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Society for American Archaeology

Method in Archaeology: Middle-Range Theory as Hermeneutics


Author(s): Peter Kosso
Source: American Antiquity, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 621-627
Published by: Society for American Archaeology
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METHOD IN ARCHAEOLOGY:
MIDDLE-RANGE THEORY AS HERMENEUTICS
Peter Kosso
Disagreementsaboutmethodologyin archaeologyareoftenlocatedin termsof the middle-range-theory
approach
of LewisBinfordand the hermeneutic,contextualarchaeologyof Ian Hodder.Thesepositionsare usuallypresented
in oppositionto each other, but here they are shown to present very much the same methodologicalpictureof
archaeology.Thisspecificanalysisis moregenerallyinformativeof the methodologicalrelationbetweenthe natural
and social sciences.
Desacuerdosacercade metodologiaen arqueologiason frecuentementeplanteadosen terminosdel enfoquede
teoriade rangomediode LewisBinfordy la perspectivahermeneuticay contextualde Ian Hodder.Estasposiciones
son presentadasnormalmenteen oposici6n,pero en el presentearticulose demuestraque ambas ofrecenuna
imagen metodol6gicasimilar de la arqueologia.Este analisis resulta mds informativoen terminosgenerales
acercade la relaci6nmetodolo6gica
entre las ciencias naturalesy las cienciassociales.
On a map of the sciences, archaeology would be a border state between the natural and social
sciences. It is like a social science in that the objects of interest are people, human culture, and
artifacts created under the influence of ideas and social norms. Evidence in archaeology is often
symbolic, meaningful, and intentional, and the archaeologist must be sensitive to this unnatural
content. But archaeology is also like a natural science in that its focus is on the material remains
of people in the past and on their relation withthe natural environment.
the Not oonly are the artifacts
often the products of coping with nature, they are always altered by natural processes of aging,
material degradation, erosion, and the like, thus making aspects of natural sciences appropriate
resources for getting information about the past. Even under a mandate of paying attention to ideas
and symbols, the text from which this information is read is the material record. Linda Patrik (1985:
dual nature of archaeology by describing two ways of dealing with the archaeological
34) notes thisthis
record: "Because archaeological evidence is presumably the product of both natural processes and
behavioral processes, rather than the product of either one of these alone, there is disagreement
amongst archaeologists over what kind of record archaeological evidence forms."
Located at this interface, archaeology is especially prone to disagreements over method. There is
a rich variety of positions among archaeologists regarding the appropriate methods for their discipline, and the positions are often presented in terms of just how like a natural science or a social
science archaeology ought to be. In wht follows here, two of these positions, chosen for their high
profile in the profession and because they are reference points for the two ends of the spectrum,
will be compared. The point I want to make is simple. Though these two methodological approaches-the middle-range-theory concept of Lewis Binford and the model of contextual archaeology advocated by Ian Hodder-are originally presented in strong opposition, they are really very
similar.
Binford's model of good archaeological method (outlined in Binford [1977, 1982a, and elsewhere])
has it that archaeology should be much like natural science. It deals in theories and evidence and
carries out a regimen of testing by exploiting the causal connections between things in the past and
their remains found in the present. Objectivity is the methodological goal. Hodder, in explicit
Peter Kosso, Departmentof Philosophy,NorthernArizona University,Flagstaff,AZ 86011
American Antiquity, 56(4), 1991, pp. 621-627.

Copyright? 1991 by the Society for AmericanArchaeology

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opposition to this, claims that natural science is an inappropriate model for archaeology in that it
is incorrigibly insensitive to ideas. Artifacts can be understood only when viewed in the context of
the ideas and norms during their manufacture and use. This suggests a method of study that is less
like natural science and more like reading and interpreting a text, where the connection between
evidence and object of interest is one of signification rather than of causation.
A look at the substance behind the slogans of these two positions will reveal that there is little
methodological difference. In showing this, the focus will always be on methodology and not on
issues of the proper aims of archaeology nor on the differences between the objects studied by social
and natural sciences. Even if the kinds of objects are significantly different, this does not entail the
need for significantly different methods. And granting the two dissimilar models of the archaeological
record as described by Patrik (1985), it does not follow that these demand two dissimilar methods
for exploiting the information in the record and for using it to support knowledge of the past.
The plan of presentation is to first briefly describe Binford's application of middle-range theories
to archaeology and Hodder's approach of reading the past. Once out of their packages, these models
of archaeology will be seen as presenting essentially the same methodological picture. The hope is
that this focused analysis of archaeological method will be more generally informative of the methodological relation between the natural and social sciences.
MIDDLE-RANGE THEORIES
This will be a very brief account of middle-range theory, an account that ignores much variety
of detail in the concept but that is sufficient for my subsequent argument. The concept of middlerange theory, as it is applied to archaeology by Binford (1977, 1982a) and by Schiffer (1988) is
useful in any science. In understanding just what the idea is and how it works, it will be more
important to analyze the notion of middle range than that of theory. Start by asking what is middling
about a middle-range theory. There are differences between Schiffer and Binford on the details of
middle-range theories, and in my characterization I will try to honor the task set by Binford for
middle-range theories, with a sensitivity to the epistemic predicament of archaeology. I will point
out the crucial characteristics for a middle-range theory to function as Binford intends.
In Binford's (1977:6) use of the concept, middle-range theories are descriptive claims that fall
between observational descriptions of what the archaeologists find in the present, that is, site and
field reports, and the descriptive reconstructions of the past. The material remains that are found
in the present function as evidence for the claims made about the past, w ther those claims are
specific, as about the shape of a particular pot, or more general, as about the emergence of civilization.
Middle-range theories are used to make the informational link between present and past, and to
say of what the material remains are evidence. They do this by describing the formation of the
archaeological record as it is today. This description will include general theories about how artifacts
are used and subsequently deposited by burial, neglect, or intentional discard, and general theories
about the alteration of deposited artifacts by both natural and cultural activities. It will also include
specific claims about the area, its propensity for erosion, for example, and the local people. All of
these claims are middle-range theories in that they contribute to the description of the causal lineage
of the debris that is observed today. Being of general or universal scope is not a necessary feature
of a theory as it is used in the middle-range strategy to cross the epistemic gap between available
data in thethe
present and interesting phenomena in he past. The distinction of middle-range theories
is in "giving meaning to our contemporary observations made on the archaeological record" (Binford
1982b:161), and to do this by describing "the formation process of the archaeological record"
(Binford 1977:7). The debris is an archaeological record of something of interest in the past, but
we can know what it is a record of only with a theoretical reconstruction of how it was formed, and
this account of the formation of the archaeological record is the burden of middle-range theory, a
burden that will be carried by a combination of general and particular claims.
Any theory could be used in the role of being middle range. Being middle range is not a feature
of the content of a theory but of its use in a particular instance. The relevant middle in this sense
is not meant to be of mid-generality or of mid-empirical content. This disregard for generality or

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empirical content differs fromSchiffere's account of middle-range theories, according to which, "any
theory can function as method, depending on context" (Schiffer 1988:436), but genuinely middlerange theories are those of mid-comprehensiveness and mid-range empirical content (Schiffer 1988:
465). Thus, for Schiffer, middle-range theories are distinctive as to their content. This is often true
in other studies of science (see, for example, Schaffer [1980] about biological middle-range theories
as theories of mid-generality), where the terminology of middle range is used to indicate one of
these features of content, but what is key to realize Binford's intent is the role a theory plays in
processes of interpreting evidence and testing claims about the past. There are no special theories
that are of use only for testing other claims, nor should any be antecedent ly excluded from use in
testing. A theory will in one context ble
theory, but in another will be regarded
as itself the interesting, finished product, answerable to tests against the evidence.
In other words, the observations in archaeology, as in any other interesting business of empirical
knowledge, are theory laden, and middle-range theories are a large part of the load. Insofar as
observations in the present are to be relevant as evidence for theories about the past, we must
identify information of the past in the present remains. The tracking of the flow of information
from interesting past to observable present is done by the middle-range theories.
Here is an example of middle-range theories in action, taken from archaeological studies of ancient
Greece. One thing ththat archaeologists and historians want to know about ancient Greece is the
structure and genesis of socioeconomic systems. Part of the evidence for claims about such things
will come through an understanding of cultivated farmland in ancient times, a picture of the sizes,
locations, and changes of fields under cultivation. But we do not see the cultivation. What the
archaeologist finds are remains of terrace walls, sparse scatterings of potsherds, and other indirect
traces of past agricultural activity. The light scatter of sherds can be taken as evidence of cultivation
in light of middle-range theories that describe a pattern of rural Greeks discarding old pots near
their houses where the broken bits get inadvertently mixed into the manure of farm animals kept
at the place of residence. The manure is spread as fertilizer on cultivated fields and the mix of sherds
is scattered, leaving a lasting trace of the activities of cultivation. Areas once under cultivation may
now be scattered with sherds, while areas not cultivated will not be, and insofar as the sherds can
be dated, the cultivation activity can be dated. In this way the sherd scatter is a kind of image of
the agricultural activities. It is certainly not an obvious likeness of cultivation, and the image has
been distorted through repeated use of the land, erosion, and other natural and cultural forces, but
such distortions can be taken into account in the descriptive reconstruction of the past.
This is by no means a certain or universally accepted inference from contemporary data (sherd
scatter) to past activities (manuring and cultivation), but it does have significant support (e.g., Bintliff
and Snodgrass 1988:507-508) and credible evidence in its own right (Wilkinson 1982). There is
reason to doubt that manuring was a universal practice, characteristic to all agricultural settings in
the ancient Mediterranean (Cherry et al. 1991 :Chapter 3), but this indicates not that it is inappropriate
as a middle-range theory but that extra work is called for to know the circumstances, such as
availability of water, in which the theory of manuring is likely to apply. Where manuring has been
done, the link between off-site sherds and cultivation can be exploited as a middle-range theory.
Middle-range theories of this kind are commonplace in the natural sciences. They are the imaging
theories that describe the informational connection between what is seen and its causal antecedent
of which it is evidence. Again, these are not a special kind of theory. It is simply a special kind of
use for ordinary theories. Consider, for example, the theoretical account of how an optical microscope
works. General theories from optics, describing the diffraction and interference of light, the behavior
of lenses and so on, are invoked to describe how the image is formed and to keep track of any
instrumental distortions. This is the source of confidence that features of the image are reliably
informative of features of the specimen, and these are middle-range theories, used as they are to
describe the formation of the image and thereby make it evidence of something interesting. Another
example comes out in Shapere's (1982) account of observing the interior of the sun. Neutrinos
observed on the earth, or more strictly, the detector-clicks caused by beta emissions from radioactive
argon produced by neutrino interactions, are evidence for theories about solar processes. But the
neutrinos (or the clicks) are informative of the solar interior only by way of a theoretical account

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of the causal chain from the sun to the clicks, that is, by way of theoretical neutrino physics,
radiochemistry, and more, middle-range theories all. Thus, Binford's application of middle-range
theories to archaeology puts it in close company with standard practice in natural science.
CONTEXTUAL ARCHAEOLOGY
Hodder (1986:12, 29) argues that this methodological association with natural science puts archaeology in with the wrong company. Middle-range theories and their natural-science methods are
inappropriate to the study of human culture because, he claims, as theories they make cross-cultural
generalizations. They are insensitive, that is, to peoples' ideas, intentions, and meanings, and thereby
they miss an important aspect of the past, an aspect which is essential for understanding any part
of past human culture. Since ideas and norms are often culture specific and even individual specific,
they will be missed by a method that bases its evidence on cross-cultural middle-range theories. If
there are any general theories they must be the result of information from the evidence, that is, they
must be proven, but they cannot be assumed and invoked to support the informational content in
the evidence.
Methodological sensitivity to ideas and intentions is crucial, Hodder (1985:12, 1986:3-4) argues,
because all material culture is mediated by the beliefs of the makers and users (as well as the finders)
and the meanings intended. All artifacts reflect either conscious or unconscious ideas and norms.
Everything, not just artistic, linguistic, and ceremonial behavior, is symbolic. The patterns of use
and the spatial arrangement of everyday stuff reflect the attitudes and tacit norms of thought of the
individuals and their culture. These basic material objects and their organization are indicative of
the ro
ideas on, for example, the importance of particular things, therthey
play, relations between
an
in
The
of
is
influence
and
to
the
environment.
archaeologist studies.
everything
ideology
people
In other words, the system, that is, the material things and their physical organization, is a manifestation of the structure, the nonphysical factors such as social norms and individuals' ideas and
intentions. Thus, an understanding of structure is achieved through an understanding of system.
But a system cannot be properly understood without knowing something about the structure. Insofar
as the material objects are symbolic they are signifiers of ideas, but there is no link between signifier
and signified without an understanding of the ideological context and the intentions behind the
meaningful activities. We need some appreciation of the actors' ideas, for example, to group components of the system into kinds in a way that is relevant to their worldview.
Given this relation between system and structure, the individuals and cultures of the past can
only be understood, as Hodder says in agreement with Collingwood's approach to history, "from
inside" (Hodder 1986:30). The archaeologist cannot get anywhere without some preliminary knowledge of structure, what is going on inside the peoples' minds and inside society. There is then a
circularity in the process of knowing the past in that system is the source for understanding structure,
and structure is the background for understanding the system. It is a hermeneutic circle, hence the
method of "reading the past." As Hodder sees it, the method is unlike the sort of linear inference
back along a causal chain as is the approach when middle-range theories are invoked. All aspects
of archaeological knowledge will require some initial knowledge of intentions and the meanings of
things as a way to break into the hermeneutic circle. In fact, "It is only when we make assumptions
about the subjective meanings in the minds of people long dead that we can begin to do archaeology"
(Hodder 1986:79). It is important to realize that these are not wild, irresponsible, or irreversible
speculations. They are accountable to a kind of testing in that the assumptions of meaning must
lead to sensible, consistent system and structure. Individual assumptions are evaluated "by interpreting general understanding or foreknowledge in relation to our understanding of particular contexts" (Hodder 1991:8), and are inadmissible unless they show coherence with other ideas attributed
to the people long dead, and unless they provide "correspondence to the evidence" (Hodder 1986:
95), that is, allow an easy, rational link between intentions and material behavior.
Hodder's account of archaeological method seems to have shifted the burden of proof. Crosscultural generalizations, as would be found among middle-range theories, "have to be proven, not
assumed" (Hodder 1986:80), though he admits that there are some "simple rules underlying all

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languages" (Hodder 1986:123) that can be used to understand the past. Cross-cultural generalities
cannot be assumed but subjective meanings can.
This apparently differential treatment is a feature of the advertising of the methodological position
that does not accurately reflect the product. The distinction between assumption and proof works
only to confuse both Binford's and Hodder's models of archaeological knowledge since in both
models, what may be initially assumed is accountable to subsequent proof. Whether it is of a crosscultural generalization or of a subjective meaning, an assumption is tentative and revisable. It is a
hypothesis in need of justification. In the methodological scheme of things, middle-range theories
function as do claims about ideas, hypothetical in activities of discovery, and in need of proof in
activities of justification. A look at how these things are justified will reveal greater similarity between
andclaims about structure, and between the two archaeological methods in
middle-range theories and
which they function.
The suggestion at this point is that instead of opposing Binford's and Hodder's methodological
models by saying that "contextual structuring
pring ciples intervene" (Hodder 1986:116), meaning
that the structuring principles replace middle-range theories, it is more accurate to regard the
structural principles as part of the theories. Recall that the operative notion of a middle-range theory
places no restrictions on the content or degree of generality of the claim, only on its use for making
sense of (finding information in) the evidence.
MIDDLE-RANGE THEORY AS CONTEXTUAL METHOD
The distinctive feature of Hodder's contextual method is its affinity to hermeneutics in the relation
of mutual support between evidential claims about system and claims about structure. A description
of the confirmation of middle-range theories will show that Binford's methodological account shares
this affinity.
Middle-range theories, recall, are just ordinary theories. They are tested and justified like any
other theory, including the ones whose observational evidence they laden. Middle-range theories
are tested and justified by comparison to evidence, that is, to observations. There is then a kind of
circularity. Theories in general (including theories used as middle-range theories) are confirmed and
understood through an appeal to observations, and observations in general are understood and
verified with the support of theories. This second half of the cycle, the theory ladenness of observation, represents a blurring of the distinction between fact and theory, exactly as Hodder advocates.
Observations are theoretically influenced claims about local and specific situations, closely linked
to perception. They are similar to claims about the meanings of specific passages in an unfamiliar
text, claims motivated from specific marks on the page. Theories are observationally influenced
claims about more global processes that are not directly linked to particular perceptions. They are
the developing account of the plot of the story. Just as individual passages of text are interpreted
by their context in the larger message of a book while the larger message is itself put together from
an understanding of the parts, so too are individual observations interpreted by appeal to theories
that are themselves put together and supported by observations. That is, the content and justification
of theories are strongly influenced by observations, and in turn the informational content and
justification of observations are influenced by theories. This is exactly the structure of the hermeneutic circle. And middle-range theories participate on both sides of this dialogue between theory
and observation. Middle-range theories are hermeneutic tools.
This is not to say that the objects of study that Binford advocates as important for archaeology
are the same as those stressed by Hodder and contextualist archaeologists. To point out that the
methodological structure of middle-range theorizing is similar to the hermeneutics of contextual
archaeology is not to force the former into a study of the mental component of the archaeological
record. The point is rather that the two different concerns and different objects of study are in a
similar epistemic predicament that calls for a shared method.
The point is relevant beyond archaeology. Natural science in general, role model for middle-range
theorizing, includes a hermeneutic component in the dialectic between theory and evidence. The
hermeneutic structure shown above for Binford's middle-range theories, the reciprocating influence

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between theories about the whole and observations of the parts, would apply as well to the astrophysics example discussed above. This indicates that differences between for-science and againstscience approaches to archaeology have been based in part on an incomplete and inaccurate image
of science in general. Science must read nature just as Hodder points out archaeology must read
the past. The unity of the two approaches then comes in realizing that doing archaeology in a
scientific, middle-range-theory way is doing it in a contextual, hermeneutic way.
Some assumptions need to be made to break into the circular association between theory and
observation. There will be neither meaningful evidence nor theoretical understanding without initial
hypotheses and preliminary middle-range theories. All of these assumptions are revisable. That is
exactly the sort of epistemic responsibility we demand of science. They are revisable against the
standards of coherence with other theories, that is, an internal plausibility in the context of other
laden
with other
theories, and correspondence with the data, that is, with the evidential claims
theories. The revisions are answerable to, as Alison Wylie (1982:42) puts it, "two sets of constraints ... plausibility considerations ... and empirical constraints."
one for
the
theoriesby
The requirement that evidential claims should be influenced
influenceotherd
thaby
which they are evidence is important and it is the foundation of Binford's idea of objectivity. He
advocates a "view of'objectivity' developed within the sciences. That was the view that it was not
the status of the observer that yielded objectivity but the status of logical or intellectual independence
between the ideas being evaluated, on the one hand, and the intellectual tools employed in the evaluated
investigations, on the other" (Binford 1982a:128, emphasis in original). Furthermore, this requirement of independence between object theory and middle-range theory can be used to answer objections of circularity in the testing of theory against theory-laden evidence, as put by contextualists
such as Shanks and Tilley, who say, "If all observation is to a certain extent theoretical, .. . it is
illogical to maintain that theories can be independently tested against observation" (Shanks and
Tilley 1987:40-41). While the antecedent of this is true (all observation is theoretical), the consequent
is not (theories can be tested against independently secured evidence), and it is the insistence on
independence that breaks any problematic, self-serving circularity of theory and evidence. Observations can serve as objective evidence for theories even though observations are indelibly theoretical.
In general then, the acceptability of middle-range theories and the evidential and theoretical
claims they support is governed by a requirement of consistency and coherence and a constraint of
independence in the accounting for evidential claims. No claims, whether preliminary assumptions
of meaning or middle-range theories, are acceptable if they lead to contradiction. We assume that
the book makes sense, hence an interpretation that introduces contradiction must be mistaken.
Interestingly, independence is also the answer to objections of circularity and unverifiability
directed against the contextual, hermeneutic approach (Binford 1989). The "assumptions about
subjective meanings" (Hodder 1986:79) that influence our observations of the material record are
themselves accountable to other evidence that is influenced by other independent hypotheses of
subjective meaning. This contextual method need not be problematically circular or left to unsubstantiated speculation as long as one insists on a coherence among independently arrived at claims
about the past. It is no coincidence that the key to objectivity is the same in the middle-range theory
and hermeneutic approaches. It is the result of their common structure and the fact that they are
fundamentally the same method.
CONCLUSION
The original presentation of Binford's and Hodder's models of archaeological method cast them
as being in opposition. Archaeology by Hodder's contextual account is as reading a book written
in an unfamiliar language. It involves a hermeneutic circle of analysis that requires some initial
assumptions to break in and get started. Binford's middle-range- theory account portrays archaeology
as being methodologically like the natural sciences. Responsible archaeology demands observational
evidence as tests for theories about the past, and informative observation requires theories that
describe the formation of the evidence.

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THEORYAS HERMENEUTICS

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They are both right. It is not that archaeology is a rigid and segregated system of theories and
observations in which brute facts are used to test theories. It is rather that the methods of natural
science, and those advocated by Binford for archaeology, are more like the contextual, hermeneutic,
back-and-forth model than Hodder's original opposition seemed to recognize. The argument for
this similarity is in the display of the nature of claims about the past and claims of evidence, and
the structure of confirmation as advocated by each approach. It is not the content of claims that is
shared but the method of justification and the standard of objectivity.
It is important to display this point of similarity between the processualist and contextualist views
of archaeology to show that the opposition between the two cannot be located on basic issues of
method. Methodological complaints such as circularity and speculativeness, made from one position
about the other, are seen as pointing out potential weakness that both have and both must cover
with the insistence on coherence under the constraint of independence among claims. Hermeneutics,
as a method of acquiring knowledge beyond the most manifest is seen to be appropriate for more
than just uncovering meanings, ideas, and intentions. It is the method as well of natural science.
Acknowledgements. I am gratefulto Cynthia Kosso for help with the facts and to the National Science
Foundation for support (DIR 89-17989) during part of my work on this project.
REFERENCES

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Received May 30, 1990; accepted May 28, 1991

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