some unique aspects of archival research

As I noted earlier, I am now teaching a qualitative research methods course on archives. The course has made me reflect on the practice of archival research. Today, a few brief comments on how archival methods differ from what sociologists normally do:

  • Archives are fixed and given, not created through interaction with the interviewer or ethnographer.
  • There is a professional group of people (archivists/records and administration) whose job it is to help people find, locate, and interpret materials. The closest analog of the professional survey director, who may help with some aspect of survey administration.
  • Archives exist in an inter-related field of archives. Papers in one archive may relate to papers in another archive. Thus, archives are part of an inter organizational network. A similar issue may be how a field site for an ethnographer may be connected to others, but it is rare that this plays a crucial role in data collection.
  • Archival work can be simultaneously narrative, statistical, inferential and computational.

Feel free to post your archival musings.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 5, 2018 at 5:45 am

10 Responses

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  1. Your experience as a user of archives may give you the impression that collections are fixed and given, but there are often extensive negotiations as to what is included in a collection and what is intentionally omitted. Archivists and collection managers work with creators/ donors to determine access and use restrictions, e.g. personal records from a specific collection may receive a limited or restricted designation, while work product materials are open to the public. Similarly, access restrictions may change over time depending upon policy shifts in the holding institution, and details of the donation agreement. I know of a case where a woman who gave an extensive oral history interview about her life wanted the access restrictions changed because it was impeding her dating life, and due to the flexibility of the donation agreement, the institution complied.

    Liked by 3 people


    February 5, 2018 at 3:57 pm

  2. @jstein: What you say is true but you are missing a simple point – unlike other types of research, I don’t create the data. What is on the paper is on the paper. Donors and archivists control which ones I see, not what is on it. That is different than, interviews or surveys, where I ask questions and I can control the conversation.

    Liked by 2 people


    February 5, 2018 at 5:59 pm

  3. Agreed.

    Liked by 2 people


    February 5, 2018 at 6:05 pm

  4. I agree with jstein & think it’s important to add that not only are there extensive negotiations between archivists and collection managers that shape what is contained in any given archive, but also that power structures and social inequalities shape whose voices/documents/testimonies/histories are or aren’t included in any particular archive and why. I’m cribbing a bit here from a proposal my colleague Karida Brown and I wrote last year for a conference, but the point is that although archives may seem to be fixed, given and therefore not subject to the inequities that often shape interviewer/respondent dynamics, the truth is anything but. Sometimes, decisions to gather evidence from some kinds of people and not others are intentional — these voices are valid and count for the history we want to tell, these voices do not. Yet other times, decisions to gather evidence from some kinds of people and not others are unintentional and reflect ways of seeing and dividing the world at particular moments in time. In both circumstances, the documents contained in archives are never neutral and always reflect inequalities in who gets to tell their story by having their words and images institutionally preserved.

    WRT the second comment, @fabiorojas, I agree that it is different because in this circumstance, you don’t create the data while donors and archivists do, who you are does still influence what materials you can and can’t access. This is because archivists often make judgments based on their assumptions about the researcher concerning what they do and don’t want to let the researcher see or even what they do or don’t want to tell them exists. Occasionally in my own work, I have had to explain to archivists that I am not a little girl with no knowledge of my case (because sometimes, they would try and turn me away), but actually a professional scholar with deep knowledge of what I was studying. In other words: I had to prove I was legitimate to gain access to the documents I wanted to see, and I also had to fight to view documents that weren’t described to me by some archivists but that I knew existed and that I needed for my project. Power dynamics are always inherent in any data collection project, archival or otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

    Aliza Luft

    February 5, 2018 at 6:09 pm

  5. @aliza_luft:

    You raise many good points. And I actually agree with you, but you are referring to a different set of issues than what was in the original post – whose voice is heard in the archive? Which archives and institutions control what is seen? How do record holders affect and interact with researchers?

    My issue is different – it is about the datum. And that is truly unique in comparison to other methods. In fieldwork, I write the field notes. In experiments, I design the treatment. In surveys, I write the questions. In interviews, I ask the question. But archives are the only data source commonly used in sociology where a researchers does not have direct control over the individual datum. In other words, in every single other methods, I can control (to some extent) what the individual datum is (e.g., field note or interview transcript). But I do not control the text that I find, even though I am free to frame and add meaning to it.

    Liked by 2 people


    February 5, 2018 at 6:15 pm

  6. I understand! I suppose my reaction was partly in response to how you set up the post — as a list of reflections on teaching about archives. As a result, it struck me that the above issues were not mentioned. They seem to me to be critical to any understanding of archival work, and especially important to discuss with students who can see archives as neutral holders of the past. In particular, describing archives as “fixed and given” ignores (to me, at least) that they are always in fact being shaped by interactions between donors, philanthropists, the state, archivists, and, of course, researchers themselves. Concerning the latter, a researcher can find documents that were never before seen, that the state or donors would prefer not to have seen, and that, once found, might motivate the archivist to consult with the state or donors and make those very same documents private moving forward (in fact, this just happened to one of our students here at UCLA). The opposite can hold true as well, of course (a researcher finds something never before seen, publishes with it, and the cat can never be put back in the bag again, so to speak — a good example of this is Christopher Browning’s discovery of interrogations with Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police). In this sense, I feel it is important to tell students that archives are *not* fixed and given but that they are always being shaped by contemporary politics and researcher/archivist/other actor interactions. None of this negates your original post but I do feel it adds an important amendment.

    Liked by 2 people

    Aliza Luft

    February 5, 2018 at 6:29 pm

  7. Wise words, indeed. In terms of teaching, that is archives 101. We have lots of discussions about the creation of documents and the editing/creation/manipulation of archives.

    The post was merely a reflection on less obvious aspects of archives. For example, historians (the biggest archive users) have little sense about how researchers interact with research subjects. Conversely, sociologists are so obsessed with the social construction of data that we forget that some of it is actually beyond our control.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 5, 2018 at 6:32 pm

  8. I’m a little confused by part of the presumption. Considering a large amount of the research done based upon surveys is secondary, the idea that “archives are the only data source commonly used in sociology where a researchers does not have direct control over the individual datum” seems to be an overstatement.



    February 5, 2018 at 7:43 pm

  9. The point about manipulation is very important. I had an experience where the specific document I needed to consult–which existed in only one archive–had been discarded the year before. I had another experience were documents (not ones I needed, but ones I knew about) which had been used by prior researchers had been closed to public view due to concerns about the propriety of access, and the only clue was a letter in a misplaced folder.

    I would also emphasize that archival work can be combined fruitfully with other methods. I have found that combining archival with interview methods leads to much richer data than either approach would alone. People’s memories of events decades in the past are iffy and asking them specific questions about what the documents say can lead to really interesting conversations–and, most importantly, without the archives it might be impossible to figure out who to interview.



    February 5, 2018 at 9:55 pm

  10. @hello: I think I am right on this point. The point is not about secondary data, which by definition is created by someone. Rather, it is about the process of data creation. The original researchers does not choose to create the data, it is found. In survey data, the data is created through interaction between a surveyor and the responding. HUGE difference.



    February 6, 2018 at 3:02 am

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