The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I'd Have Thought You'd Want to Hear From...

Some time back, I wrote a piece for the old Skepchick website (before it became the blog that it is now, it was an on-line magazine that accepted submissions) about popular misconceptions regarding the role of feminist thought in archaeology (it was eventually re-posted here). The point to the article was that many of the views often attributed in the media to feminist scholars in general, and feminist anthropologists in particular, are not actually representative of researchers with a feminist bent, but are rather fringe views that typically don't even come from researchers in the field to which they are attributed.

As an example, I cited The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler.  Eisler is a sociologist and attorney by training, not an archaeologist.  Her book is not based on original research but rather on a combination of previously published research and her own views of history, so even if I found the book persuasive, it would still not qualify as archaeological work - it might qualify as historical work, or even as science journalism (though I would hold it is a poor example of both), but lacking a base in the physical archaeological record (which is what separates archaeology from both ethnography and history) it does not qualify as archaeology.  The book is not generally well regarded in archaeological circles, and some of the most cutting critiques of it come from archaeologists who clearly subscribe to feminist ideologies themselves.

So, when a reporter, pundit, or anyone else points to Eisler or The Chalice and the Blade as prime examples of "feminist archaeology", they are wrong on three counts: Eisler is not an archaeologist, her book does not represent archaeological research, and it is certainly not considered to be "mainstream archaeology" even amongst feminist archaeologists.

One piece of criticism that I received when this article posted was that some readers thought that the entire point to it was to criticize Eisler - which was weird as she was only discussed in one portion, whereas the history of how feminist thought has worked its way into archaeology made up the bulk of the material.  One commenter, however, posted something that struck me as both astoundingly vacous...but also rhetorically really interesting.  They said, and I am paraphrasing (you can follow the link above to find the exact phrasing, but after trying to get a sufficient portion to place here without overly-editing it, I found it easier to just paraphrase), that my criticism of the book was due to me being uncomfortable at having my authority challenged and then stated, essentially, that I should be interested in hearing what a sociologist has to say.

The "you're uncomfortable with having your authority challenged" is a pretty standard way for people to pass off criticism without specifically addressing it.  It's essentially the same as the "don't trust those un-elected elitist scientists!" rhetoric that is being spouted in the current Republican primaries, but is also seen when people claim that medical doctors don't support "alternative medicine" because it would undermine their authority (as opposed to the real reason, which is that it is usually "alternative" because it lacks any evidence to support it) or that "mainstream" historians deny the reality of Atlantis because "it would make them have to re-write the history books." 

The problem, of course, is that there are times when researchers, because they are human just like everyone else, will reject a position because it does make them uncomfortable.  Most of the time, however, this is just a rhetorical smokescreen to get you to not listen to valid criticisms of a fringe idea.

What was more interesting, though, was the suggestion that archaeologists should be interested in the work of sociologists, and the associated claim that pointing out the Eisler was not an archaeologist was a way of just blowing off sociologists (rather than a demonstration that, by definition, her work is not representative of the work of archaeologists).  The reality is that archaeologists are, in fact, very interested in the work of sociologists.  Many of the major archaeologists of the last three decades, including most of those who I admire, have tried to incorporate sociological data and theories into their work.  And this makes perfect sense, as there do seem to be some weird, perhaps not constants, but definitely "recurring themes" in human cultures, studying modern people might help to provide insight into our distant ancestors.

People from all fields - academic or otherwise - have the capacity to make observations that are of value in archaeology and anthropology.  Indeed, my own time spent in the business world has given me the capacity for insight that some of my academic colleagues often seem to lack, while their experience in academia give them a view of humanity that I am likewise lacking.  Truck drivers, accountants, surgeons, and auto mechanics can all be astute observers of humanity, and can all provide valuable insights to anyone seeking to understand or species.

However, when the views of someone deviate from observable reality, and their credentials are demonstrated to not be those of the field to which they claim to be contributing, to state "well, I'd have thought that you'd welcome the input of someone from field X" is not a valid response, unless the fact that they are from that field can somehow show a hidden validity to their claims - perhaps they have access to some information that helps make sense of something that seems confusing from the perspective of the field to which they are trying to contribute.  Most of the time, it's simply a way to try to claim that a particular doubtful conclusions is valid without actually making a good argument in support of it.

And this is true regardless of the field of study, and regardless of the background of the person trying to push a position.  Anthropologists are happy to get input from sociologists, provided that the input corresponds with observable reality and not with an ideologically-motivated fantasy.  Pediatricians are happy to get input from mothers, provided that what the mother is saying makes sense and isn't an absurd claim that "mommy instinct" somehow trumps mountains of medical data.  Biologists are happy to hear from politicians, provided that the politicians don't claim that the work proven by the biologists is false because it conflicts with what a constituency wishes were true.  And so on and so on.

The point is, when "I'd have thought you'd want to hear from X" is accompanied by an explanation as to why the position of someone in that field might interpret data differently than those in another field, there is a fair chance that you will hear something interesting and useful.  If, however, it's simply said without any accompanying statement regarding why a person from field X might have a valid point, it's usually just a way to dodge valid criticism.

No comments: