Lessons from geographic literature

I have recently been reading quite a bit of geography publication after randomly picking up a copy of The Professional Geographer – a journal that at first glance looked quite dull, but after reading a couple of abstracts I realized three things: 1) how little I know about geography, 2) that there are some very interesting arguments going on within this field, and that 3) perhaps archaeology can learn from these discussions. Granted, I may be predisposed to being interested in geography as I am an absolute GIS geek, so take my interest in the subject with a grain of salt.

Archaeology and geography were once quite close with one another (academically speaking). The New Archaeology explicitly and implicitly drew upon a similar positivist/scientific move within geography as both attempted to think about ways to quantify, correlate, and eventually predict human/environment interactions across a broad scale. This wide-ranging collaboration was threatened by internal disputes within both disciplines as post-processualism in archaeology and critical theory in geography provided blistering critiques of the prevailing scientific epistemologies. This is not to say that geography and archaeology do not retain close connections – but that these connections appear to have become balkanized within each discipline based on where one falls along the scientific/humanistic belief continuum. In other words, science-minded archaeologists often draw upon similarly leaning geographers while more humanistic aspects of each group also speak to one another. Within archaeology we have two groups that are closely aligned with geography, one (largely American) produces amazing spatio-temporal models of human/environmental interactions using sophisticated software applications while another group of landscape archaeologists (largely British) utilize a variety of “qualitative” techniques, such as phenomenology, to better understand the relationship between people and place. Both groups rely on geographers – the first primarily through methodological applications, such as spatial statistics, the second through an understanding of spatiality as a human-made construct laden with culturally created meaning. The important aspect of this relationship is that archaeologists, along the entire humanistic-scientific continuum, rarely work with geographic publications more recent than the 1980s. This is unfortunate as geography is beginning to make important in-roads in bridging its own chasm between its qualitative and critical aspects.

There are a variety of ways in which geographers are making these in-roads, and I suggest that anyone interested look at a recent special issue of The Professional Geographer (2011 (63)3) in order to get a feel for the diversity of approaches, but the direction that I find most interesting is that taken by two writers, Daniel Sui and Mei-Po Kwan. Of particular interest is Sui’s (2004) “GIS, Cartography, and the “Third Culture”: Geographical Imaginations in the Computer Age” and Kwan’s (2008) “Geo-Narrative: Extending Geographic Information Systems for Narrative Analysis in Qualitative and Mixed-Method Research”. Both attempt to bridge the gap between scientific and humanistic camps within geography by suggesting a middle ground in which cutting edge technology can be applied to “humanistic” questions. Sui makes a convincing argument when he suggests that the most effective bridge between these different groups is not by attempting to bring the two back together through a shared epistemology or ontology – but instead through fostering a “third culture” of researchers who bounce between the two sides to create hybrid projects and interpretations.

Something akin to this “third culture” already exists within archaeology, particularly within the Southeast. I am thinking of projects like the ones pursued by Neill Wallis at UF and Chris Rodning at Tulane whose programs are designed to produce rich empirical datasets to address “humanistic” questions. I don’t want to criticize these projects in any way, but I think we need to go one step further towards hybridization, and this step is suggested by the geographic literature. This is not the application of scientific data to humanistic questions (which Wallis, Rodning, and others do so well) – but the humanization of scientific data.

This post has already become too long, so let me leave you with one example of how this humanization of scientific data might be enacted. Sticking with my interest in GIS, while many of us use this platform for the organization, analysis, and presentation of data with little thought as to the epistemological biases of mapping space using Euclidean geometry, geographers have begun to argue that the uncritical application of GIS is deeply flawed. Instead they suggest that all techniques of interacting with data, including spatial data, are epistemologically charged. In order to address this perceived bias geographers have been attempting to construct non-Euclidean models of space within GIS (see Thill (2011) Is Spatial Really that Special?, and Sui (2005) Beethoven, Picasso and GIS). These models are derived from qualitative understandings of space as place, something that archaeologists have recognized for some time (see work by Chris Tilley). While archaeologists would certainly be wise to pay attention to these new applications within GIS, I suggest that we might also be able to offer our own addition to the discussion – and that is the humanization of time within GIS.

I hope to unpack this a bit more in a later post, but as a quick introduction, ArcGIS has recently included temporal data within its platform. This has not gone unnoticed within archaeological circles and is already being applied with interesting results. But this new form of data is strictly directional and deeply imbued with a Western understanding of time. Certainly, geographers, sociologists, cultural anthropologists and others are questioning this construct and are hopefully developing their own models of non-western temporality. But as is often said, only archaeologists work with the full gamut of time – from that of individual events, to the longue duree, and at times, even geologic levels. We occupy a unique position to add to this discussion of temporality, and perhaps to develop new ways of incorporating it into GIS. As such, we too can contribute to the humanization of scientific data, and the creation of a hybrid third culture. I have some thoughts on how we might go about creating new models of time within GIS, but this will have to be the subject of a later post. Let me instead end this long ramble with a suggestion that many of the technologies archaeologists use, from remote sensing to chemical sourcing, are fertile fields upon which we can grow a vibrant hybrid culture of scholars to bridge the otherwise divergent aspects of our discipline.


6 comments on “Lessons from geographic literature

  1. Shane says:

    If I wasn’t so slammed with other stuff, I would leave a more detailed response. However, I just wanted to drop a line saying I follow where you’re going. I’m also a GIS junkie who would feel pretty inadequate if someone pressed me on my knowledge of the recent literature being cranked out by geographers.

    In a similar vein, I feel the same way about economics. I’m a stone tool nerd, and in order to make sense of the patterns we frame things in economic terms without any formal training or knowledge of contemporary economics. So, that’s kind of where my interests have been drifting in the last year.

    • MC Sanger says:

      I often feel that while it is dangerous to go into other fields and cherry pick, that this is often the best way to knock ourselves out of our own theoretical ruts. At times I find myself reading archaeological literature and get frustrated to see the same arguments going round and round. Not that other disciplines have things worked out – but at least they have new arguments!

      Your comment is making we wonder about other fields that we, as archaeologists, should be mining. Economics is a great example for your work. I wonder what is going on in Sociology these days. I don’t know if I have read anything more recent than Weber….Great, now I need to find sometime to read sociological journals.

      • Shane says:

        For sure. I feel like I’m on the verge of finding a new way to interpret data and at the same time opening myself up to criticism from a whole new batch of people.

        Strangely enough, though – there’s a economics professor here who developed an interest in the “Origins of Agriculture.” So, that gives me at least one person outside the archaeology bubble to bounce ideas off of.

  2. Meg says:

    I would consider myself to be someone coming from the other side of the continuum you described. I know very little about GIS (though, I should try to learn, I know) but am fascinated by the more humanistic POV taken by landscape archaeologists. One thing I find the most interesting about your post is how well the lesson learned applies to everyone along the continuum.

    Talking about spatial models that include things beyond just spatial data made me think of an article I read recently.

    Bibliographic Information:
    Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries
    Peter Whitridge
    Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory
    Vol. 11, No. 2, Recent Advances in the Archaeology of Place, Part 2 (Jun., 2004) (pp. 213-250)

    Although the dichotomization of space and place has spawned a lively archaeological discussion, it threatens to devolve into a troublesome binary like sex/gender. Local place-making and universalizing spatial science are not so neatly segregated. Rather than dividing and bounding the notion of an investment of locations with meaning, it can be extended to describe the intricate topologies of bodies and things, as well as landscapes. Places emerge as sites of the hybrid articulation of representations, practices, and things, as spatialized imaginaries. The notion of imaginaries and the rethinking of place are illustrated with Inuit archaeological and ethnographic examples.

    Specifically the images and descriptions of Inuit maps in this one will blow your mind.

    • Shane says:

      I really wonder at times if Binford really “got” this stuff back in the day, but 1) didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, 2) just didn’t find it as interesting all of the other stuff he was looking at. It would be kind of neat to look at his notes of conversations he had with his informants to see if, in retrospect, some of the pattern that Whitridge describes pops out.

      Nifty find, Meg. I’m going to have to check this out.

  3. victoriagd says:

    Meg, that article looks interesting and I’m going to hunt it down today!

    To build on what you all have already said, I think there is a strong opportunity for scholarly engagement between archaeology and geography. The discipline of geography has a strong tradition of considering space and place that speaks well to archaeological interpretations. In fact, I find many geographers are more interested in my ideas about space and identity than anthropologists in my own department. I had the opportunity to take a seminar on landscape a couple of years ago with Dr. Rich Schein, one of the main landscape geographers in the discipline. The seminar was all geographers except for myself and another archaeologist and I found it to be an incredibly challenging and engaging expereience. First of all, it was lots of fun to challenge their theories and ideas about landscape and people with my examples of limited knowledge from the past (this alone is a great reason to engage with scholars outside our discipline!) Further, the ways that landscape geographers think about landscape are NOT the ways that many archaeologists choose to use the concept. I’ve been wanting to write a piece about this distinction for awhile now, so maybe I will put something together soon to share on the blog!

    Here at UK, we also have an interdisciplinary working group on political ecology that is primarily made of students from anthropology and geography. We’ve hosted conferences over the last two years and it’s been an incredibly exciting time for me to discuss human-environment relationships with people from many, many different disciplines. Here’s the link to the group and the conference we had last month: http://www.politicalecology.org/

    In related news, check out this link that goes to my friend and colleague’s blog called anthropologies: http://www.anthropologiesproject.org/2011/09/issue-6.html

    This is the issue that he published last year on anthropology and geography and there are some fun pieces in here thinking about the relationship between the two disciplines. There is also an issue on anthropology and archaeology that you can find through the archives if you search around a little bit on the site.

    Ok, that’s enough for now. I drink beers with geographers every Friday afternoon so I have lots of ideas about scholarly engagement. I’ll cut myself off here and wait to see if I find any new ideas this afternoon!

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