminist archaeology, cognitive archaeology and contextual archaeology. These viewpoints are all very different. As a group, they are only unified by their critique of Processualism, which they consider a positivist outlook on culture.


All quite true. I suppose the biggest problem with processualist archaeology was that the view of science was too narrow in many ways. I don't know how post-processualist I really am. I tend to describe myself (although this doesn't really come up as much as it did 20-30 years ago) as a historical processualist a la Pauketat but freely adopt cognitive or structuralist approaches even very soft Marxist perspectives while definitely using scientific methods including rigorous testing of hypotheses as I go. Spending a lot of time exploring the different theoretical and philosophical perspectives is or can be a useful exercise, particularly early in your career and professional development but eventually you have to get down and apply this stuff to the study of the past. Truth be told, these days I have too much archaeology to do to spend much time thinking about the theory.

P.S. I would add that right now I am working in an area where the basic outline of the culture-history is not well known because so little work has ever been done so, after reviewing the OP, I definitely don't think even the idea of processualism superseding culture-history is questionable. But then the definition of culture-history given in the OP is questionable.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby wolfhnd on December 4th, 2014, 12:28 pm 

Why wouldn't it be sufficient for Archaeologist to simply publish their findings and leave the social theory to others?

You would expect archaeologist to be familiar with social theories and their own theories undoubtedly produces a paradigm they need to guard against. Beyond that it seems sufficient to simply present the data and let the reader come to their own conclusions.

I would think that social theories such as Marxism and Capitalism would be a bit simplistic in the 21st century. Simplistic in the since that no examples of either system have every existed. Cultures contain a multitude of elements that correspond well to a variety of ideologies but no ideology is likely to capture the true diversity and dynamic nature of cultures. Social theories always seem superimposed on cultures and attempts to impose them on a culture invariably fail. As an analogy I don't think that biologist rely very heavily on life theory to go about their business. Evolutionary and other theories may be useful to biologist but almost never definitively explain a cause and effect relationship.

This is not a criticisms as much as an expression of puzzlement.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on December 4th, 2014, 4:35 pm 

Wow. Talk about potential to be a whole bunch of exploding cans of worms. Although a good set of questions, I can't even begin to cover some of the topics raised here so the best I can do is try to give some idea of the scope of the topics raised here:

wolfhnd wrote:Why wouldn't it be sufficient for Archaeologist to simply publish their findings...


What findings? Rhetorically, if I were to publish the first scholarly account of the Egyptian pyramids, should I begin with several hundred measurements of each and every one of the stone blocks used in the construction to test hypotheses about how these were cut? In fact, I don't think such detailed data has ever been gathered. Why not? Would you read such a report if it existed? Probably not - too boring unless you had a particular interest in that kind of topic but I can't see why you would have such an interest unless you were operating on some kind of a priori interest. One bottom line is that there are very, very many other questions of prior interest such as whether these big geometric things are natural or human made? If the latter, why would people build such things? Are they really structures for burials given that in fact so few have human bodies in them (side note - most were looted long ago)? Again, even raising questions like these have their origins in some kinds of social theories. For a long time many people have believed the pyramids have some kind of supernatural or mystical powers, might have been built using strange, even alien technologies. Is there any evidence? (I would say no and instead wonder what kinds of social theory would help me understand why people want or need to believe such things.)

The processualism of the 1960's operated under a set of social theories that included a belief that there were laws of human nature or behaviour that could be found by examining the archaeological record (beyond, that is, what one archaeologist has called "Mickey Mouse laws" like gravity works on stone tools too and that people, like animals, need to eat). Part of the post-processualist critique included arguing that there were and are no laws of human nature, etc. and the belief in such things (following Compte) is itself a spatially and temporally limited kind of social theory (I buy because I don't believe in laws of human nature beyond the mickey mouse ones or what could be called law-like statistical generalizations).

wolfhnd wrote:...and leave the social theory to others?


Archaeologists like me, even when not personally working at developing social theory (at the moment at least - well perhaps not enough), would argue that archaeology has much to offer here because it is only archaeology that can really look at people outside the confines of the historical (i.e., written) record. Only state level societies developed a written record. Although some state level societies made (ethno)historical records of other groups (such as missionary accounts or even those of social-cultural anthropologists or ethnographers, etc.), we don't really know to what extent these written records would have been biased by the state-level world view of the recorder and to what extent the people (e.g., hunter-gtherers) being written about might have been changed through contact with more complex societies. We can't say, for example, that we have any pristine accounts of any of the First Nations of North America because all were impacted by European contact in some way before even the first missionary or explorer made their own (presumably biased) records beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries. So archaeologists, I would certainly argue, are the only people who can learn many things such as what a pristine hunter-gatherer was like before any were "contaminated" by contact with even tribal level societies. (Of course, another question for social theorists is why anyone might even care what a pristine hunter-gatherer was like.)
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on December 4th, 2014, 5:01 pm 

wolfhnd wrote:I would think that social theories such as Marxism and Capitalism would be a bit simplistic in the 21st century.


Hmmm. Well if I were to make a simplistic dichotomy, I would contrast capitalism with communism. I think Marx defined both and set them apart so I have some problems with that statement. But let me elaborate just a bit.

I described myself as a bit of a soft Marxist in my science and analysis but I would call myself a capitalist economically and politically. Marx talked a lot about the means of production. I study arrow heads among other things. These are material means of production. Sometimes the raw materials were traded, given or exchanged over long distances. Sometimes specialists made them, sometimes everyone made their own. Sometimes they were used in warfare and sometimes I would want to wonder why those people got into wars. Even at the most simplistic levels, all these kinds of questions were addressed by Marx so, as one revered past archaeologist put it, whether they know it or not, every archaeologist is to at least some degree a Marxist theorist.

Marx, by the way, was one of the very first to recognize that human cultures and societies really did and do evolve over time. In fact modern evolutionary theory is very much based on ideas about differential reproductive success which is/was based on the differential capture of energy and matter (food). Some of this predates Marx (e.g., Malthus) but could be thought of as common stimuli for Darwin and Marx but many of the early evolutionary theorists were very much readers and citers of Marx such as the very hard core scientific processualists of social-cultural evolution such as Julien Huxley and Leslie White were explicitly Marxist.

Marxist ideas are very much scientific and I would argue, central to science as well as archaeology and anthropology. Economics is often (and increasingly) argued to be central to determining political and ideological structures. Economics have driven our beliefs in freedom and wealth, I would argue have lessened our dependence on religious leaders and strongly determines what sciences we do (instead?) and how we judge success in science (could I call this an explanatory economy?). There are certainly plenty of hypotheses in that that could be tested scientifically but then why would I want to test them? That is a question for a social theorist.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby wolfhnd on December 4th, 2014, 6:37 pm 

"Marxist ideas are very much scientific and I would argue, central to science"

To me that is like saying Gregory Mendel's ideas are very much scientific and central to biology. Whatever theory of genetics Mendel may have had it was most likely wrong. That doesn't discredit his contribution to understanding genetic inheritance but nobody goes around quoting him outside of historical references.

Surely the social sciences have made sufficient progress that we don't need to reference Marx. Even if we do need Marx most social theories are so expansive that they explain nothing in the hope to explain everything. The social sciences have great utility in explaining the who, what, where, when but often the why is a bit of a stretch. My argument would be that knowing the what, where and when has the same correlative value in social science as they do in medicine. The why is nice but often elusive and unnecessary.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on December 4th, 2014, 8:25 pm 

Well, to fully answer this I would probably end up having to offer a rewrite of Bruce Trigger's History of Archaeological Thought, which I have read many times, and suffice to say is lengthy.

If I may try to boil it down in the context of this thread, processualists did try to adopt an explicitly scientific approach, which was positivism and unfortunately borrowed from the "hard" sciences (I even heard Lew Binford admit that was a mistake - the wrong model of science for many reasons). But two key points (and I agree with them) are that 1) archaeology and all the other social sciences should use scientific methods including insights from other relevant disciplines ranging from physics and chemistry to social theory. Since archaeology does deal with people who live and lived in social groups (and we might even be interested in when, where, how and why the social groups came about) that sometimes became bigger, more complexly organized, built bigger structures, cities, etc. (and sometimes did not). Thus some kind of social theory seems appropriate if not unavoidable. 2) All science and all observations, data, etc., are ultimately based on and biased by paradigms. This is inescapable but recognition may (I would say should if done well) help mitigate some of the problems that arise here. The processualists started the ball rolling here by directly arguing that it was necessary (why remains an interesting question) to be scientific and logical, etc., and so explore the premises, etc., upon which they built. That part of this, explicitly stated as such, was an attempt to discover universal laws of human nature turned out to be unfortunate but also moot.

Now I might also agree that reading Marx or knowing what he said may be no more important than knowing much about what Darwin or Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, etc. said. Sure, in terms of much of modern science, these guys are all out of date. But look around this web site. People are still reading Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hume even the Bible to justify their beliefs about how and why political, religious, philosophical and economic structures came about or whether neo-darwinism, etc., can justify ethics or morality. I do think the insights from anthropology and archaeology can also sometimes be brought to bear in some of these as well.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby wolfhnd on December 4th, 2014, 9:31 pm 

I'm afraid that my idle curiosity and laziness gets the best of me and I don't often take the time to research topics as well as I should before posting which could be taken as disrespectful. You should know I do have considerable respect for you and the work you do Forest although it may not appear that I do. A small justification for my approach is that many of these topics simple requires years of inquiry just to determine where to start. I could of course read more but I feel that it is sometimes useful to try and find out what the best questions should be before you look for the answers.

Thank you for you time.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Forest_Dump on December 4th, 2014, 9:56 pm 

I have no problems with this exchange at all. The history of archaeological theory has actually been a preoccupation of mine for many decades now, I took multiple graduate level courses on it, published on it and even taught courses on it. Truth be told, I could easily justify one full course on processualism alone and probably at least as much on post-processualism (in fact I know just neo-darwinian approaches to archaeology alone is often taught as a stand-alone in some departments that are more paradigmatically married to it - and I am not including anything biological here except as background). So how could I do it justice here? Perhaps this might help:

wolfhnd wrote:I feel that it is sometimes useful to try and find out what the best questions should be before you look for the answers.


Probably the most profoundly important sentence that could begin any discussion of archaeological theory (or philosophy of science, etc.). Basically that is how I begin an introductory lecture on the topic. Deciding what the questions should be is really a central question in social theory and we never just pick them from out of the blue. Neither is then deciding how to get answers. Why science and not divine revelation? How do you decide if something is objective or subjective? Does it matter? And on it goes. But I would like some kind of social theory to help explain to me why more people watch "Ancient Aliens" than read AIA's "Archaeology" magazines.
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby weakmagneto on December 4th, 2014, 10:47 pm 

Forest_Dump » December 4th, 2014, 7:56 pm wrote: But I would like some kind of social theory to help explain to me why more people watch "Ancient Aliens" than read AIA's "Archaeology" magazines.


That confounds me too!!
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Re: Post-processualism

Postby Watson on December 4th, 2014, 10:56 pm 

Simple. Archaeology is based in fact and study. Ancient Aliens stuff is based in speculation and fantasy, which can deliberately be made to be more interesting to the wider audience of the uninformed.
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