08 April 2013
'…the irreducible things that happened': sociology in the archives
Sarah Evans recounts an especially absorbing session at the British Sociological Association's annual conference which examined archival research in sociological inquiry.
Last week I managed to spend some time at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association. There was one session in particular that inspired me in relation to my work at the British Library. A session on 'Archival Research in Sociological Inquires and Beyond' brought together four academics who have undertaken feminist, archival research in different ways: Liz Stanley, Maria Tamboukou, Andrea Salter and Niamh Moore.
Liz Stanley has written about archival research in the social sciences as an emerging field, and as someone who works with social science researchers in the archive, I'm aware that there are still relatively few sociologists who work closely with archival materials. It was great to hear the issues given voice and discussed by real advocates of archival research.
One member of the audience asked a question about how the sociologist in the archive is different to a historian; must the starting point be a different one? How does the methodology differ? What are the different epistemologies and practices that take place within the different disciplines, and how do these come into being through engagement with the archive and the resulting interpretations? I began to wonder whether the pressures and limitations of the REF exercise might go someway to explain the relative dearth of sociologists within the archive - could there be concern about mis/recognition in relation to 'units of assessment'? Or are the main issues in training and awareness?
Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter gave presentations on the different methodological and theoretical issues which arose during the process of undertaking archival research, specifically in relation to their research on Olive Schreiner's letters which has produced the Olive Schreiner Letters Online. Andrea Salter spoke about how the production of a digital 'archive of an archive' requires the practice of a particular kind of sensitivity which draws repeated connections between past and present. Their work made me think about the relationship between the researchers who use Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the researchers (including Liz and Andrea) who have used the original letters in the archive. If I had thought of it at the time I would have asked about the conversations which have taken place between these different users; no doubt these conversations are productive.
I very much enjoyed hearing about Feminist Webs, a participatory feminist project which has created an archive and produced an online resource for those involved in youth and community work with young women. Niamh Moore described the process of creating and building the archive and the process of change which occurs in the imagination when one works in the archive. Some of what she and the other speakers said connected to my own experience of using archival material in which reality can be suspended at certain moments (with the deep imaginative absorption one might experience in reading a great novel), whilst at other moments the social world is enhanced through occasions of real clarity. These very different kinds of thought seem to fuel one another. Maria Tamboukou's paper spoke beautifully about these moments and of how working in the archive generates particular imaginative connections through time and space in her paper on 'archival rhythms'.
What struck me across all of the presentations was the way in which archival research requires a sensitivity to multiple audiences and stakeholders (dead or alive) - from the people who produced the material, to those whose lives have been documented and represented, to the future researchers who may use the 'archive of an archive' which is necessarily produced as we sort and organise archival materials in the process of our research. This session really inspired me to seek out more ways to work closely with sociologists in the archive.
25 April 2013: I received a lovely email from Liz Stanley following this post which alerted me to an article which she, Andrea Salter and Helen Dampier have published in Cultural Sociology and which examines and answers many of the questions raised here. The link to the online copy is here and the print version will be out in early summer.