From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Subject: Kuhn, American Archaeology, and Isolationism
Date: 08 Sep 1999 00:00:00 GMT
Message-ID: <7r6a94$2lqt$>

How the Normative Paradigm in American Archaeology Works

[The following is based on Kuhn, Thomas. _The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions_, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1962, and on the research
by Darrell J. Doughty]

The concept of a "normative paradigm" derives from a book written some
time ago by Thomas Kuhn, entitled The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. This book was primarily concerned with paradigmatic
presuppositions in the physical sciences, but its insights are
illuminating for American archaeology and prehistory as well. In the
same way as the physical sciences, archaeology is governed by a
collection of presupposed "paradigms," shared in common by the scholarly
community. In the physical sciences such paradigms are derived from
experimental achievements in the past regarded as fundamental for
present research; in American archaeology they are derived from the past
works of great masters, figures such as Franz Boas, A.L. Kroeber, A.V.
Kidder, etc. In both disciplines, however, such paradigms are regarded
as foundational because they seem more successful than their competitors
in making sense of the multifarious "facts" with which one's discipline
is concerned (Ibid., 16, 33). According to Kuhn, these paradigms
constitute an "implicit body of intertwined theoretical and
methodological belief" which tells the practitioner "what both the world
and his science are like" (Ibid., 16f, 40-42). Those persons whose
research is based on shared paradigms "are committed to the same rules
and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent
consensus it produces are prerequisites for the genesis and continuation
of a particular research tradition" (Ibid., 11). This is what I refer to
as a "normative paradigm," namely, the interlocking collection of
assumptions, commitments and methodologies that determines the way in
which American archaeology and prehistory studies are pursued today,
consciously and unconsciously.

While early on theories of cultural connections between America and the
rest of the world were quite common, since many basic cultural
similarities were obvious even to a casual observer, sometime by the
middle of this century such a view became heresy among "reputable
scholars". And so American Isolationism became entrenched. That there
should not be any cultural connections between ancient America and the
rest of the world became a rigidly enforced dogma, or the normative
paradigm in the Kuhnian sense.

Kuhn emphasizes that, at least to begin with, it is not necessary that
all the "facts" be explained, but only that the paradigm is able to
integrate a wide range of facts in a more satisfactory way than
alternative paradigms. So the creators of the present Isolationist
paradigm, archaeologists of 100 years ago, tended to put aside certain
facts that were inconvenient for their Isolationist view. These facts,
unfortunately, still remain shunted aside.

But the problem is that once the normative paradigm is in place, the
task of future research will be merely to show how the remaining facts
and unsolved problems can be explained in its light. The paradigm takes
on a life of its own. The paradigm itself identifies those "facts" which
are "particularly revealing about the nature of things," the problems
that remain to be solved, and the rules "that limit both the nature of
acceptable solutions and the steps by which they are to be obtained." A
"revealing fact" is one which extends the paradigm. A legitimate problem
is one for which the paradigm indicates that a solution can be obtained.
And an acceptable solution must cohere with the assumptions of the
presupposed paradigm.

Facts that do not fit the paradigm are often not perceived as facts at
all. (Such was the case with Garcia Payon's Roman head, for instance.
Nobody was interested in it for the longest time.) Solutions that fall
outside the paradigm are not regarded as solutions at all.

Kuhn likens the normative paradigm to a jigsaw puzzle for which the only
acceptable solution makes use of all the pieces, interlocking them to
create the correct picture. If a certain piece cannot be made to fit
unless the entire picture is modified, it is unacceptable.(Ibid., 24-27,
38f.) So there are many such "unacceptable pieces" lying around
neglected in various dusty rooms of museums around America, just like
Garcia Payon's Roman head. As Alice Kehoe remarks in her recent book
[_Land Of Prehistory; A Critical History Of American Archaeology_,
Kehoe, Alice Beck, Routledge, 1998], there are whole ancient cities that
litter the American archaeological landscape, extensive and mysterious
ancient ruins that scholars often prefer not to notice, because they
don't happen to fit into their preconceived idea of a gradualist and
linear cultural evolution of ancient America.

[She uses the ancient ruins of Cahokia as one such example. For a review
of Kehoe's book,


As Kuhn points out, once in place the normative paradigm tells us which
studies and which facts revealed by these studies are relevant for
future research. This paradigmatic picture of the past determines how
future research priorities are set and funded, who gets promoted in
archaeological departments, which young PhD graduates get jobs and which
don't, and on what basis articles are accepted for publication in
prestigious archaeological journals. Only when the historian's
"imagination" conceives a different picture of the past, only then the
credibility of a different research perspective and the alleged facts it
presents are perceived in a different way.

Kuhn observes that "scientists work from models acquired through
education and through subsequent exposure to the literature often
without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given
these models the status of community paradigms." They do not usually ask
or debate what makes a particular problem or solution legitimate, not
because they necessarily know the answer, but because "neither the
question nor the answer is felt to be relevant to their research"
(Structure, 46).

The assumption of American Isolation determines almost the entire
research agenda for American archaeology and prehistory today. The
on-going production of dissertations and monographs and commentaries in
American archaeology and prehistory at this time still tries to show
that satisfactory interpretations can be provided under the present

After all, Kuhn observes that once the normative paradigm is in place
the enterprise of normal research

"seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively
inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal
science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will
not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally
aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those
invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to
the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm
already supplies" (Structure, 25).

So whether such interpretations focus on a single, obscure item, or the
entire archaeological record, still, at a fundamental level they merely
represent attempts to undergird the paradigmatic assumption of American
cultural isolation in some new way; and they are regarded by the
scholarly community as "satisfactory" in so far as this goal seems to be

But, in my view, and in the view of some other dissident scholars like
Alice Kehoe, or George Carter, the present paradigm has failed to
mediate a satisfactory understanding of the huge diversity of data we
encounter in the American archaeological record. As a result, many of
the most basic problems presented in this record still remain

So what is the way to the future in American archaeology and prehistory?

According to Kuhn,

"Normal science can proceed without rules only so long as the relevant
scientific community accepts without question the particular problem
solutions already achieved. Rules should therefore become important and
the characteristic unconcern about them should vanish whenever paradigms
or models are felt to be insecure. This is, moreover, exactly what does
occur." (Structure, 47)

According to Kuhn, new paradigms are necessary and a scientific
"revolution" takes place when indisputable "anomalies" appear for which
the present paradigms provide no explanation and thus "subvert the
existing traditions of scientific practice" (Structure, 6).

As archaeology proceeds and new discoveries are made, more and more of
such "anomalies" continue to appear. For example, increasingly scholars
are now coming to the view that some of the earliest migrations to
America were water-borne. As underwater archaeology, a relatively new
field, is developing, we are uncovering more evidence of very early
marine-adapted cultures in America. Also DNA studies are providing some
new exciting evidence of early American cultures having unexpected links
with the cultures in the rest of the world, both in Asia and in Europe.

For Americanist studies, however, it is not simply a matter of a few
anomalies being fitted into the existing Isolationist paradigm, because
some of this new research puts into question our entire understanding of
American archaeology and prehistory. It is as if we had been working a
jigsaw puzzle upside down, for many years, and turning it over we found
no picture at all.

So more and more scholars are coming to realise that new paradigm is
sorely needed in American archaeology. A new and more honest approach is
needed to explain so many "anomalies" that so many traditionalist
scholars preferred not to see. Ben Madison's effort may be flawed in
some ways, but at least he's trying to do what thousands of
professionals are trying so hard to avoid doing.

For the construction of a new paradigm in American archaeology and
prehistory, we need to talk about methodological "rules." We need to ask
about what makes a particular problem legitimate as a subject of


For more info about Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions",
you can see the following webpages.

A Synopsis from the original by Professor Frank Pajares,

Outline and Study Guide,


In the next little while, I will present some more evidence about
apparent links between the American Copper Culture, and the early Bronze
Age Mediterranean cultures. Also I will present some new information
about pineapple, a native American plant, and its wide attestation in
the ancient Old World, both in Asia and in the Mediterranean.


Yuri Kuchinsky  -=O=-

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely
rearranging their prejudices -=O=- William James

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