Here is a passage from Smith (2011):
“High-level theoretical schemes describe how the social world works on a very abstract, philosophical level, and as a result their utility in the analysis of particular empirical cases is rather limited (Ellen, 2010). In the words of [sociologist C. Wright] Mills, grand theory is “so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts” Mills, 1959:33). In their empirical studies, archaeologists who enjoy high-level theory typically cite such authors in their introductions, and perhaps again in their conclusions, but rarely during the course of their analyses of data"
Abstract social theory, "grand theory" in Mills's terms, is fine for archaeology IF:
- If one conceives archaeology as more in the humanities than the sciences.
- If one is and idealist and not a materialist.
- If one is only interested in particular sites/cultures/regions, but not interested in comparisons with broader spatial and social contexts.
- If one is not concerned with creating a body of reliable empirical knowledge about the past.
- If one has no concern for causality and explanation of past social patterns and changes.
- If one thinks that archaeology constitutes the total relevant scholarly universe, and thus one is not interested in other disciplines.
- If one doesn’t care whether scholars in other social science disciplines find archaeological data useful or not.
- If one thinks that archaeological findings have no relevance to understanding, explaining, or solving the problems of the contemporary world.
I've written a lot about this topic previously. Check out my urban theory paper (Smith 2010), or a paper due out in the SAA Archaeological Record next month (Smith 2015). Or look at some of my prior posts in the blog:
"How would you know if you are wrong?"
"How do archaeologists make arguments?"
"Why do I dislike archaeological theory?"
"Do grad students have to know social theory?"
"Problems with Bourdieu? We can help! Call now"
"Why don't archaeologists talk about causality, explanation, and epistemology?"
"Theory, theory theory. What do we mean by theory?"
2010 Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16:387-404.
Mills, C. Wright
1959 The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.
2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:167-192.
2015 How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments. The SAA Archaeological Record (in press).