My thanks go to Duane Smith who suggested reading Philosophy and Archaeology by Merrilee Salmon in a comment last year. My first reaction was that it was a bit dated. Well it was bound to be, it was published in 1982. But I think the reason I had that reaction is that despite it lacking anything on post-processual approaches, after a quarter of a century it’s still a good book.
There’s useful material on the differences between Laws of Physics, and Laws of Biological and Behavioural Sciences and this is explicitly then related to the idea of Laws of Archaeology. It’s the fact she takes the time to draw the links clearly and discuss the criticisms that makes the book readable. That’s not as common as it should be in archaeology. Quite often I find the best advocates for an idea are people who criticise that idea, because they make the concepts clear when they try and show how wrong they are.
It is about Big Laws, which are out of fashion at the moment. However, one paper this reminds me of is Richard Bradley’s Archaeology: The loss of nerve in Yoffee and Sherrat’s Archaeological Theory: Who Sets the Agenda? Bradley argues (if I remember correctly, it’s hiding from me on a bookshelf somewhere at the moment) that along with a retreat from laws of behaviour, archaeologists have also shied away from anything big.
I half agree with Bradley. His examples are of astonishingly trivial things inflated with importance. This is where I’m regretting not finding the book as I can’t recall a specific example. I think he laments the amibitions of students who do something like the Archaeology of Spoons in the inter-war years for a thesis. That’s not so much of a problem for me, if it deals with big ideas. I think his complaint might be more grounded when archaeology students hide in small topics and narrow horizons. I have seen people sneer at general theories as being evidence of delusions of grandeur. At this level I’d say that it is important to have an idea of why you’re doing the work and what it means to other people.
So I’d agree with Duane that the chapter on Theory Building in Archaeology is useful reading. It’s the chapter I’ll photocopy when I’m back in the building tomorrow and read again. If you keep yourself focussed on what you want to explore and why then it is possible to create general social theories or observations, so long as you also acknowledge the limitations of the resolution of these observations. And despite not mentioning Interpretive Archaeologies, Phenomenology and so on, it remains relevant because the basics of creating a good argument haven’t changed. Even the most ardent relativist backs up their arguments with citations, which suggests there’s common logic. I think even if ultimately you disagree with it, the section on General Assumptions, Common Sense Hypotheses, Induction and Theories would be useful in sharpening your theoretical tools.
So my thanks again to Duane as I’ve definitely learned something. Though I’ll still need to read it a few more times to fully understand it as I’m a slow thinker.Google+