The Good, the Bad, and the Fishy

The Good:

Allen, Melinda S. 1992. “Temporal variation in Polynesian fishing strategies: The Southern Cook Islands in regional perspective”. Asian Perspectives 31(2): 183-204.

I found this week’s task to be challenging, not only with choosing a good anthropological article but also with choosing a bad one. For a good article I thought of a couple which I have recently read and enjoyed greatly. The difficulty in choosing one resided in their differences in strengths; style and content to be specific. While one thrived in a certain aspect, the other impressed me in a different manner. I have chosen an article by Melinda Allen on the temporal variation of Polynesian fishing strategies. I remember reading this article last term and thinking it was incredibly well-written, as well as informative.

Summary of article:

This article provides a detailed analysis of the temporal patterns and variation in prehistoric fishing methods of Eastern Polynesian sites, which are then compared to trends in Western Polynesia. Archaeological evidence for prehistoric fishing strategies consists mainly of fish hooks, which is thus the focus of Allen’s study. The article is structured to first provide the reader with background knowledge to research approaches and theoretical perspectives. Then the broad-scale patterns of fishing technology are described and related to two primary raw materials which vary by region. This pattern is applied to her case study in the Southern Cook Islands where she thoroughly analyses the archaeological evidence, as well as the relationships with ethnographic patterns and fish ecology. The patterns and results from the case study are then applied to the broad patterns in Polynesia. I thought this particular structure was well organized and effectively applied, especially with such an abundance of interpretations on a large geographical scale.

Content, theoretical approach, and overall style:

Although there is much discussion on archaeological evidence of Polynesian fishing practices, regional variability, and the incorporation of a case study, this article successfully avoids becoming a descriptive site report. The data is present, but so are detailed interpretations and theoretical arguments. It is not a simple “here is my data and that is that” piece, Allen does not just lay out her evidence. And as she discusses approaches and arguments of other researchers, she avoids creating a synthetic article with no firm position. She is clear about her theoretical approach and the selected concepts (derived from Darwinian evolution) which she applies to her analysis and interpretations.

Her study applies a regional perspective and her specific case study came from the Southern Cook Islands, which is relatively close to my area of study Tonga. She uses a comparative analysis which I think is incredibly important when looking at temporal variation across a large geographic region. By adopting this method she is able to pick out similarities and differences, and reveal patterns which lurked under the variation. As a result, relationships are identified between developments in technologies with sociopolitical and other subsistence activities.

There are a number of articles which I admire for their content, such as the relevance to my interests and especially if the volume of useful knowledge is substantial. This is exactly what I received from Allen’s article: historical, physical, theoretical context, variability in archaeological evidence, and variability in hypotheses of patterns in data. Perhaps the greatest strength of this article is Allen’s style of writing. It is eloquent and comprehensible, something which is important for a student (like myself at the time) who is first reading about this specific type of research. I found that even with an abundance of variable data and regional patterns, she was able to effectively connect everything, creating an overall fluid piece of writing.

The Bad:

Colley, Sarah M. 1987.Fishing for facts: Can we reconstruct fishing methods from archaeological evidence?”. Australian Archaeology 24: 16-26

Summary of article:

I had some difficulty selecting an article which I considered bad. At first I tried to remember those which were too descriptive and made little-to-no arguments, but most of what I have read somehow made worthy claims and supported them with evidence. Instead I have picked an article which may work to a certain extent, but its style and structure failed in a certain way. Colley’s article discusses how archaeologists can reconstruct fishing practices from archeological evidence and the limitations that exist from this method. Her argument is that fish bone analysis holds the greatest potential for reconstructing prehistoric fishing practices. Now while I agree with her argument and the types of evidence she presents, it is her presentation (or lack of) that I find to be the weak point of this article.

Style, structure, and lack of certain content:

I have to admit this entire article is not ‘bad’, there were parts of it which I found useful but that was because I was very selective of what I needed from it. Yet after reviewing this article again I thought of how her overall style and structure were not entirely impressive. Colley’s writing style is incredibly concise and because of this it was lacking of substance in numerous areas. I would have appreciated further contextualization of the main issue and a writing style which was a bit more engaging. Her tone was rather objective and the structure consisted of numerous small paragraphs which, to me, seemed like they lacked fluidity.

Since it was published in Australian Archaeology, I assumed it was tailored for South Pacific regions, especially since the case study she provides is from Tasmania. Unfortunately, Colley does not make any clarification of regional specificity in her article and provides no discussion on whether these analytical connections may be universal. Perhaps a brief mention of similar or different patterns in other places around the globe would have sufficed. Otherwise the reader is left to wonder if fishing strategies are the same in other areas, or whether bone morphology and depositional effects on tropical fish are similar to those in completely different environments.

The title itself appears to be universal as well, suggesting her arguments and evidence, everything from fishing gear to types of prey, are applicable anywhere around the world. The question: “can we reconstruct fishing methods from archaeological evidence?” should warrant decently lengthy discussions in my opinion. Yet her analysis is minimal and the general feeling is that more could have been said. I would have appreciated something more along the lines of a synthetic piece, or an in-depth review of similar archaeological studies. Colley’s piece is short and slightly underwhelming, for this reason I would have suggested that she narrowed down her title so that it is made clear it applies to a specific region in the world and some information may not be covered.

I would also like to note that the article consists of numerous figures and tables. If separated from text I would estimate these figures comprised half of the paper. While some are useful to her discussion, others appear to be used to fill up space as Colley only makes a brief yet unnecessary mention of them (Figure 1 for example). In summary, I think Colley’s intentions were to be concise and simply provide ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’ answers to her questions, as well as a case study example to support her argument. Yet I was left wondering why she would write in such a brief manner for an issue which could have developed a substantial discussion. In comparison to Allen’s piece which touches on similar themes, I see a clear distinction in style, structure, and substance. Nevertheless, Colley’s article likely works for some people, I believe she wrote this article for a specific yet small audience. As I said, I still found it useful for the brief facts, but I was left fishing for more.


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3 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Fishy

  1. Creighton

    First of all, great title.

    Like you, I had a relatively easy time finding a “good” article (but a harder time narrowing it down to one), but struggled a bit more to find a “bad” one. In my experience, if it’s bad, it’s quickly tossed aside, and I don’t read it again. I don’t remember the information because it wasn’t helpful, or I got frustrated with how they presented it, so out it goes. But like you say, an article is never fully bad. There must be something in it that got in published, and just because it isn’t helpful to me right now, doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful for someone else, or will be helpful to me someday in the future.

    And really, I think we can learn just as much (and maybe more) about writing from the so-called “bad” articles, than from the “good”. We learn what to avoid and what to improve on. For example, you talk about the plethora of tables and charts, some of which were barely referenced. There’s something I’ve been taught when making posters for conferences: if it doesn’t help prove your point, and make your argument stronger, toss it. Now, for posters, that’s typically for text (because I tend to be too wordy on posters), but maybe the same thing applies to charts and graphs. I get that they can be pretty and make it look good, but if it isn’t helping prove your argument, toss it. Find something that does.

    1. Lauren

      Creighton, I had the same struggle for finding a “bad” article. This challenge is something I have noticed several of us mentioning in our blogs and I believe it is for the exact reason you indicated: that when we come across what we perceive is a “bad” article in that moment, we discard it without reading to the end or even finishing the abstract. They are quickly forgotten.

      Then, when we are asked to think about what materials we have read as students, we immediately remember the ones we read most thoroughly because they are most vivid in recollection. And normally, we read thoroughly because we are enjoying the content and if we enjoy what we are reading, we are naturally going to say that it is a “good” piece.

      So this puts us in a pickle because our preference of liking and disliking something creates a bias for what we decide is good versus bad. This is how we judge most everything in life. But as intelligent individuals who can recognize this, we should be able to think past this bias. How might we as students and scholars overcome this and find quality and value in work we dislike, not just what we might find uninteresting, but what we genuinely do not like learning about?

      1. tsujic

        Hi Roxanne,

        I am glad that there is such heated discussion about finding a bad article. I have never really thought that bad articles are determined in the way that they do not make it past the first stage of reading the title and abstract, and thus are not remembered by us, because they are never actually completely read – instead they are thrown into the recycling bin or not even downloaded.

        Roxanne, I believe that all articles that we remember are exemplary for one reason or another. Bad articles may have nothing inherently wrong with them, but may be “bad” in comparison to other articles that we have read because they did not adequately introduce any new or revolutionary information. Through these exercises of reviewing articles, we have established general criteria for evaluating an article on: content, structure, and style. An article may subsequently be good in one of the elements, but bad in the others and characterize our overall impression of them. For example, Colley’s article suffers from structural problems and overwhelming the reader with figures and tables.



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