Whose Rationality? A Response to Fekri Hassan

Article excerpt

In December 1997 we published Fekri Hassan's comments on Ian Hodder's 'Reflexive excavation methods' (ANTIQUITY 71: 1020-25). Ian Hodder responds here to the criticisms and defends his position.

In the context of discussing the need to bring 'unity and harmony to a world afflicted by ethnic, sectarian and nationalist conflicts', Hassan (1997: 1021) talks of 'upholding the mandate of reason'. Whose reason? It is clear that Hassan refers to the reason of a world community of trained archaeological experts (1997: 1024). Trained by whom? He talks (1997: 1021) of archaeology as a 'scientific discipline within the academy'. Which academy and defined by whom? The academy Hassan refers to guards against any usurpation of the concept of 'fact' (1997: 1024) and upholds canons of knowledge against the abandonment of reason (1997: 1021). Again, concepts of 'fact' defined by whom, and whose reason?

In reading Hassan's critique I sensed echoes of 18th-century Enlightenment thought and 19th-century colonialism - an uncritical Western belief in universal rationality. This spirited defence of empiricism and positivism takes us back at least to pre-TAG days, and certainly to before the accommodations made on both sides of the processual/postprocessual debate (e.g. Renfrew & Bahn 1991; Hodder 1992). Apart from the nostalgic pleasure of revisiting old battlefields, I respond to Hassan because I believe fervently that he is profoundly, even dangerously, misguided.

I answer this way because of the conviction that even archaeologists should heed some of the abiding lessons of the 20th century (e.g. Hobsbawm 1994). Hassan writes as if science or scientific anthropology will protect us from all sorts of evils. This may well be true in the examples he provides, but it is surely only half the story. After the horrors of the Great War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, how can we put our faith in the mandate of reason, meaning the mandate of Western reason? For many of my generation, those who grew up experiencing the insanity of Vietnam, it is difficult to have much faith in Western rationality. Another great movement of the 20th century has been the decline of many colonial powers and the resurgence of ex-colonial nations and indigenous groups. In this postcolonial world, the notion that the Western voice is only one of many has been reinforced. How, in such a world, can authority derive from self-appointed 'experts' in 'the academy'?

The awareness of difference and of the need to listen to other voices has taken on a particular urgency at the end of the 20th century in the context of globalism. In my view, the type of universal rationality espoused by Hassan plays into the hands of the homogenizing tendencies promoted by those who control the new information technologies. We are wrong to dismiss the new technologies as 'razzle-dazzle' (Hassan 1997: 1024). They have the power to transform our lives, to homogenize, to limit debate and diversity, to create a true 'end of history'. But these same technologies can be used, not to promote universality, but to guard against the erasure of history. The new information technologies can be used to promote difference, and it is for this reason that I suggest their use to encourage reflexivity, relationality, interactivity and multivocality.

Towards non-dichotomous thinking

Throughout Hassan's critique he reasserts old dichotomies. These can be set out as follows:

mandate of reason                 prejudice, emotion,
                                  dogmatic belief

epistemological canons            political, moral agendas
of veracity, plausibility
and accuracy

canons of knowledge,              subjective error

methods of science                dogmatism, chauvinism,
                                  beliefs, revelations

scientific domain                 ethics (and aesthetics,
                                  history, poetics, novels)

scientific discipline             a priori beliefs about the
within the academy                mother goddess etc.

'fact' and the expert             public, popular

Thus reason is opposed to beliefs based on fear, self-importance, authority, prejudices, superstitions and mental disturbances. The competence of trained scholars using standards and canons of description is opposed to superstition, dogmatism, obscurantism. Hassan (1997: 1021) is incorrect to argue that archaeological science, or any science, is not driven by belief. It is belief, often passionately held, that generates questions, hypotheses, research pathways. It is belief, often dogmatic in tone, that leads to innovative lines of enquiry. It is belief, in the guise of theory, through which we make sense of the data so that they are, to some degree, theory-laden, as even processual archaeologists now accept (e.g. Renfrew & Bahn 1991).

It is difficult to define science in the dichotomous way described by Hassan. Many philosophers of science would accept (e.g. Hesse 1995) that many of the characteristics which Hassan describes as non-scientific are an essential part of science. Certainly it is clear that the success of theories does not rely solely on correspondence to data; other factors such as coherence, rhetoric, story-line, authority, reputation and social network undoubtedly play a role (e.g. Latour & Woolgar 1979). Hassan tries to make his point by twice (1997:1021 & 1024) using the analogy of the medical doctor who provides the patient with an expert opinion. But even a competent physician may listen to the public and incorporate other voices. Having just been to a doctor who passed on advice influenced by alternative medicine, Hassan's analogy seems inappropriate. More generally, we can recognize today that the doing of science is a complex, socially embedded process. Within the field of anthropological science there has been an extensive debate about the need to incorporate other voices, leading to wonderful (but still 'scientific') narrative ethnographies such as that of Humphrey & Onon (1996). A discussion of the need to introduce qualitative methods has taken place in the social sciences more generally (Denzin & Lincoln 1994). We need to think about science, including archaeological science, in non-dichotomous ways.

Interpretation at the trowel's edge

One of the clearest dichotomies identified by Hassan is that fact and theory can be separated from each other at primary levels of interpretation, though he also provides examples of an empiricist and positivist rhetoric according to which facts are seen as theory-laden. For empiricists in archaeology, this rhetoric translated into the practice of sticking as close to the facts as possible. For positivists and processual archaeologists the great leap forward was to argue that we need to be explicit about the theories brought to facts. This more critical attitude to the relationship between theory and data has been construed in a number of ways by processual archaeologists over the last three decades. Some have asserted the scientific objectivity of the facts; others have said that we can only test hypotheses in the present (Binford & Sabloff 1982); others have placed their belief in the independence of arguments (Binford 1987). This is not the place to rehearse why these responses are flawed (see Hodder 1992). The concern in my paper (1997) was to demonstrate that whatever the rhetoric about how to deal with the theory-ladenness of data, in practice archaeologists have developed a field method which routinely separates 'description' of data from interpretation. Most excavation forms that I have seen do this. In the same way, Hassan (1997) describes the separation of low level description from high level interpretation. Archaeologists have developed approaches such as 'problem-oriented research design' in which theories are stated a priori and tested against data. In particular, they have developed highly codified systems of categorization, measurement and description. To codify and standardize must be to assume that systems of observation can be separated from the specific character of the site or data being studied. Theory is separated from data but imposed on the data. This is neither a critical nor a coherent response to the theory-ladenness of facts.

Hassan (1997: 1022) describes levels of interpretation and argues that the levels are significantly different. He appears to suggest that some levels of identification are less controversial, and that at these levels measurement uses standards - presumably those set by an academy which does not cater to 'particularist world views' (1997: 1023). However, Gero (1996) has demonstrated that even the most basic aspects of archaeological excavation and field recording may be infused with gender bias. Hassan (1997: 1022) gives the example of the identification of a 'hearth'. At Catalhoyuk we prefer the term 'fire installation' precisely because we recognize the difficulties of 'identification' of such features, including the gender biases involved. Hassan (1997: 1023) also unfortunately argues that ethical grounds provide no basis for determining whether a skeleton in a grave is a male or a female. In fact, it is now widely recognized that sexes are defined differently in different cultures and that biological differences between the sexes are partly culturally and socially constructed (e.g. Yates 1993; Knapp & Meskell 1997).

As another example of the presence of interpretive processes at the primary level, I have been struck by the use in Japanese archaeology of painted white lines to define the edges of features on sections (profiles) or on excavation surfaces. I point this out not to argue that such painting does not clarify features in photography, but to emphasize the contrast between different archaeological traditions. I was taught, and I teach my students, never to draw lines on the ground or on sections because such lines bias interpretation. It is anathema to me to obscure soil interfaces with white paint. In these two traditions, the primary data are being constructed in very different ways depending on 'particularist world views'.

Hassan (1997: 1023) is simply incorrect to assert that no archaeological discourse on the role of Catalhoyuk in agricultural origins can at the same time assert that agriculture was good or evil. Since the writing of Rousseau, Western discourse on agricultural origins has been underlain by a debate about the origins of inequality, the 'fall of man' and the emergence of property. Whether we see the adoption of agriculture as driven by a harnessing of the environment or by social competition and the emergence of dominating and exploiting groups, we are engaging in a debate which has ethical dimensions.

It is futile to attempt an absolute separation of levels. The highest levels insert themselves into the lowest. As we dig we are engaged in a bewildering array of social issues, many of them constructed within Western discourse. The trowel's edge, as it scrapes across the soil surfaces, is not somehow suddenly unsocial, mystically placed outside society.

Ethics and epistemology

Another dichotomy to which Hassan returns is that between ethics and epistemology. He asks (1997: 1023) 'what has ethics here to do with an epistemological question?'. I have already given examples of how high level and ethical issues do insert themselves into primary data identification and interpretation. But ! want to emphasize that the supposed separation of ethics from any level of archaeological enquiry is not only an incorrect description of archaeological practice but is also dangerous.

Positivism, for example, can be used as an epistemological position to foster emancipatory processes. It is not surprising that positivist and processualist archaeology was initially seen as attractive in the recent post-dictatorship worlds of, for example, Spain and Chile. In these countries, at particular historical moments, a positivist approach (allied to either Marxism or processualism) offered neutral, unbiased, rigorous, democratic methods in a social and academic context which had lacked such characteristics. It is this dimension of positivism that Hassan describes when he talks of using 'standards that can be followed by anybody' (1997: 1023). But exactly the same positivism can seem itself biased and authoritarian when used by dominant groups against minority interests. When used by North American archaeologists against the 'particularist world view' of native North Americans, as in the reburial debate, positivism and science are used to close off debate rather than to open it up. This point has been well made by those working with native American archaeological groups (Anyon et al. 1996).

Thus, it is dangerous to trust in the separation of ethics and epistemology. To do so is to lose sight of the manipulation of epistemology and the construction of ethics for social purposes. Both are embroiled in the daily practices of archaeology. We have to remain alert as to how epistemologies are used within the discipline and to what the effects are on society. This is why I advocate a reflexive approach, one that monitors the social effects of archaeological practices on a wide range of different communities. The safeguard against misuse is not some unflinching belief in one epistemology, whether it be empiricism, positivism or dialectical hermeneutics. Rather, the safeguard resides in the reflexive application of epistemologies in a changing social world. This is why there is a need to incorporate multivocality, relationality and interactivity into archaeological practices.

Similarly, there is nothing inherent in the use of the new information technologies which would lead to a particular social use of archaeology. The standardization and potential for centralized control of the Internet can lead to a universalization of Western and dominant attitudes. The un-networked can be further excluded and marginalized. But the same technologies can be used in a very different way - to promote diversity and access to information by minorities. Once again, the safeguard for a diverse world and for diverse rights of access to the past is a commitment to reflexivity, and a critical examination of the uses to which the technologies are put.

Conclusion: beyond the surface

Hassan (1997: 1025) objects that the first major publication of the new Catalhoyuk research programme (Hodder 1996) looks like 'any processualist excavation report' - except that it is not an account of any excavations. This point is important because the limiting of that report to surface survey also limits the amount of 'depth interpretation' that can occur. The artefacts recovered on the surface of the Catalhoyuk mounds (as well as those badly provenanced artefacts recovered from museum stores) do not have sufficient contextual information to allow any more than the imposition of a priori assumptions. Thus a fully relational or contextual account could not be built, and there was little we felt we could do in the way of transforming our survey techniques. The emphasis on reflexive methodology became much clearer as we began excavation. Here there is sufficient contextual data to engage in not the testing, but the fitting of theory and data in a reflexive, relational, interactive and multivocal way. Perhaps there is a potential now to return to a reconsideration of surface methods and to introduce reflexive approaches.

As already noted, I agree with Hassan (1997: 1024) that many communities may be unable to participate in global flows of information such as at the Catalhoyuk Web site. Some communities can gain access to the site in this way and so produce their own 'sites' (for a New Age version of Catalhoyuk see http://www.wordweb.org/sacredjo/may.html). But Hassan is quite right that local communities may be excluded from or alienated by such technologies. This is why a broad range of communicative media needs to be tried. The Catalhoyuk project makes use of sponsorship and media to support the education and training of schoolchildren and students at all levels, including at the site, and we have produced bilingual panels for display at the site and at other locations locally and nationally in Turkey. Funds have successfully been raised for a museum which will be built by the site in 1998 and which will include an exhibit produced by the local community.

It seems anachronistic that we should today sit in Cambridge or London defining a mandate of reason, adjudicating on the usurpation of facts and on which epistemologies are ethical. In a postcolonial world, every aspect of our work and all our assumptions as archaeologists need to be open to critique and evaluation by a wide range of different communities in different ways. We cannot assume an authority, we have to argue for it. We cannot simply police the boundaries of the academy and of the discipline against particularist world views. We have increasingly to argue our case in the temporal flows of a diverse global community.


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