Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology*

In the past few years I have found two new homes for my work as an archaeologist. Institutionally, I am no longer part of a Department of Anthropology, but rather a faculty member in the new “School of Human Evolution and Social Change” at Arizona State University. Intellectually, I was born and raised in anthropological archaeology, but now consider the amorphous field of comparative and historical social science as more congenial to my research. I still teach courses called anthropology, and I participate in anthropology degree programs. Some of my best friends are anthropologists. But intellectually I have found less and less in common with the discipline of anthropology, and more and more in common with other disciplines, as my career has proceeded.

Most published accounts of the relationship between archaeology and the larger discipline of anthropology (e.g., Earle 2008; Gillespie and Nichols 2003; Gumerman and Phillips 1978; Longacre 2010) consist of either pronouncements (“archaeology must be part of anthropology” or “archaeology should not be part of anthropology”) or else fantasies about ideal conditions (“archaeologists can work together with ethnologists”). If one starts from the perspective that four-field anthropology is something useful, then it is easy to argue that archaeology should be a part of the mix (Gillespie and Nichols 2003). But if one starts by seeking the most productive intellectual context for archaeology, then an affiliation with anthropology is more difficult to argue for.

I was trained in anthropological archaeology, and I have always considered myself an anthropological archaeologist. I belonged to the Archaeology Division of the AAA from its founding until my recent resignation from the AAA. I was “in the trenches” of four-field anthropology at my prior university, organizing lectures and debates on the topic. But in recent years I have come to believe that Wallerstein’s (2003) critique of the structure of the social science disciplines may apply equally to four-field anthropology. Wallerstein argues that “the social construction of the disciplines as intellectual arenas that was made in the 19th century has outlived its usefulness and is today a major obstacle to serious intellectual work” (Wallerstein 2003:453). One of those commenting on Wallerstein’s paper was sociologist Craig Calhoun, who suggested that, “Surely sociology, political science, and economics are as important for a cultural anthropologist (let alone a social anthropologist) as physical anthropology or archaeology” (Calhoun 2003:462).

My undergraduate interests in anthropology started with archaeology and urbanism. My initial impression was that sociocultural anthropologists took ancient cities seriously (e.g., Steward 1961). Many articles in the journal Urban Anthropology in the 1970s seemed relevant to ancient cities. When I returned to comparative urbanism after a number of years working on other topics, I was surprised to discover that the discipline of urban anthropology seemed to have disappeared. The journal Urban Anthropology is now called Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, and the Society for Urban Anthropology is now the “Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology.” Cities, for sociocultural anthropologists, may be places to do ethnography, but they are not a topic for analysis or comparison. Most research in urban anthropology today consists of studies of “Globalization in this city” and “Globalization in that city.” This retreat from a broadly conceived urban anthropology came at a time when studies of urbanism were exploding in other disciplines, from geography to sustainability science. Ask scholars in these disciplines about the major problems facing humanity today, and cities will be near the top of the list; yet a book called Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems (Bodley 2007) does not even mention cities! Urban anthropology has really dropped the ball.

When I moved to Arizona State University in 2005, I was pleasantly surprised to find that transdisciplinary research was emphasized and facilitated. A major reason for the transformation of the Department of Anthropology into the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (also in 2005) was to place anthropology within a broader intellectual context and promote transdisciplinary work. Anthropology remains strong here in terms of degrees, courses, and students, but we now have non-anthropologists as colleagues in our school, and most of us are engaged in research that expands the horizons of anthropology in some way.

I recently joined a transdisciplinary research project on urban life ( My training in anthropological archaeology had suggested—wrongly—that disciplines like sociology, political science, or planning are irrelevant for archaeologists. I have been delighted to learn that much of the scholarship is in fact relevant to ancient cities, and many researchers in these areas are interested in ancient cities. Geographers, planners, sociologists, and urban historians want to know what the earliest cities were like, and how they compare to modern cities. When I took urban geographers to task for promoting comparative analysis while limiting their scope to the past two centuries (Smith 2009a), they invited me to participate in a symposium on comparative urbanism. When I mentioned the importance of V. Gordon Childe’s (1950) article, “The Urban Revolution,” to the editors of Town Planning Review, they invited me to submit a paper for their centenary volume (Smith 2009b). I still find myself amazed at this outpouring of interest in archaeological research on ancient cities by all kinds of scholars of urbanism (except sociocultural anthropologists).

I have encountered numerous useful concepts, theories, and ideas about urbanism from these other disciplines, but few from sociocultural anthropology (Smith 2011). My own contributions to comparative urbanism (e.g., Smith 2007, 2010) seem more valued by scholars in these areas. Reading the literature and interacting with urban scholars in non-anthropological disciplines has made me question the intellectual usefulness of my affiliation with sociocultural anthropology. Now, perhaps my situation is unique and other anthropological archaeologists get what they need intellectually from their interactions with sociocultural anthropologists. This can be a tricky topic to analyze, because four-field anthropology today is most commonly invoked in reference to university politics (e.g., protecting anthropology departments). It is not professionally feasible in most North American universities to divide anthropology departments into smaller units, even if people were to agree that it is a good idea intellectually. I am fortunate to teach in a unique program that values both anthropology and transdisciplinary research, and this setting has allowed my research on urbanism to thrive.

I recently resigned from the American Anthropological Association. Part of my reasons are intellectual—the anthropological retreat from comparative analysis and the predominance of relativist and interpretivist scholarship—and part are professional—the behavior of the AAA leadership on a variety of issues, from science to ethics (Dreger 2011) to outsourcing AAA journals to a commercial publisher. In its place I have joined the Social Science History Association, whose goals and themes are much more closely aligned to my view of archaeology as a comparative and historical social science discipline.

Rather than toe the four-field anthropological line about the (supposedly) close relationship between archaeology and cultural anthropology, I prefer to take a broader view. Some parts of sociocultural anthropology articulate with archaeology, but then so do parts of other disciplines, including history, economics, geology, linguistics, sociology, botany, planning, semiotics, engineering, political science, soil science, geography, religious studies, agronomy, management studies, ecology, etc. Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips (1958) once claimed that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing,” and Lewis Binford (1962) promoted a program of “archaeology as anthropology” [see also \Gillespie, 2003 #9111]. I disagree with these views. Had my research on comparative urbanism remained within the confines of anthropology, it would have remained pedestrian and limited in scope. Based on my personal experience, I suggest that the intellectual horizons of archaeology should not be limited to the rather parochial discipline of anthropology.

Michael E. Smith
Arizona State University

*This is a revised and much expanded version of an article, “Archaeology is Archaeology,” that appeared in Anthropology News, January 2010, page. 35.


Binford, Lewis R
1962 Archaeology as Anthropology. American Antiquity 28:217-225.

Bodley, John H.
2007 Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems. 5th ed. AltaMira, Lanham.

Calhoun, Craig
2003 Comment on Wallerstein, "Anthropology, Sociology, and Other Dubious Disciplines". Current Anthropology 44:462.

Childe, V. Gordon
1950 The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17.

Dreger, Alice
2011 Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale. Human Nature 22:(published online).

Earle, Timothy
2008 Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology: Theoretical Dialogues. In Handbook of Archaeological Theories, edited by R. Alexander Bentley, Herbert D. G. Maschner, and Christopher Chippindale, pp. 187-202. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Gillespie, Susan D. and Deborah L. Nichols (editors)
2003 Archaeology is Anthropology. Archaeological Papers, vol. 13. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC.

Gumerman, George J. and David A. Phillips, Jr.
1978 Archaeology Beyond Anthropology. American Antiquity 43:184-191.

Longacre, William
2010 Archaeology as Anthropology Revisited. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17:81-100.

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.

2009a Editorial: Just How Comparative is Comparative Urban Geography?: A Perspective from Archaeology. Urban Geography 30:113-117.

2009b V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.

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

2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).

Steward, Julian H.
1961 The Urban Focus: Is There a Common Problem and Method in Studies of City Development—A Science of "Urbanology"? Science 134:1354-1356.

Wallerstein, Immanuel
2003 Anthropology, Sociology, and Other Dubious Disciplines. Current Anthropology 44:453-465.

Willey, Gordon R. and Philip Phillips
1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


Anonymous said...

so very true

Anonymous said...

Professor Smith is absolutely about modern archaeology and its relations to anthropology.