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Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists

Abstract

I review several bodies of empirical urban theory relevant to the archaeological analysis of ancient cities. Empirical theory is a type of “middle-range theory” (following Robert Merton): sets of concepts and methods that are less abstract, and have greater empirical content, than high-level social theory. The categories of theory reviewed here include environment-behavior theory, architectural communication theory, space syntax, urban morphology, reception theory, generative planning theory, normative theory, and city size theory. Most of these approaches originated in the fields of architecture, planning, and geography, and they directly link the urban-built environment to the actions of people within cities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Noyes (2008:37) suggests that, “Folklorists can resolve their theory anxieties by embracing not grand but humble theory. Humble theory informs and is informed by ethnography and practice. It addresses how rather than why questions: the middle ground between lived experience and putative transcendent laws.”

  2. 2.

    Christopher Carr (1995, 1995, 1995) has employed a definition of middle-level theory that is related to both Merton’s and Binford’s concepts: middle-level theory serves as a bridge between the forms of artifacts and features on the one hand, and social and cultural processes on the other. For example, “The purpose of the unified theory of artifact design, as a middle-range theory, is to assign potential etic meanings to the design attributes of a class of artifacts” (Carr 1995: 246).

  3. 3.

    They are certainly crucial from a scientific realist approach to theory and explanation (Boyd 2010; Bunge 1993; Little 2010; Pawson 2000; Wylie 2002), although perhaps not to interpretivist approaches.

  4. 4.

    A number of archaeologists who mention Merton’s concept of middle-range theory (in relation to Binford’s) mischaracterize it in a specific fashion. This error began with Raab and Goodyear (1984:257), who stated, “middle-range theory is seen as providing a logical link between relatively low-order empirical generalizations and comparatively high-order theories.” In fact, middle-range theories are intermediate between descriptions of the real world and high-level theory; empirical generalizations are something else entirely. This error is repeated by Forslund (2004:214), who cites the Raab and Goodyear passage. Postprocessual theorist Matthew Johnson continues this line of erroneous interpretation in his 2010 textbook, claiming that middle-range theories are “theories that fell in the range between empirical generalizations and ‘grand theory’ (Johnson 2010: 53); he does not cite Raab and Goodyear, although that source is included in the bibliography of an earlier edition of the book (Johnson 1999). This error—the switch from empirical data (in Merton’s definition) to “empirical generalizations”—has an important implication. Because generalizations and grand theory are both high-level explanatory constructs, this error rules out the possibility of an epistemological hierarchy of distinct levels of theory. Middle-range theory would join those other two constructs at the same level, rather than occupying a lower epistemological level as in Merton’s model. By denying the existence of different epistemological levels, this error supports the postprocessual positions of Johnson and Hodder that all theory exists at the same level.

  5. 5.

    The very notion of middle-range, or empirical, theory presupposes a scientific epistemology, and phenomenology is notoriously anti-scientific in both its philosophical orientation (Bunge 2010) and its archaeological expression (Fleming 2006; Tilley 1994).

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Acknowledgements

I thank Benoît Dubreuil, Cynthia Heath-Smith, Keith Lilley, and Juliana Novic for comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Several anonymous reviewers for the journal provided lengthy and insightful critiques and suggestions that helped improve both my thinking about urban theory and the argument of this paper. I thank Jason Baird Jackson, Jan Nijman, Jason Ur, Benjamin Vis, and Abigail York for suggestions and citations; Robert Sampson for sending me an unpublished manuscript; and Michelle Hegmon, Alison Kohn, and Juliana Novic for helpful conversations about social theory.

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Smith, M.E. Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. J Archaeol Method Theory 18, 167–192 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-010-9097-5

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Keywords

  • Urbanism
  • Theory
  • Planning
  • Middle-range theory
  • Built environment