Life on File: Archival Epistemology as Theory

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Anna Skarpelis

History is produced from what the archive offers – Marisa J. Fuentes

If history is indeed produced from what the archive offers, sociologists need to better understand the epistemological implications surrounding the collection, analysis and interpretation of archival documents—the process of “production of knowledge about social life” (Reed 2010: 20). Records and archives are part of a life cycle that ranges from record creation to record keeping and record display and end in their deployment in scholars’ analyses, and yet historical sociology has remained comparatively silent on both the precise nature of these archival objects, as well as on the implications of their genesis, preservation and archivization for our scholarly practice. I do not suggest, as Paul Rabinow did about ethnographic writing thirty years ago, that historical sociology is in crisis; rather, my intervention targets comparative historical sociological (CHS) research methodologies and practices, and suggests ways in which scholars can be more epistemologically conscious when reconstructing the past (Rabinow 1986). Just like ethnographers reflect on site choice and demographers submit their data and analyses to robustness checks, historical comparative sociologists ought to interrogate their records. My aim here is to connect documentary production to archivization and scholarly interpretation, and to ask how taking this relationship seriously affects comparative historical sociological work as well as sociological theorizing.

“Archivization produces as much as it records the event” (Manoff 2004: 12), and hence unpacking the material bases of documents is critical, particularly in comparative research. Archival bodies become a tool for better understanding the relationship between history, technology, the archive and its interpretation. This holds relevance beyond our subfield: It speaks to organizational sociology by treating the creation of documentary reality as an organizational and thus traceable and legible process; to cultural sociology by unboxing how the meanings we can recover are contingent on specific power structures, organizational processes and the agency of professional archivists; to historical comparative sociology by providing a framework to think about comparison of distinct datasets; and to mainstream sociology in advancing how we can think about what it means to conduct robust research, as archival bodies can help us dispel the illusion of false necessity.

Archival Bodies as Epistemology, or: Subjectivity in the Archive

An epistemology of the archive has to consider the archive as a field in itself, a space for the production of historical knowledge, rather than seeing archival work simply as a form of fieldwork that extracts evidence or works on the basis of found objects. Framing the question of archival bodies around epistemological concerns allows addressing questions of positionality, subjectivity and a pluralism of meaning structures, thus productively melding the literatures of standpoint theory within sociology, memory studies within history, and postcolonialism within anthropology. In sociology, standpoint theory has dealt with the impact of positionality most urgently. Patricia Hill Collins best described distinct epistemologies as localized, partial and situated forms of knowledge, and makes sense of how some epistemologies have historically trumped others: “Far from being the apolitical study of truth, epistemology points to the ways in which power relations shape who is believed and why” (Hill Collins 2015: 252). In history, concerns about power and the archive are localized in the field of memory studies. Scrutinizing lieux de mémoire means untangling practices of generating history, means understanding the ‘structuring of forgetfulness’ (Nora 1997: 4; Rousso 1994: 4). Both perspectives overlap with anthropological and postcolonial engagements with the archive that ask us to see state actors as “cultural agents of ‘fact’ production” and that caution scholars to engage an ethnographic, rather than purely extractive, ways with the archive (Stoler 2002; Stoler 2010).

Archival Bodies as Theory

The relationship between theory and comparative historical sociology has been a fraught one, with the ‘death of theory’ proclaimed at regular intervals, just to be refuted in due course (Quadagno and Knapp 1992; Sewell 2005). In Event Catalogs as Theories, Charles Tilly asserted that “all social research rests (…) [on] two theories: a theory explaining the phenomenon under study, another theory explaining the generation of evidence concerning the phenomenon” (Tilly 2002: 248). The recovery of traces, our observation of them and the reconstruction of the original phenomena hence become a question of theory. Analogously, I argue that epistemological considerations – epistemology defined here as issues pertaining to “the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry” (Steup 2017) – around archives fall as much under the purview of sociological theory as they do under the purview of research methods.

Tilly set out three questions scholars should ask about the generation of evidence in order to explain phenomena: 1) How does the phenomenon of interest leave traces? 2) How can a researcher elicit or observe these traces? And 3) how can we reconstruct whatever is of interest of the phenomenon (cause/effect)? Here, I deploy the term archival bodies to set out a partially analogous argument about epistemology in archival research and illustrate what is at stake with examples from my own historical archival fieldwork into racialization processes of the mid-20th century German National Socialist and the Japanese authoritarian regimes. Archival bodies thus denote processes of knowledge construction and organization around the recovery, reconstruction and depiction of events, processes and persons on three levels:

1. The creation of documentary evidence from social life by persons and organizations, i.e. the turning of a person into a record, an archival body in the singular [establishing what is a trace, or identifying appropriate data];
2. The construction of sets of files into a body of records, an archival body made up of a plethora of files, by archiving professionals working in organizations dedicated to the preservation and archiving of records who have their own archival projects in mind [data collection, and archivization];
3. The recovery of persons from an institutionally preserved archival body by the researcher [transcending the ‘mere record’ through subjectivity reconstruction and interpretation].

Archival bodies are corporeal in the double sense: First, they denote how researchers draw together a corpus, or bodies of material, for analysis; second, they are birth-giving in that they govern how a person can emerge in and through archival documentation. Both are decisively important for the reconstruction of events, but more importantly, for that of subjectivities: How are lives partially pre-narrated through modalities of the record? How do the files themselves act? Questions of personhood and agency are crucial to most sociological analyses even at the macro-historical level, and yet we spend little time reflecting on how the material we draw on contributes to shaping the characters that materialize in our narratives. Archival bodies allow for a more cautious reassembly of historical lives while taking seriously both the individual subjectivities of those captured in the records, as well as the organizational and historical prerogatives shaping the fixing of life on file. The paper this excerpt is based on—which I will submit as part of an invited issue on the sociology of archives curated by Andrew Deener and Claudio Benzecry for Qualitative Sociology later this term—illustrates the argument empirically with examples from my own dissertation fieldwork on racial classification in the multi-ethnic annexationist empires that were Germany and Japan, collected over three years in roughly a dozen archives on three continents.

Archival Bodies in History

Bodies are acted upon when traces are left on paper; this is not merely a figurative observation. In the National Socialist regime’s use of archives, being found in the archive could be advantageous if you wanted to prove Aryan status, and not being found could be detrimental; on the other hand, being recorded in religious registers could spell deportation and death (Adler 1974; Majer 2003). Perversely then, the giving of life—by creating a record that was preserved in the archives—could also lead to the taking of life, for those whose existence had been tallied on paper for deportation and murder.

The file is “the most despised of all ethnographic objects” and yet may be the object closest to recording social action of the historical past: Files are “closest to the presence of speech” in “the imagined chain of replacements for the spoken language, supplements” (Latour 1986: 26; Vismann 2008: 8). Dorothy E. Smith refers to the phenomenon of treating the text as internally determined structure of meaning as document time: An instance in which the text becomes fixed as a social accomplishment (Smith 1974). This fixing of people and processes through “routine textually-mediated practices of people engaged in their daily activities” of course leaves us with a curtailed record of interaction (Cahill 1998: 143; Kameo and Whalen 2015: 210); but in their proximity to quotidian action, files also unwittingly record additional information, and the physical scars they bear of handling and use—marginalia, stamps, burn marks on the pages—allow insights into action a transcribed digital record no longer contains.

And yet, the relationship of truth between files and the social world they purport to record is a tense one. On the one hand, quod non est in actis, non est in mundo: this tenet of Roman Law, that what isn’t in the records, isn’t in the world condenses one of the fundamental epistemological and cultural sociological challenges facing historical comparativists – that of dealing with questions of state power in determining what is kept in the archive, of whose stories are told (Taeger 2002). If Nazi killings and Japanese colonial atrocities are less frequently recorded than observations of genealogical presence, this is a sign of power, and not of an absence of the phenomenon in question. Foucault described the archive as a “‘system of discursivity’ that establish[ed] the possibility of what can be said” (Manoff 2004: 18). Even a strong interest in population control does not necessarily lead to the population appearing in the archive in detail: In Dispossessed Lives, Fuentes retells how the only ‘voice’ she could find of the enslaved women of 18th century Bridgetown, Barbados, was reference to their screams in court records and accounts by abolitionists. Screams, she writes, became “the historical genre of the enslaved in the colonial archive” (Fuentes 2016: 143). While historians and sociologists can read the archive against the bias grain, as Fuentes suggests, the files themselves in their accessibility and usage are already imbued with meaning. Archives are not “an objective representation of the past, but rather [as] a selection of objects that have been preserved for a variety of reasons (…). These objects cannot provide direct and unmediated access to the past” (Manoff 2004: 14). They move through the world and in their interpretation by different actors, they become agents of collective memory, taking on vastly different meanings and use values depending on context. Rousso famously remarked that historical memory was structured forgetfulness (Rousso 1994). If forgetfulness is structured, so is remembrance: archival records are often selectively used, and contested files are read as representing the truth.

Even where records are plentiful, sociology as a field may refuse engagement – the expansion of sociology as a profession under National Socialism is an open secret in the history of German sociology that few acknowledge, and that others have made their life’s work at the cost of professional marginalization and their work being labeled ‘un-sociological’ (Christ and Suderland 2014; Klingemann 1996). In many ways, this mirrors American sociology’s failure to engage with the history of slavery more generally, and the American history of slavery in particular (Patterson 2018). Calling for a mindful form of subjectivity recovery of those treated poorly by history, but how differently should we write the history of perpetrators? And more generally, beyond asking ‘how should we read a source,’ what does a critical engagement with archival records look like?

Returning to Tilly’s search for reconstructing traces of real-life phenomena, we have to take account of the different types of archival bodies—first recorded in files and records, then selectively archived and ultimately interpreted by us—by adequately stripping them down to their historical and archival-organizational scaffolding. Quite apart from normative obligations to do right by the dead, the question of person recovery is also fundamentally ontological in nature. Craig Calhoun termed the danger inherent in seeing the archive as a record of ‘how it really was,’ rather than treating it as a potentially unreliable informant, the illusion of false necessity (Calhoun 2003). When confronted with her Stasi files, East German author Christa Wolf wrote that the “perverse mountain of files has turned into a kind of negative grail, to which one makes a pilgrimage in order to experience truth, judgment or absolution.” (Gitlin April 4, 1993). Forms of inquiry that take the archive as a fixed historical record, in which documents are taken in lieu of the ‘lost object’ and are used for “positivistic authentication and pseudo-scientific legitimization”, are problematic (Freshwater 2003: 730).

Archival Bodies in Sociological Practice

How does a person emerge through archival documentation? How do files act? What is preserved, why, and how accessible are the files? These questions surrounding archival bodies ought to be of particular concern to comparativists. After all, how can we engage in meaningful comparison when the organizations and contexts the person of interest is embedded in are so fundamentally different? Power and agency are inevitably bound up with one another in the archive: whether a person at all appears in the archive offers some cues about their status. Eastern European ethnic Germans appear in the German Federal Archives because the National Socialist (NS) regime had a strong interest in identifying and resettling this diaspora for purposes of ethnic cleansing; genealogical records that were mostly kept in church and city archives became a tool for implementing these racial policies. Being found in the archive could conversely also protect from this new form of violence, ranging from harassment to murder—if one could prove non-Jewishness through the Aryan Confirmation. In colonial Japan on the other hand, although colonial subjects were registered in ‘ethnic registries,’ the information contained within were much less multi-dimensional than the German archives, ostensibly because what was of interest to the Japanese state was a blanket ethnic designation. In practice, this left me with paper trails of up to one hundred pages per person for the German case, and little more than basic demographic data, tabulated in endless military booklets, on Japanese colonial subjects. That ethnic Germans emerge as much more three-dimensional characters through the files than ethnic Koreans do in Japanese archives has nothing to do with any characteristic pertaining to the persons we are seeking to reconstruct themselves, and everything to do with organizational practice, file creation and archival preferences and practices. The resulting differential availability in quantity of files does not mean that the Japanese were unconcerned about ‘racial fit,’ but that they in many cases drew blanket conclusions for entire populations.

If Pascal in Meditations espoused a materialist vision of archives, Walter Benjamin turned to a culturalist interpretation of remembering, “in which mental habits across time rather than physical things in the present are what bring the past into view, and in which specific heirs are necessary for the work of memorialization to succeed” (Fritzsche 2006: 185). It is the task of historical sociologists to recognize the contingency of files, without fearing that this responsible epistemological practice be misconstrued as casting a shadow over the robustness of our research. Recovering the person from the archive demands ‘transcending the mere record’ and justifies the sociological part of historical sociology in that we can productively draw on theory and comparison to construct our arguments (Calhoun 2003). Archival bodies one and two—how organizations put bodies onto file by pinning real life onto documentary reality, and the ways in which archives construct, preserve and make accessible documentation—both shape archival body three, or what type of person can emerge from the archive. If we think of authoritarian or colonial state records of subjected populations as partisan fragments, it becomes the task of the researcher to engage in acts of exposition, recovery and rehabilitation. It is our task to engage alternative interpretive devices and dislodge the historical genres already present in the archival record.


Adler, H. G. 1974. Der verwaltete Mensch : Studien zur Deportation der Juden aus Deutschland. Tübingen: Mohr.
Cahill, Spencer E. 1998. “Toward a Sociology of the Person.” Sociological Theory 16(2):131-48.

Calhoun, Craig. 2003. “Afterword: Why Historical Sociology?” Pp. 383-93 in Handbook of Historical Sociology, edited by Gerard Delanty and Engin F. Isin. London: Sage.

Christ, Michaela, and Maja Suderland. 2014. Soziologie und Nationalsozialismus : Positionen, Debatten, Perspektiven. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Freshwater, Helen. 2003. “The Allure of the Archive.” Poetics Today 24(4):729-58.
Fritzsche, Peter. 2006. “The Archive and the Case of the German Nation.” Pp. 184-208 in Archive stories facts, fictions, and the writing of history, edited by Antoinette M. Burton. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fuentes, Marisa J. 2016. Dispossessed lives : enslaved women, violence, and the archive: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Gitlin, Todd. April 4, 1993. “‘I Did Not Imagine That I Lived in Truth’.” in The New York Times.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2015. Black feminist thought : knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment.

Kameo, Nahoko, and Jack Whalen. 2015. “Organizing Documents: Standard Forms, Person Production and Organizational Action.” Qualitative Sociology 38:205-29.

Klingemann, Carsten. 1996. Soziologie im Dritten Reich. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

Latour, Bruno. 1986. “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together.” Pp. 1-40 in Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, edited by H. Kuklick: Jai Press.

Majer, Diemut. 2003. “Non-Germans” under the Third Reich: The Nazi judicial and administrative system in Germany and occupied Eastern Europe with special regard to occupied Poland, 1939-1945. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Manoff, Marlene. 2004. “Theories of the archive from across the disciplines.” portal: Libraries & the Academy 4(1):9-25 17p.

Nora, Pierre. 1997. Les Lieux de Mémoire. Paris: Quarto Gallimard.

Patterson, Orlando. 2018. “American Sociology’s Denial of Slavery.” Trajectories – Newsletter of the ASA Comparative and Historical Sociology Section 30:17-23.

Quadagno, Jill, and Stan J. Knapp. 1992. “Have Historical Sociologists Forsaken Theory?: Thoughts on the History/Theory Relationship.” Sociological Methods & Research 20(4):481-507.

Rabinow, Paul. 1986. “Representations are social facts: modernity and post-modernity in anthropology.” Pp. 234-61 in Writing culture : the poetics and politics of ethnography : a School of American Research advanced seminar, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reed, Isaac Ariail. 2010. “Epistemology Contextualized: Social-Scientific Knowledge in a Postpositivist Era.” Sociological Theory 28(1):20-39.

Rousso, Henri. 1994. The Vichy syndrome : history and memory in France since 1944. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sewell, William H. 2005. Logics of history : social theory and social transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Dorothy E. 1974. “The Social Construction of Documentary Reality.” Sociological Inquiry 44(4):257-67.

Steup, Matthias. 2017. “Epistemology.” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta.

Stoler, Ann. 2002. “Colonial archives and the arts of governance.” Archival Science 2(1/2):87.
Stoler, Ann L. 2010. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taeger, Angela. 2002. “Analysis of Records in Historical Research on Criminal Law. Criminal Records on Male Homosexuality in Paris in the 18th Century.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research: Qualitative Methods in Various Disciplines III: Criminology 3(1).

Tilly, Charles. 2002. “Event Catalogs as Theories.” Sociological Theory 20(2):248-54.

Vismann, Cornelia. 2008. Files: law and media technology. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


* This essay is from Trajectories (Newsletter of the ASA) Vol 30 (No2-3), Winter/Spring 2019.