Method & Theory…

A recent post from my colleague over at Middle Savagery reminds me that for some of us…it physically makes us happy to read theory…I agree…Like Levi Straussian myths, for me some theory is “good to think.”

At the same time I am reminded by one of my current students who is taking a “Method and Theory in Archaeology” class that many of his colleagues in the program simply have not been exposed to, and are not comfortable talking about “theory.”…many of these folks see theory as strange, alien, and “not useful.”

I have encountered these two groups of people my whole academic career. At the University of Memphis and the University of Arkansas, I was the frustrated “theory guy” in heavily method-oriented programs…However, when I went to the University of Texas at Austin, although I was finally satisfied with the rich theoretical program there, I also began to realize the importance of the connections between methods and theory…and I felt that some of my colleagues at UT may be very theoretically sophisticated, but not very fluent in good archaeological methods.

I do not see these two entities as diametrically opposed opposites…I see them as inextricably connected…Obviously this should not be a radical idea (praxis anyone?), but time and again one meets “theory” people and “dirt archaeologists.” Close friends and colleagues even mistakenly stereotyped my long-time collaborator James Davidson and myself–he was the method guy and I was the theorist…this woefully underestimates Davidson’s theoretical savvy and (I think) my practical background.

I am a “dirt archaeologist”…I have years and years of contract archaeology underneath my belt (and over 20 “technical reports”), but I am also proud of my theoretical engagement…and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as “non-theoretical” archaeology…only archaeologists who do not acknowledge what theoretical interests they serve.

Part of the problem is a lack of great examples that connect archaeological methods and theories in a solid (and easily accessible) way…How many books have you read (especially in historical archaeology) that have an eloquent theoretical section weakly linked to the actual artifacts and excavated contexts…they read like two unrelated monographs. I long to see more work that is sound in both its methods and theories.

I’ll close by pointing to one literary model I think we should look at…Check out Larry McMurtry’s book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen…If the rootsy, plain-spoken western writer can draw sophisticated connections between Bejamin, storytelling and the West Texas community hub known as the Dairy Queen…theory can be accessible to anyone.

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Categories: archeology, post


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3 Comments on “Method & Theory…”

  1. September 20, 2007 at 10:19 pm #

    Wow, I really have to pick that book up!Right after writing that post I ran into some theory that was a little less fun-to-think. Serves me right.Can you think of any archaeology books that are a good blend of artifacts and theory?

  2. November 4, 2007 at 5:16 am #

    JCB: check out our Method and Theory in Archeology blog:blog.cast.uark.eduPC

  3. December 19, 2007 at 6:36 am #

    I will admit, I read theory… in bed… in the bathroom… in the car parked under a streetlight while KJ is running errands… and while walking across campusNext time I come out that way, we’re tracking down the bigfoot noted on your site quads.

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