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An Extended Interview with Michael Brian Schiffer

This month’s Archeology Division column in Anthropology News features an interview by James M Skibo with Michael Brian Schiffer, Riecker Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona. Schiffer will be the AD Distinguished Lecturer at the November AAA Annual Meeting. Get to know him a bit more by reading the extended dialogue below. Comments and questions for discussion are welcome, and can be posted below or sent to James M Skibo at jmskibo [at] ilstu.edu.

James M Skibo: In the interest of full disclosure, I note that you were the co-chair of my dissertation committee and we have published together often during the past two decades. So my first question is: what is it like to work with brilliant collaborators?

Michael Brian Schiffer: The nice thing about having you as a brilliant collaborator is that, on our joint projects, you did all the work and I got all the credit. Sweet!

JMS: A theme of this column and the entire AD is exploring the relationship between archaeology and anthropology. How does anthropology fit into this picture of what you do and who you are as a scholar?

MBS: Since my undergraduate days at UCLA, I have diligently pursued Lewis R Binford’s vision of how to turn archaeology into an anthropological science by asking, and striving to answer with any relevant evidence, general questions—the kinds that can lead to models, theories, experimental laws and heuristics. This is the major theme that runs through most of my work. Although I also value humanistic research, and have made minor contributions to the history of technology, I believe that seeking general principles to explain variability and change in human behavior is anthropology’s highest calling, one that cultural anthropologists have regrettably forsaken.

JMS: You started as a Southwestern US archaeologist, attended as an undergraduate and then graduate student the infamous Field Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Expedition in Vernon, Arizona, directed by Paul Martin. Your dissertation was on the lithics from the Joint Site, a small thirteenth-century pueblo in the Hay Hollow Valley. I have two questions. There are lithics from this time period? How did this study of chipped stone become your most important early work, Behavioral Archeology?

MBS: The Joint Site lithic assemblage—more than 30,000 pieces—consisted almost entirely of unretouched utility flakes, which no sentient Southwesternist would have tackled. I had little choice because the most desirable data sets had already been parceled out to other graduate students. Yet, because expectations were so low, the chipped stone was in effect a failure-proof project. Fortunately, I was able to make a few interesting inferences by taking into account cultural formation processes. Anyway, (post-Archaic) chipped stone is still the ugly stepchild of the Southwest, and so no one reads Behavioral Archeology to learn about the Joint Site lithics!

JMS: If someone is following your career closely they would note that you published Formation Processes in 1987, but then switched gears dramatically and wrote The Portable Radio in American Life (1991). That book was followed by several more on modern technology. Why the change?

MBS: More than 15 years intensively studying formation processes went into THE BOOK, which exhausted the subject for me, and so I longed to move on to other projects. Our collaborative work on experimental ceramic technology, which led to early theoretical formulations about technological change (eg, our paper in Current Anthropology, 1987), helped me to stake out a new research direction. At the same time, I had begun to collect old radios. W David Kingery, then on our faculty, suggested that instead of just accumulating them, I should study them and learn about change in a modern industrial technology. I had been an electronics nerd when I was young, and so I wasn’t intimidated by having to learn more about radio technology. The result was The Portable Radio in American Life, which (ironically) is my only book reviewed in Science. This project led directly to the next one on early electric cars, which led to the next one on eighteenth-century electrical technology, and so on. After four books on electrical technology, I’m now moving on to a different project, but am still interested in technological change.

JMS: I can personally attest to your 1980s radio collection fetish as I once tried to find a water glass in your kitchen cupboards but found only shelves packed with tiny old radios. Do you still collect them or are you collecting something else?

MBS: Actually, I’m trying to sell off the last of the radios—maybe you could buy a few for old time’s sake. Now I only collect books and other research materials for my projects.

JMS: What do historians of technology think of an archaeologist moving into their turf and in some cases coming up with radically different conclusions about the processes behind the rise and fall of the portable radio, the disappearance of the electric car in the early twentieth century, or the development of early electrical technology?

MBS: They suspect I’m a space alien disguised as an earthling. However, several historians, especially Deborah Warner and Bernard Finn at the Smithsonian and Robert Friedel at the University of Maryland, have befriended me and given me helpful feedback on ideas and drafts. In general, my books have been positively reviewed in Technology and Culture, the organ of the Society for the History of Technology. Historians tend to regard my theoretical excursions as superfluous and my interpretations as contentious, but they do respect my historical scholarship.

JMS: What do you hope that archaeologists get from your books on topics not typically investigated by archaeologists?

MBS: I don’t expect archaeologists to read the books, since each one has become a little more scholarly and a little more esoteric. However, I have diligently followed your wise advice, dispensed almost two decades ago, which is to distill some lessons, some generalizations, from my historical research into articles targeted at archaeologists and anthropologists. So, if you ignore the books (which I hope you don’t—they’re good reads), you’ll find that I have published many papers in edited volumes and journals that speak to anthropologists and archaeologists about general processes of technological change. Unfortunately, the study of technological change does not appeal to most modern cultural anthropologists, and too many archaeologists these days address other—trendier—topics, usually those that cultural anthropologists have just exhausted. I’ll continue to cultivate the study of technological change because I believe it is of enduring significance. Indeed, I have just finished a book on how to study technological change (Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Perspective), which is under submission.

JMS: You have an enviable four-decade-long publication record that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Tell us a little bit about your writing/research process?

MBS: I think people would be surprised to learn how scatterbrained I really am. Until the mid-1990s, I did my best work in bed—with pen, yellow pad, surrounded by a huge scatter of books and papers. (My wife, Annette, has infinite patience.) Now I write on an iMac. Because my early drafts are so poorly written—the secret to good writing is interminable rewriting—I love being able to correct work so easily. However, along the way my writing has lost some of its passion. The favorite part of any project is the early stages, the steep part of the learning curve, when I plunge into new literatures and open my eyes to new possibilities. As a result, sometimes projects take interesting twists and turns. In the mid-1990s I started reading more about evolution, turned to the literature on animal communication, and ended up writing The Material Life of Human Beings: Artifacts, Behavior, and Communication (Routledge, 1999).

JMS: We know your educational background, which started with a BA from the UCLA, but could tell us about your childhood?

MBS: I had an idyllic childhood: two doting parents madly in love with each other (they were married for 63 years), a home in Los Angeles, very little money but lots of hobbies and friends. I hated team sports because I was regarded as “uncoordinated” and slow, and so my passions were more esoteric, such as collecting postage stamps and taking apart and sometimes fixing old radios and TVs. I went to Audubon Junior High School and Dorsey High School; both were thoroughly integrated before forced busing because our neighborhood—the Crenshaw area—was also well integrated and functioning well.

JMS: What did your parents think about your career choice?

MBS: They thought it was weird, and often asked me how I was going to earn a living with a BA in anthropology. Yet, my mom, Frances-Fera, was a frustrated intellectual who hadn’t finished high school when young (neither had my dad, Louie)—though she earned a high school diploma in the 1960s. She filled the house with books and read all the time until she got macular degeneration in both eyes. She gave me my first archaeology book, and so the discipline should probably hold her responsible for all the damage I have done. They were very proud that I was a successful professor, and they lived long enough to see me named the Riecker Distinguished Professor.

JMS: Who were or are your heroes?

MBS: I don’t have any heroes, per se, but during occasional periods of self-doubt I have been fortified by reading biographies of famous scientists, many of whom were trashed by their peers but succeeded through force of will and good works. In archaeology, specifically, I have learned much from many people, too numerous to mention

JMS: One of the four strategies of behavioral archaeology involves archaeologists using their skills to comment on or contribute more directly to our contemporary world. Do you think archaeologists do enough in this area?

MBS: Besides providing harmless entertainment to a literate middle class, archaeologists do engage the contemporary world in several ways, from CRM, to heritage studies, to modern material culture studies, to reviving ancient technologies. However, I would really like to see archaeologists play a much larger role in modern society. My own passion is technology policy. That is why, in the last chapters of my portable radio and electric car books, I made policy recommendations. Of course they were ignored!

JMS: You have been part of higher education for many years, what do you think of our current university system and the state of higher education?

MBS: Terrible things are happening to state universities on account of ever-decreasing support. In Arizona, for example, higher education used to be 20% of the state budget; now it’s 12%. And support has shrunk in absolute dollars. Yet administrations, which impose ill-suited management fads on universities, continue to grow while faculties shrink. Workloads will increase, courses will be dumbed-down, and professors will lose the kinds of academic freedom enjoyed for so long. And faculty are largely powerless. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I fear we are living in the Post-Classic period of higher education.

JMS: Anyone involved in higher education has seen this coming as tuition has gone up while state funding has dwindled. It seems an opportunity was missed about 10 years ago to get off the path that has led to our current condition, but do you think there is anything we, as faculty, can do now? The latest push seems to be to teach more online courses. Do you think we could take a stand against teaching in this manner?

MBS: We could take a principled stand against online courses, but as long as there is demand for them and administrations are intent on pushing them, some faculty members will be enticed by the incentives, such as free computers and start-up funds, and be turned to the dark side. We can perhaps slow down the juggernaut but I don’t think we can stop it. Three-year BAs and other scams will also lead to watered-down higher education. And students with their abysmal writing skills, weaned on texting and Tweeting and Internet surfing, will continue to get stupider.

JMS: You have been married for a long time and have two adult children. How did you balance being a very active scholar and academic with being a very committed father and husband?

MBS: My parents set a really good example of a strong marriage. Mom took an interest in everything I did and was always there for me. Dad worked long hours, six days a week, as an appliance salesman, but there was never a lack of love and support, and he had a marvelous sense of humor and told entertaining family stories. And I have tried to be the same to our sons, Adam and Jeremy—though I’m not very funny and can’t tell a story to save my life. Annette is a brilliant, sensible and loving person, who was also raised in a traditional family. When our sons were young, she was by her choice a stay-at-home mom who did important volunteer work. She still manages the household, our finances and keeps me on an even keel (mostly). I try never to be away from home for long periods, and every night we spend at least one hour together on the couch, snuggling and watching some mindless TV show. And we always took family vacations, even if we had to run up a credit card bill. Pair bonding—it’s a good thing. We are very proud of our sons: Adam is an associate professor of political science at TCU, and Jeremy is an environmental lawyer in Washington, DC. Parenting—it’s a good thing.

JMS: You are an accomplished potter, which I can imagine is a nice break for you. When do you make pots, and what happens to all these creations?

MBS: I have studied with some great potters, going back to my time at UCLA. Given all the classes I have taken, I should be a much better potter. I make pottery on weekends in Tucson, and take classes in northern Virginia where we live for part of the year. Every other year I hold a sale in the School of Anthropology, in the Laboratory of Traditional Technology, which provides an outlet for my work. All proceeds go to the Louie and Frances-Fera Schiffer Scholarship Fund (which also accepts donations—hint, hint).

JMS: Any regrets?

MBS: I wouldn’t mind being rich.

JMS: What are you working on now?

MBS: I’m starting a project on nineteenth-century steamships. I’m at the fun stage, learning about lots of technologies new to me. Maybe I can squeeze some archaeological theory out of them. A great believer in serendipity in research, I have no idea where this project will lead.

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