Saturday, October 06, 2007

Abu el-Haj: archaeology, scholarship - methodology

In this post, I explore questions concerning theory and methodology in Nadia Abu el-Haj's facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society.

[Posted on the 10th of October 2007.]

Theory and methodology

Source anonymity

Aren M. Maeir (September 2004) opined that,
Throughout the book she repeatedly quotes anonymous archaeologists to support her contentions. Although it might be claimed that she does this to "protect" her sources, one wonders whether the real purpose is to protect the verifiability of these statements.
Having given no examples and having immediately moved on to Abu el-Haj's use of information gathered from tour guides, however, Maeir appears to have suffered from 'the "question withdrawn" syndrome' that he diagnosed Abu el-Haj with, which he defined as 'to bring up a topic that appears to support [a] thesis but to refrain from discussing it in detail'.

While there are serious discussions to be had about this, Anonymous A's (7th December 2006b) assertion that 'Abu el Haj makes no effort to prove her case, except by quoting an anonymous archaeologist' does not contribute to them. Their quote, that,
Israeli archaeologists have routinely "used bulldozers and otherwise dismantled and removed various finds and buildings dating to various Islamic periods" (p. 157) in a deliberate and calculatedly nationalist effort to "quickly work their way down to those strata in which the Jewish (colonial-) national imagination is rooted" [p. 153],
(understandably) did not include the very next sentence on page 157 that, '[i]n addition, such criticism is based upon a reading of the archaeological records and excavation reports', or the one after that, in which she referred to Nahman Avigad's work, from whose excavation reports, just a few pages earlier, Abu el-Haj (2002: 149-150) had reproduced direct quotations stating that bulldozers had been used on "recent" (early Islamic to Ottoman) material.

Furthermore (although admittedly in an earlier article), Abu el-Haj (1998: 183n17) had explained that (presumably the anonymous archaeologist),
one British archaeologist with whom I spoke was particularly angry precisely because this decision meant the destruction of the area's Byzantine strata in which he was most interested.
As far as I'm concerned, that and other similar examples give sufficient information to justify their presentation; moreover, the campaign against Abu el-Haj is sufficient to justify the anonymity of her sources. (Bulldozer archaeology is discussed more fully in a later post.)

Middle Eastern historian David Meir-Levi (14 August 2007) considered that,
When she summarizes the input from others which support her central thesis, she fails to name her sources or even identify them; referring to them merely as excavators, tour guides, museum docents, students, volunteers, and sometimes even just "someone".
An Amazon search for "archaeologist", "curator", etc., reveals that Abu el-Haj frequently specified 'the original curator of the museum's permanent exhibition', 'the Citadel's curator', 'the curator' of the place under discussion, 'an American biblical archaeologist who has long worked in Palestine /Israel', '[a] British and an American archaeologist, as well as an Israeli archaeologist in charge of the educational programs for Israel's Antiquities Authority', etc.

When she did cite 'students' and 'volunteers' she cited, 'a British archaeologist [working on the excavation] who was a Ph.D. student in the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, a student of the Israeli archaeologist leading the dig' and 'one... student-volunteer [at another excavation]'.

While there is commonly talk of source anonymity (including by me here), it refers to public anonymity, which Prof. William M. K. Trochim (20th October 2006) more precisely parsed as 'confidentiality', one of the 'standards that are applied in order to help protect the privacy of research participants':
Almost all research guarantees the participants confidentiality -- they are assured that identifying information will not be made available to anyone who is not directly involved in the study.
Elsewhere, Profs. Ted Palys and John Lowman (1998) have discussed the need for 'absolute confidentiality', not 'limited confidentiality', within which '[m]any ethnographic and related types of criminology would no longer be possible, and it would be anathema to most critical and most feminist research'.

Abu el-Haj frequently identified her sources, where they spoke as an official in public; yet, where they spoke in private or from a vulnerable position, she upheld that guarantee of confidentiality that is standard in and essential to research into sensitive subjects in divided societies. It bears repeating that the campaign against Abu el-Haj demonstrates the ethical justification for and the necessity of her sources' anonymity or confidentiality.

Fieldwork practice: speaking Hebrew

David Meir-Levi (14th August 2007) stated that:
She mis-uses Hebrew terminology for place names, confusing "neve" (dwelling, habitation site) with "nahal" (stream, rivulet).
(Responding to the anti-petition, blogging journalist) Freddy Deknatel (20th August 2007) queried, '[s]o every American scholar on the Middle East is fluent in Arabic, or Farsi? Every anthropology professor speaks the language of his or her localized areas of study?' It's a good point in terms of balance, although I speak some Greek and some Turkish - and work in a field where, due to its colonial heritage, a possibly disproportionate number of its members speak and present their material in English - and I know that my lack of fluency in either language still affects my work to some degree.

Nevertheless, it isn't strictly relevant, because, as anthropologist Professor Ted Swedenburg noted (cited in Silverstein, 17th August 2007a),
Among the other scurrilous claims is that Nadia doesn't speak hebrew [sic]. I was in Palestine for a couple months when she was doing fieldwork and made a trip into Tel Aviv with some other friends. sat at a restaurant with her and an Israeli friend, who when hearing her speak Hebrew, said Nadia was quite good.
Now, I know people have been generous in their descriptions of my Greek and Turkish (or have genuinely believed I knew whichever one we were speaking better than I did because we happened to be talking about things I had the vocabulary and grammar to cope with); but, even if that Israeli friend were being polite, that is not the only testimony to Abu el-Haj's knowledge of Hebrew.

As Middle Eastern political science Professor Lisa Wedeen said (relayed by journalist John Gravois (20th August 2007)),
"Anybody who reads her work can see that it is replete with Hebrew sources, both written and oral," Lisa Wedeen.... She said that the book contains Ms. Abu El-Haj's own translations from Hebrew, and that they are "fluid and idiomatic."
A positivist commitment to scientific methods

Diana Muir and Avigail Appelbaum (31st May 2006), whose only external reference to any of the claims in their entire review was to the al Quds University website, claimed that:
she writes within a scholarly tradition that "Reject(s) a positivist commitment to scientific methods..." and is "rooted in... post structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory... and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements."
It is important to investigate this claim because Muir and Appelbaum believe that,
This post-modern approach empowers Abu El Haj to vaporize the positivist notion that the Jewish people lived in Israel in ancient times. Making such a well-documented fact disappear requires an intellectual sleight of hand of monumental proportions. To Abu El Haj, pulling off such a magic trick is apparently worth the effort since denying that Jews are indigenous in Judea enables the redefinition of Israeli Jews as colonizers; foreign settlers with no legitimate right to the land....
As blogging journalist Jesse Walker (18th of August 2007) pointed out:
Here is the book's original text [Abu el-Haj, 2002: 8-9]:
... increasing numbers of archaeologists are debating the politics of their own discipline, including its potential uses and the implications for their professional work. Rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method whereby politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science, such critics have argued that archaeological knowledge (as but one instance of scientific knowledge) is inherently a social product. Rooted in multiple intellectual traditions (poststructuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism and critical theory, a sociology of scientific knowledge) and developed in response to specific postcolonial political movements (specifically, demands for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains by indigenous groups in settler nations such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada), this critical tradition is united, at its most basic level, by a commitment to understanding archeology as necessarily political.
Again, the phrases in quotation marks do appear in the text, but their meaning is distorted radically.... There is an obvious distinction between listing the diverse roots of a scholarly movement and saying that you yourself embrace all (or any) of those roots. As for that "positivist commitment to scientific method" business, it sure reads differently when you specify that it's the view that "politics is seen to intervene only in instances of bad science" that's being rejected.
Moreover, we can again cite the American Association of University Professors (AAUP, 1915), who recognised long ago that politics are ever-present. 'In the political, social, and economic field almost every question, no matter how large and general it at first appears, is more or less affected with private or class interests.

Furthermore, as Abu el-Haj (2002: 9-10) herself stated, there is a
far more complex and dynamic relationship between scientific and social practice and between science and society.... [O]ne cannot explain the [Jerusalem Jewish Quarter] excavations' results primarily with reference to the national interest.... The history made was not simply coterminous with the history sought.
Muir and Appelbaum went on to claim that,
Abu El Haj's first book... is part of a wider intellectual effort intended to persuade the world that Israel is illegitimate....
This will be dealt with in later posts on Zion, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, colonialism and nation fabrication. Still, in the nearest to a direct comment that I could find, Abu el-Haj (2002: 273) had a 'truly postnationalist... fully anticolonial.... vision of a polity and society that would parallel that of the postapartheid South African state'. It may not be Muir and Appelbaum's vision, but their treatment of it is crass.
Abu El Haj's rejection of positivism frees her to dismiss the origins of the Jewish people in the land of Israel as a mere "belief," an "ideological assertion," a "pure (italics in original) political fabrication."

.... Abu El Haj demands that scholars must henceforth characterize the identification of Israelite artifacts as a "pure political fabrication." This demand is made in order not to privilege the Jewish/Israeli narrative in a "hierarchy of credibility," over a Palestinian narrative of "Caananite or other ancient tribal roots" for which evidence does not exist and upon which, therefore, no "'facticity' is conferred."
This will be addressed more fully in the post on nation fabrication, but as the claims are tied to allegations about Abu el-Haj's theory and methodology, it needs to be addressed (briefly) here, too. Abu el-Haj (2002: 250) was appealing for consistent interpretations of comparable evidence, because, in Israeli archaeology,
the modern Jewish/Israeli belief in ancient Israelite origins is not understood as pure political fabrication [but ancient Canaanite origins for the Palestinian community are]. It is not [seen as] an ideological assertion comparable to Arab claims of Canaanite or other ancient tribal roots. Although both origin tales, Arab and Jewish, are structurally similar as historical claims... "facticity [factuality or historical reality]" is conferred only upon the latter.
The next post will discuss bulldozer archaeology.

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