Theory is a tricky concept. It is also a tricky word. A very tricky process. To attempt a discussion on theory is to commit yourself to hours of back-and-forth between definitions and ideas, fully knowing there will be no resolution. So why attempt a discourse on theory? Roy Ellen remarks that the different forms of theory allow alternative inquiries of the same data (Ellen, 2010). Exploring and understanding a range of theory is beneficial to creating a holistic anthropological perspective.
On one end of the spectrum are those grand, universal theories. These seek to explain ultimate causes, and have been referred to as the study of common sense (Herzfeld, 1997). A current example of this type of theoretical orientation is Luis Bettencourt’s theory on settlement scaling. Bettencourt, a Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute presents a formula intended to measure and scale the interrelated facets of urban growth. This formula is, according to Bettencourt useful in the modeling of city scale. The goal of formulaic analysis of city scaling is to better understand the interdependencies and intricacies of city operation. Bettencourt defines criteria for measures of urban efficiency, primarily based on positive and negative social interactions, and transportation energy. According to Bettencourt measures of urban efficiency appear to balance societal output with infrastructural costs.
On the opposite end, there are those locally specific theories which, as Ellen discusses, often take a Geertzian “thick description” approach (Ellen, 2010). The data is specific, and generalizations are only relevant to the scope of the data. This can be illustrated with Lewis-Williams work examining altered states of consciousness through San rock art. Although his work is an essential basis for any rock art scholar, many have taken his generalizations and applied them to external contexts.
Betwixt and between these two ends is the middle range. The workable, liminal space of middle-range theories serve to facilitate negotiations between “grand theory”, theories dealing with large-scale abstractions and universals of human behavior, and small-scale, locally specific theories and working hypotheses. This idea is reminiscent of Forslund’s MRT confidential, which is more of a critique on archaeological middle range theories (made popular by Lewis Binford’s new archaeology). Although not exactly speaking to the working space of the middle range, it if often the place of balance between theory and practice in anthropology. Although in theoretical in form, middle range theories often act as more of an interpretive methodology.
The liminal workspace of the middle range can be illustrated in a recent study by Ortman (2015). This study which applied Bettencourt’s settlement scaling theory to archaeological data in South America. Ortman views human cities as a space for social networking. This article examines previous works on population size relative to land area, as well as monument construction and house size. Ortman proposes that the linear scale (Bettencourt 2013) which measures urban efficiency shows that socioeconomic outputs increase more rapidly than population size. Ortman suggests that scaling models can be applied to data from ancient societies to help in the orientation of inference and interpretation. This shows the working space between the ultimate cause of social productivity, and the specific local site data. Without the local data, there is no reference for grand theory.
Another example of middle range theory working in archaeology is an updated concept of animism presented by Harrison-Buck which may be applicable as a cognitive approach to archaeology. This animism differs from Tylor’s animism in that it is a relational ontology, rather than a specified system of beliefs. The author examines Nurit Bird-David’s theory of relatedness, which is an alternate view of the world focusing on the relationships with the world, rather than of the world. She illuminates examples of circular shrines in the Maya lowlands as socially meaningful places of reciprocity. The animate being of landscape is shown through wind temple architecture (Harrison-Buck, 2012)
Ian Hodder asserts that all theories have the same empirical level, and this perspective proves much more workable than a rank of theory such as that presented by Boyd (Forslund, 2004). Learning how to utilize a range theories can benefit anthropology and archaeology, because they allow for the interpretation into a lifestyle narrative from static remains and environmental data. A holistic view of the full range of available theories illuminates a liminal workspace existing in the middle range, suitable for discourse on the varied work explored within the social sciences. There is still room in the conversation to categorize theories and methods for description and reflection, and this is especially helpful in orienting research methodologies.
Cochrane describes policy studies as “liminal” and was reminded of an article from my bibliography that looks at science fiction narrative as a model of human beliefs and predictions (Ervin, 2005). Abbot, a Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University presents examples of how cyberpunk genre science-fiction stories can be utilized as a text for reading human beliefs regarding speculations about the future of development. Abbot claims such narrative can be a method of simulation to speculate on the challenges which may arise in the future of urban planning. The primary themes of cyberpunk revolve around world cities or themes of pacific ascendency (specifically United States and Asian relationships). Often using dystopian or utopian narratives to illustrate speculative responses to many crisis conditions of the 19th century. Although a specialist in urban planning, Abbot presents an anthropological lens of interpreting science-fiction as a text for human beliefs and speculations. The prominent themes of cyber-punk science fiction reflect those of the current “crisis” conditions. (Abbott, 2007).
These examples illuminate the necessity of the full range of theory as applied to the social sciences. There is a necessity for both the grand theories and localized theories, to serve as orienting guides. The middle range however, presents a vague space of workable discourse, where the differences between theories can be seen to relate. When you see the whole wheel from the inside you realize separating the spokes and the hub defeats the whole.
2007 Cyberpunk Cities: Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory. Journal of Planning Education and Research 27:122-131.
Bettencourt, Luís M. A.
2013 The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.
2010 Theories in Anthropology and ‘Anthropological Theory.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:387-404.
2004 MRT Confidential. In Material Culture and Other Things: Post-disciplinary Studies in the 21st Century. Gothenburg: U of Gothenburg, Department of Archaeology.
2012 Architecture as Animate Landscape: Circular Shrines in the Ancient Maya Lowlands. American Anthropologist 114(1):64-80.
1997 Anthropology: A Practice of Theory. ISSJ 153, UNESCO. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK and Maiden, MA.
Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Clottes, J.
1998 The mind in the cave – the cave in the mind: altered consciousness in the Upper Palaeolithic. Anthropology of Consciousness, 9(1): 13–21.
Ortman, Scott with Andrew H. F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, and Luís M. A. Bettencourt.
2015 Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society. Sci. Adv. 1
If these posts are helpful to you, consider sending me a coffee!