Archival Science

, Volume 2, Issue 3–4, pp 209–220 | Cite as

‘Many paths to partial truths’: Archives, anthropology, and the power of representation

  • Elisabeth Kaplan


This essay compares thinking about anthropology and archives, in light of recent postmodern analysis. While many in the social sciences and humanities have been considering issues of representation, objectivity, and power, archival thinking has remined largely isolated from this broader intellectual landscape, and archival practice has remained curiously bound up in modes of thought and practice distinctly rooted in nineteenth-century positivism. Archivists have even resisted the efforts of those within their own ranks to challenge this isolation and re-situate the premises of archival identity in this newer and larger intellectual context. This essay suggests that archivists can draw meaningful comparisons by reading outside their field in disciplines, such as anthropology, with which archives shares key features, such as concern with issues of representation, description, and culture. In this essay, select anthropological writings throughout the last century are examined against a backdrop of trends in archival thinking, contrasting the tumultuous epistemological debate within anthropology with the relative calm in the archival profession. This contrast is strikingly embodied by the coincidence of the publication, in 1922, and both in London, of leading theorists from both fields: Bronislaw Malinowski and Hilary Jenkinson. The essay suggests that, in order to remain relevant and conversant with their partners and stakeholders, archivists must take the matter of their isolation seriously, exercise more comparative self-reflection, and devise practical ways to do archival work without the positivist blinders of the past.


anthropology archivists representation social reality 


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  1. 1.
    This scrutiny is sometimes characterized here as “postmodernism,” although I recognize that the definition of that term can be as fraught with complications as the debate over postmodernism itself. A first version of this essay was presented, along with papers by Joan M. Schwartz and Tom Nesmith, at the session, “Premises, Promises, Problems: Practising Archives with a Postmodern Perspective”, at the 1999 Society of American Archivists conference in Pittsburgh. A later version was presented as part of the 2000–2001 Sawyer Seminar, “Archives, Documentation, and the Institutions of Social Memory” at the University of Michigan. I thank Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz for inviting me to contribute to this project; Bob Horton for his unflagging patience and editing; and Lucille N. Kaplan, Martha Kaplan, John D. Kelly and Helen W. Samuels for their comments and encouragement.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer,Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). p. 6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid.,, p. vii.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    While the writings from anthropology that are examined here are seminal, there is no assertion being made or implied that they are representative, balanced, or typical of the literature, and certainly they are not current. They are the selections of a curious nonanthropologist struck by their resonances with archives. This essay is an exploration of the implications ofsome suggestive anthropological ideas for archival theory and practice, not an attempt to reflect all major schools of anthropological thinking in the twentieth century.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”,The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 5.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    This extraordinarily knowledgeable and nuanced article appears inArchivaria 43 (Spring 1997). With its explicit concern for postmodernist allegations, it provides a useful touchstone for this analysis.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Nancy Scheper-Hughes,Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 23.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Bronislaw Malinowski,Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1932), pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Melville J. Herskovits,Man and His Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), p. 64.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid.,, p. 93.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ibid., Marcus and FischerAnthropology as Cultural Critique, ; and James E. Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.),Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The epistemological issues were not the only ones that were problematic for the more politically engaged anthropologists, whose stance was that postmodernism is often insufficiently aware of any political context.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See, for example, P. Steven Sangren, “Rhetoric and the Authority of Ethnography: ‘Postmodernism’ and the Social Reproduction of Texts”,Current Anthropology 29 (June 1988).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Scheper—HughesDeath without Weeping,, p. 28.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Hilary Jenkinson,A Manual of Archival Administration (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). p. 106.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Jenkinson, quoted in Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift”,Archivaria 43 (Spring 1997): 23.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid.,, p. 26.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Norton, quoted in ibid., p. 26.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See Note 14 of Terry Cook, “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Post-modernism and the Practice of Archives”,Archivaria 51 (Spring 2001): 14–35.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    On resistance and other archival responses to postmodernism, see Cook, in ibid.: as well as Brien Brothman, “Declining Derrida: Integrity, Tensegrity, and the Preservation of Archives from Deconstruction”,Archivaria 48 (Fall 1999); and Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Post-modernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts”,Archival Science: International Journal on Recorded Information 1(1) (2001), especially his critique of traditional archival “science”.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    As Richard Cox has written, “many of these studies stretch their definition of archives far beyond how we have approached our work (either stimulating us to rethink how we define the term and our work, or burying a more literal sense and the importance of archives so far into postmodernist jargon as to give us little to compare with or relate to our work and mission)”. As examples, Cox cites Derrida'sArchive Fever and Thomas Richards,The Imperial Archive. “No matter what insights these works provide (and they provide many), one must still work hard to capture the precise meaning of ‘archive’ or ‘archives’ as utilized by these authors”,The American Archivist 64 (Fall/Winter 2001): 400.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    On the relationship between theory and practice as complementary rather than opposites, see Terry Cook, “‘The Imperative of Challenging Absolutes’ in Graduate Archival Education Programs: Issues for Educators and the Profession”,American Archivist 63 (Fall/Winter 2000), where he demonstrates that the opposite of practical is impractical, not theoretical (pp. 389–390).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Cook “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth”,: 30.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Marcus and FischerAnthropology as Cultural Critique,, x.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ruth Bunzel,Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village (Gluckstadt, Germany: J.J. Augustin, 1952), pp. xiii-xivGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elisabeth Kaplan
    • 1
  1. 1.The charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Technology, 211 Elmer L. Andersen LibraryUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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