A Critique of Middle-Range Theory in Archaeology

Authors: Christopher D. Pierce

For the past decade, several archaeologists have advocated the development of middle-range theory as a way to give objective meaning to the archaeological record (e.g., Bettinger 1987; Binford 1977, 1983b; Thomas 1983, 1989; Torrence 1986). They argue that we must translate the static archaeological record into behaviorally dynamic terms by documenting causal linkages between relevant behaviors and their static material by-products. This is accomplished, they argue, by making observations today that establish signature patterns allowing the unambiguous recognition of particular dynamics from their static by-products, and inferring past dynamics from identification of signature patterns in the archaeological record. Further, it has been emphasized that the operations and products of middle-range theory must remain logically independent of the general theory we use to explain the past to avoid automatically confirming our ideas about the past through a tautology. This approach to middle-range research is flawed in two major respects. First, the justification of inferences relies on the establishment of universal behavioral laws and unambiguous signature patterns to validate the use of uniformitarian assumptions, neither of which can be accomplished in the manner proposed. Second, the tautological relationship between description and explanation is not only an unavoidable, but also a necessary aspect of science. Solutions to these problems lie in using the physical characteristics of the archaeological record itself as our source of knowledge about the past rather than translating the record into untestable behavioral reconstructions.

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[v1] 2012-01-14 12:04:49

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