The New Archaeology, social laws, and playboys

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Sick burn by Bruce Trigger, 1984:

By the 1950s, a growing number of archaeologists were smarting from the charge that their discipline was descriptive rather than theoretical in orientation and that they were the not very intelligent playboys of anthropology. Many ethnologists were claiming that their own work was more nomothetic in orientation than it appears to be today (99). This made many archaeologists anxious to prove that they could do whatever ethnologists could. Among this group, the New Archaeologists dedicated themselves to using archaeological data to contribute to the development of a general body of social science theory (112, pp. 364-68; 180). At the same time, they borrowed from general anthropology, and in particular from the work of Steward and White, a set of concepts that were not shared at that time by a majority of ethnologists and which remain controversial (87, pp. 117-341). These were chosen, not because they were demonstrated to be better founded than others, but because they appeared to enhance the theoretical importance of archaeological data.

This strikes me as weird from today’s perspective.

It is true that ethnologists in the 1950s aspired to “general theoretical explanation”. People like Leslie White and Julian Steward were trying to formulate general laws of social behavior, and some archaeologists aspired to do them one better by providing historical evidence of processes over time.

But I have to read this in light of the complete revolution in social anthropology of the 1980s and 1990s. Ethnology remains “theory-oriented”, but the theory that matters is highly particularized, not general. Cultural anthropologists recently have not tried to formulate social laws, they have tried to arrive at interpretive descriptions of social events in their particular cultural contexts.

In other words, cultural anthropology today is a lot like what Trigger describes as the “culture-historical” school of archaeology prior to 1940.

There are today social scientists who are trying to understand general social laws of historical change, but they mostly don’t identify themselves as anthropologists.

Archaeologists’ role in all this has changed since the 1980s, and that deserves more discussion.