Is Archaeology More of a Hard Science than a Social Science?

In summary, archaeology has evolved into a broad field that encompasses more than just the physical act of digging for artifacts. It is now considered a social science, but there is debate over whether it should be categorized as a "hard" or "soft" science. While some argue that archaeology relies on hard science methods such as satellite imagery and radiocarbon dating, others believe it also incorporates the use of more subjective methods. There is also overlap between archaeology and physical anthropology, as well as forensic science. Overall, the distinction between "hard" and "soft" sciences is subjective and can be applied differently depending on the specific field of study.
  • #1
Les Sleeth
Gold Member
With the development of scientific techniques, archaeology has become more than digging for artifacts and buried communities. It seems to have become a broader field sometimes generalized as prehistory. An argument a historian friend of mine and I have had is over the importance of prehistory. He claims the formal methods of history, which depend on preserved documents, is the best evidence of what’s gone on, and that the role of prehistorical research is merely supportive of that priority. I’ve argued that unlike what someone writes, which might be incorrect or a deception, archaeology must depend on discovering factors which are far less amenable to “spin.”

Because there are no witnesses or records to study, prehistory research may rely on anything from satellite imagery and GPR to recent radiocarbon techniques such as chlorine-36 dating and the application of molecular genetics to human population history. I pointed out how prehistory methods have both added credibility to written reports, and at once made them more accurate. I used the story of Noah and the great flood as an example.

Written records have a flood covering the entire planet, and Noah surviving in an ark with two beasts of each variety. Some people do take that as an accurate report just because it is written and ancient. As most people know, oceanographers Dr. Pitman and Dr. Ryan discovered Black Sea communities long under water, and how complications resulting from Eurasian ice sheet meltwater some 7500 years ago allowed the Mediterranean to flow through the Bosporus Straits into the Black Sea and cause a huge flood.

With that evidence, we are now able to recatagorize the biblical tale (especially knowing it is predated by the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, and knowing of the Jewish Babylonian captivity in 586 BC where they likely heard the story) as creatively enhanced legend, rather than accurate history.

So I wonder if archaeology/prehistory might be a little out of place categorized as a “social science.”
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  • #2
I think it's somewhere in between. The terms "hard" and "soft" really breakdown for archaeology.

You've got rigourous experimental methods, measurements, data, etc. At the same time much of the conclusions aren't as straight forward as with physics or chemistry.
  • #3
I take social science to mean a scientific study of human society and culture. And I think archaeology fits under that definition. What social sciences do you consider to be 'soft'?
  • #4
I consider a science to be soft if it treats a correlation coefficient of 30% as significant.
  • #5
selfAdjoint said:
I consider a science to be soft if it treats a correlation coefficient of 30% as significant.

Interesting. I've been reading about the modern changes in archaeology since the days when Egypt's mysteries seemed to define it. I probably should have asked if archaeology is heading toward relying on hard science more than any other social science/humanity.
  • #6
Les Sleeth said:
I probably should have asked if archaeology is heading toward relying on hard science more than any other social science/humanity.
I don't know enough about archaeology to make a comparision, but there is significant overlap between some of the social sciences and the conventional 'hard' sciences. Linguistics, for example, is an extremely diverse field. There are linguists out there studying logic, math, computer science, AI, neuroscience, physics, anthropology, history, literature, and so on. Here are some branches of linguistics (the names should be suggestive enough): theoretical (or generative) linguistics, descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, anthropological linguistics, dialectology, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, computational linguistics, mathematical linguistics, pragmatics, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics and language acquisition. Some specific things they study: etymology, morphology, syntax, semantics, phonetics, and phonology.
A phonetician, for example, must have knowledge of acoustics and ear, nose, and throat anatomy just to get started. Phonetics is broken down even further into articulatory, auditory, and acoustic phonetics. Linguists studying acoustic phonetics may know more about sound waves than most physicists and could spend most of their time making recordings, analyzing waveforms and spectrograms, and working with computational models.
  • #7
I'd say the closest thing to a true "hard" science in the social sciences is physical anthropology.
  • #8
I would say archaeology can be considered a "hard" science. Geology is quite important to the archeologist. As a matter of fact if you are a hardcore geologist you use archeological techniques and vice versa.
  • #9
Actually, another thing that both archaeologists and physical anthropologists are involved in is forensic science, especially crime-scene recreation.
  • #10
selfAdjoint said:
I consider a science to be soft if it treats a correlation coefficient of 30% as significant.
A correlation of 30% can be statistically significant. E.g. with near certainty you may be able to say that the true correlation coefficient is between 29.9999% and 30.0001%. I guess you were referring to its magnitude to make the point that a 30% correlation is not "large enough," regardless of its statistical properties.
  • #11
What's a 'hard' science and what's a 'soft' science?
  • #12
Smurf said:
What's a 'hard' science and what's a 'soft' science?

Generally, the physical and life sciences, sciences that involve laboratory rigor, are considered 'hard' sciences, and the social sciences, which involve a good deal more of the rationalist methodology, are considered 'soft.' Behavioral and cognitive psychology, even though they take place largely in a laboratory environment, have often been lumped in as 'soft' as well. One distinction that might be made to better define the distinction is that 'hard' sciences tend to have accepted theoretical frameworks within which hypothesizing is conducted, whereas something like psychology or sociology can have many different competing schools of thought, neither of which seems more plausible than any other from a methodological standpoint. Put another way, it's easier to draw solid conclusions from the empirical data available to the 'hard' sciences.

1. What are the main differences between a hard science and a social science?

A hard science is typically focused on the physical and natural world, while a social science is focused on human behavior and society. Hard sciences tend to rely on quantitative data and experiments, while social sciences often use qualitative data and observation.

2. Is archaeology considered a hard science or a social science?

Archaeology can be considered a bit of both. It incorporates elements of both hard and social sciences, such as using scientific methods to analyze artifacts but also studying the social and cultural contexts in which those artifacts were created and used.

3. What scientific techniques are used in archaeology?

Archaeologists use a variety of scientific techniques, including radiocarbon dating, stratigraphy, and analysis of artifacts and materials using microscopy, chemical analysis, and other methods. These techniques help archaeologists determine the age, composition, and origin of artifacts and sites.

4. How does archaeology contribute to our understanding of the past?

Archaeology helps us understand the past by studying material remains left behind by past cultures. By analyzing artifacts, structures, and other evidence, archaeologists can reconstruct past societies, their lifestyles, and their interactions with the environment and other cultures.

5. What are the limitations of using a scientific approach in archaeology?

While scientific methods are valuable in archaeology, they do have limitations. Not all aspects of human behavior and society can be studied using quantitative data and experiments. Social and cultural factors also play a significant role in archaeology, and these may be more difficult to measure and analyze using scientific methods.

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