Friday, 7 August 2015

Viewpoints 8: Maslow's hammer

Abraham Maslow (fair use)

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966
Maslow's quote is one of my favorites and would pretty well sum up the state of any do it yourself project I might be foolish enough to attempt at home. Apart from having all thumbs on both of my left hands and thus having a rational fear of power tools or anything sharp, I tend to keep my research tool box as well-stocked as finances permit. My best psychology tool is C. G. Jung but Abraham Maslow comes in second, mainly for his ideas about peak experiences and how the aesthetic experience is related to the religious experience. (Religions, Values and Peak Experiences).

Along with criminal investigation, archaeology should be one of the most interdisciplinary subjects out there, and it does try to become so. I have seen a few interdisciplinary archaeological conferences, but their structures have been so passive that "being interdisciplinary" is foisted off on the audience: they get to choose which lectures they attend and in a big conference there can be several lectures going on at the same time. At such a conference, a pottery specialist might me able to fill his or her time quite well without having to experience anything other than the subject of pottery. It reminds of early e-commerce, when a business web site most often consisted of a scanned business card showing the phone number to call. The university has "scanned" itself, set up in a hall and is calling itself an interdisciplinary conference. The only things missing are exams and a degree to take home with you (and a lot of time). People go from lecture to lecture like students following their desired curriculum or wonder where to go like a shopper entering the food court at the local shopping mall. Should I fill up on a pizza or sample different things at the tapas bar? There is nothing interdisciplinary, at best it is multidisciplinary, but either are just used as a fashionable or PR veneer. It is all starting to look a little carnival-like to me, but carnivals are better at moving crowds and you never see a "This way to the egress" sign in a lecture hall.

Then there are the published conference papers, or collections of papers on a topic published without first being presented at a conference. Among this category are some of my most-used volumes, but now and again one gets fooled by publisher's hype and ends up with collection of papers all following the latest academic fad or theory and presenting little that is new. You start to see the same names appearing together in publication after publication. Worst still, is that being a product of an apparent clique with a book factory, opposing views are so played down in a passive-aggressive manner that we might wonder if any of them have any validity at all if we had not already encountered them. Such collections seem marketed to the public to give them the latest academic fashions by real academics and they are usually on the expensive side and not good value for money. When you spend $150 for a book and end up with only one seminal paper that might be purchased from JSTOR later for $30 the interdisciplinary mind tends to stray toward P. T. Barnum.

A new medium version of the scanned business card on an early web site is the book which has an e-book version which is nothing but the same layout as the hard copy edition converted to a PDF file and without hyperlinks for contents and indices. Often, the hard copy publication uses double columns and the resulting e-book has to be zoomed in to read and looking at each page is like viewing trying to view a large scene through a letter box.

Way beyond the interdisciplinary is the transdisciplinary, but in its most recent form it barely even gets a mention in archaeology. If the wave/particle duality in quantum physics fascinates you then you probably have the sort of mind that will take to transdisciplinarity. If you are a dyed in the wool extravert/skeptic, it might be best to stay away from it as it could be upsetting. It borders on the Pauli-Jung conjecture.

Information has become too complex to contain within outdated structures; it has left the safety of the closed system discipline and has set out on a journey beyond disciplines. While this feels very futuristic, I think that it is actually the start of a swing back to the primitive worldview's aspect of wholeness or connectivity but with the added intellectual knowledge of what used to be instinctual and only experientially modified. It also speaks of the related swing toward better balancing Mythos with Logos as we have been excessively compartmentalizing reality prior to this natural swing in the opposite direction. Some people are viewing this time as evolutionary, but I am old enough to have seen all that happen before (the expectation of some evolutionary change, not any change, itself). The needle swings back and forth all the time, but as it is always reacting to things, and often irrationally so, no one can tell which way it is drifting in the long term.

The excessive use of fads and faddish theories in archaeology is counter-intuitive to any transdisciplinary approach and comes about because bandwagons can be useful for personal advancement. The concept of viewpoints extends to archaeology itself: a lot of what we are seeing posing as product is actually promotional material if viewed from a viewpoint closer to its creation and further from its intended reception. It is authentic as a business model because it has to be in order to survive. The "it" in question is a specific academic cultural frame which relies on government money, teaching income and profit from publications/events. Within each of these social structures movement takes place largely through an inefficient use of something like the Chinese Guanxi. It is authentic in the way that a large food corporation is authentic: it takes care of its shareholders money as best it can and works to improve production, transportation and sales, and its employees do not have to worry too much about losing their jobs. Where do you imagine that proper human nutrition lies on their list of priorities?

We really need to increase the numbers and usefulness of our tools in archaeological research. Viewpoints are also tools; a way of approaching a subject in a fresh way. Although by their very definition they are subjective, they can expose important information because the researcher is entering a space never occupied before. If, at that point, the researcher is too close to the tool he or she is using, then the researcher might miss that new information and will continue to use the hammer to no avail. Seeing the need for a different tool and using that tool properly is no problem for the individual craftsman, but when that tool is another theory to replace the one being used by your workmates, the problem is not as simple. The individual craftsman, of course, while free to do anything, lacks the infrastructure, protection, and potential directions of the large corporation.

The independent researcher is an outsider, but I will talk about that on Monday when the topic will (of course) be Colin Wilson. Have a transcendental weekend.

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