History’s epistemological dilemma equally applies to sociology: how can we make claims about persons, events, and processes on the basis of archival records? This article develops a framework called Life on File that combines sociological strengths in qualitative methodologies and an interest in how states shape populations, with library and information sciences’ attention to documentary production and anthropological and historical insights into the intersections of archives, knowledge, and power. The framework has three components: the act of recovery of life, processes, and events; the turning of life into a record; and the movement of a file from collection to preservation and use. The result is a methodologically rigorous and globally mobile theory. Empirically, the piece draws on comparative historical fieldwork on state-led racial classification and naturalization practices preserved in Japanese and German archives. While the framework is grounded in research on state archives, its utility extends across types of archives and records. In addition, it provides sociologists with a roadmap on how to use archives in single case as well as comparative and transnational research.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Of course, archives are not solely the prerogative of qualitative sociologists; quantitative and computational sociologists increasingly draw on archives and also benefit from incorporating a less restrictive understanding of our data sources into our analysis, rather than relegating it to a section on the work’s unavoidable limitations.
This poses technical challenges because files rarely have the same document structure; see Salminen et al. (1997).
These include but are in no way restricted to history, anthropology, the history of science, documentation studies, archaeology, and library and information studies.
For the NS government’s decrees on archival preservation of church books that begun in 1933 already, see Kayser (1939).
Even when they profess to, rhetoric and actual social circumstance may significantly diverge—the lettres de cachet Foucault describes (Foucault 1979) use “grand rhetoric (…) to dress up those trifling affairs” (87) and deploy the language of Racine and Bossuet to clumsily signal erudition, class, and status in order to obtain desired ends.
It isn’t only organizations that create records—individuals record others and themselves as well, as the recent rise of the quantified self has shown. See Lemov (2017) and Gorichanaz (2019).
The editors of this special issue helpfully pointed out that qualitative sociologists have found different workarounds to access information on these missing voices, whether through direct access, as is often the case in ethnographies of the poor, or indirectly for the rich (the moral implications of this differential treatment are significant and deserve more explicit treatment).
Ragin’s concerns about disembodiment and obscuring of cases in variable-oriented comparative work in his analysis of the sociological “case” has shaped how I think through how sociologists use files. See Ragin (1992).
I thank Lis Clemens for suggesting Padgett and McLean’s work, and for suggesting to think about archives as informants.
Interestingly, national legislation impinges on whether or not researchers can get access to the very same files. In Germany, I was not allowed to see the SS files that had been preserved in the Berlin Document Center and were now housed in the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland; the reason are German privacy laws. In the US, no such privacy laws obtained, and I was given free access to all files without any restrictions on their photographic reproduction.
For details on the fate of BDC records, see Fehlauer (2010).
After the war, Knöpfler, like many of his fellow archivists without whom the Holocaust would not have been possible, successfully managed to exonerate himself from public culpability or any form of punishment.
This poses a number of significant challenges to computational and quantitative sociological work that uses archival records that have to date not been sufficiently theorized or addressed.
Abramson, Corey M., and Neil Gong, eds. 2020. Beyond the case: The logics and practices of comparative ethnography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Adams-Campbell, Melissa, Ashley Glassburn Falzetti, and Courtney Rivard. 2015. Introduction: Indigeneity and the work of settler archives. Settler Colonial Studies 5 (2): 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2014.957256.
Adler, H.G. 1974. Der verwaltete mensch: Studien zur deportation der Juden aus Deutschland. Tübingen: Mohr.
Aronova, Elena, Christine von Oertzen, and David Sepkoski. 2017. Introduction: Historicizing big data. Osiris 32 (1): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1086/693399.
Bayly, C.A. 1999. Empire and information: Intelligence gathering and social communication in India, 1780–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. [1st American ed.] ed. New York: Knopf.
Born, Lester K. 1950. The archives and libraries of postwar Germany. The American historical review 56 (1): 34–57. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/56.1.34.
Briet, Suzanne. 1951. Qu'est-ce que la documentation? Paris: Éditions Documentaires Industrielles et Techniques.
Brubaker, Rogers. 2003. Beyond comparativism? Conference Manuscript.
Buckland, Michael. 1997. What is a “document”? Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (9): 804–809.
Cahill, Spencer E. 1998. Toward a sociology of the person. Sociological Theory 16 (2): 131–148.
Carpio, Genevieve. 2019. Collisions at the crossroads: How place and mobility make race, collisions at the crossroads. Oakland: University of California Press.
Christ, Michaela, and Maja Suderland, eds. 2014. Soziologie und Nationalsozialismus - Positionen, Debatten, Perspektiven. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Cohen, Philip. 2019. Learn the right lessons from Naomi Wolf’s book blunder: Expertise matters. But lane-policing is counterproductive. https://newrepublic.com/article/154019/learn-right-lessons-naomi-wolfs-book-blunder. Accessed September 1, 2019.
Conference on Captured German and Related Records, Robert Wolfe, and United States National Archives Records Service. 1974. Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on Captured German and Related Records, November 12–13, 1968. Athens, Ohio, 1975.
Daston, Lorraine, ed. 2017. Science in the archives: Pasts, presents, futures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Demeter, Karl. 1969. Das Reichsarchiv Tatsachen und Personen. In Mit 6 Bildtafeln. Frankfurt am Main: Bernard und Graefe.
Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Archive fever: A Freudian impression. Diacritics 2: 9–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/465144.
Eckert, Astrid M. 2007. Managing their own past. German archivists between national socialism and democracy. Archival Science 7 (3): 223–244. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-007-9057-3.
Ernst, Wolfgang. 1999. Archival action: The archive as ROM and its political instrumentalization under national socialism. History of the Human Sciences 12 (2): 13–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/09526959922120225.
Fassin, Didier, and Estelle D'Halluin. 2005. The truth from the body: Medical certificates as ultimate evidence for asylum seekers. American Anthropologist 107 (4): 597–608. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2005.107.4.597.
Featherstone, Mike. 2006. Archive. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2–3): 591–596. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276406023002106.
Fehlauer, Heinz. 2010. NS-Unterlagen aus dem Berlin document center und die Debatte um ehemalige NSDAP- Mitgliedschaften. Historical Social Research 35 (3): 22–35.
Finn, Megan. 2018. Documenting aftermath: Information infrastructures in the wake of disasters.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. The life of infamous men. In Michel Foucault: Power, truth, strategy, eds. Michel Foucault, Meaghan Morris, and Paul Patton, 76–91. Sydney: Feral Publications.
Fritzsche, Peter. 2005. The archive. History and Memory 17 (1/2): 15–44,367. https://doi.org/10.2979/HIS.2005.17.1-2.13.
Fritzsche, Peter. 2006. The archive and the case of the German nation. In Archive stories facts, fictions, and the writing of history, ed. Antoinette M. Burton, 184–208. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fuentes, Marisa J. 2016. Dispossessed lives: Enslaved women, violence, and the archive: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Galison, Peter. 2004. Removing knowledge. Critical Inquiry 31 (1): 229–243. https://doi.org/10.1086/427309.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1984. Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gitlin, Todd, 1993. “I did not imagine that I lived in truth.” The New York Times, December 28.
Goldthorpe, John H. 1991. The uses of history in sociology: Reflections on some recent tendencies. British Journal of Sociology 42 (2): 211–230. https://doi.org/10.2307/590368.
Gorichanaz, Tim. 2019. A first-person theory of documentation. Journal of Documentation 75 (1): 190–212. https://doi.org/10.1108/JD-07-2018-0110.
Hacking, Ian. 1995. The looping effects of human kinds. In Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.
Hanchard, Michael George. 2018. The spectre of race: How discrimination haunts Western democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hartman, Saidiya V. 2007. Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hedstrom, Margaret. 2002. Archives, memory, and interfaces with the past. Archival Science 2 (1/2): 21–43.
Huener, Jonathan. 2014. Nazi Kirchenpolitik and polish Catholicism in the Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939–1941. Central European History 47 (1): 105–137. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0008938914000648.
Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jones, Taylor, Jessica Rose Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark. 2019. Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English. Language 95 (2): e216–e252.
Kameo, Nahoko, and Jack Whalen. 2015. Organizing documents: Standard forms, person production and organizational action. Qualitative Sociology 38: 205–229. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-015-9302-7.
Kayser, Gerhard. 1939. Kirchenbuchfürsorge der Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung. Archivalische Zeitschrift 45: 141–163. https://doi.org/10.7788/az-1939-jg12.
Kittler, Friedrich A. 1987. Grammophon, film, typewriter. Berlin: Brinkmann und Bose.
Klingemann, Carsten. 1996. Soziologie im Dritten Reich. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.
Koselleck, Reinhart. 2004. Futures past: On the semantics of historical time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 1986. Visualisation and cognition: Drawing things together. In Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, ed. H. Kuklick, 1–40. Jai Press.
Lemov, Rebecca M. 2015. Database of dreams: The lost quest to catalog humanity. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mahoney, James. 2004. Comparative-historical methodology. Annual Review of Sociology 30 (1): 81–101. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.30.012703.110507.
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.
Mbembe, Achille. 2013. The power of the archive and its limits. In Refiguring the archive, eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, 19–26. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Mears, Ashley. 2017. Puzzling in sociology: On doing and undoing theoretical puzzles. Sociological Theory 35 (2): 138–146. https://doi.org/10.1177/0735275117709775.
Milligan, John D. 1979. The treatment of an historical source. History and Theory 18 (2): 177–196.
Moore, Barrington. 1966. Social origins of dictatorship and democracy: Lord and peasant in the making of the modern world. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mora, G. Cristina. 2014. Cross-field effects and ethnic classification: The institutionalization of Hispanic panethnicity, 1965 to 1990. American Sociological Review 2: 183.
Morning, Ann Juanita. 2005. Multiracial classification on the United States census: Myth, reality, and future impact. Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 21 (2): 111–134. https://doi.org/10.4000/remi.2495.
Muta, Shohei, Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, and National Archives of Japan. 2007. Myth and reality about pre-World War II government records. Japan-U.S. Archives Seminar May 2007: 111.
Ogborn, Miles. 2007. Indian ink: Script and print in the making of the English East India company. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Osborne, Thomas. 1999. The ordinariness of the archive. History of the Human Sciences 12 (2): 51–64.
Pacewicz, Josh. 2020. What can you do with a single case? How to think about ethnographic case selection like a historical sociologist. Sociological Methods & Research:0049124119901213. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0049124119901213.
Padgett, John F., and Paul D. McLean. 2011. Economic credit in renaissance Florence. Journal of Modern History 83 (1): 1–47.
Patterson, Orlando. 2018. American sociology’s denial of slavery. Trajectories - Newsletter of the ASA Comparative and Historical Sociology Section 30: 17–23.
Petryna, Adriana. 2013. Life exposed. Biological citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pincus, Leslie. 2011. Revolution in the archives of memory: The founding of the national diet library in occupied Japan. In Archives, documentation, and institutions of social memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, eds. Francis X. Blouin Jr and William G. Rosenberg, 382–392. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Posner, Ernst. 1944. Public records under military occupation. The American Historical Review 49 (2): 213–227. https://doi.org/10.2307/1838607.
Ragin, Charles C. 1992. Introduction: Cases of “what is a case?”. In What is a case? Exploring the foundations of social inquiry, eds. Charles C. Ragin and Howard Saul Becker, 1–17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Raman, Bhavani. 2012. Document raj: Writing and scribes in early colonial South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reed, Isaac Ariail. 2010. Epistemology contextualized: Social-scientific knowledge in a postpositivist era. Sociological Theory 28 (1): 20–39.
Reichssippenamt. 1933. Anregungen zur Rasseforschung.- Private Mitteilungen, Berichte und Denkschriften. BArch R1509/1102.
Ricoeur, Paul. 2006 . Archives, documents, traces. In The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether, 66–69. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Rousso, Henry. 1994. The Vichy syndrome: History and memory in France since 1944. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Salminen, Airi, Katri Kauppinen, and Merja Lehtovaara. 1997. Towards a methodology for document analysis. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (7):644. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(199707)48:73.0.CO2-V.
Sartori, Giovanni. 1970. Concept Misformation in comparative politics. The American Political Science Review 64 (4): 1033–1053.
Sengal, Paruh. 2019. Naomi Wolf’s career of blunders continues in “Outrages.” New York Times “Book of the Times”." https://web.archive.org/web/20190902011251/https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/books/review-outrages-naomi-wolf.html . Accessed 1 September 2019.
Skarpelis, A.K.M. 2020. Parenthetical logic: Towards a sociological theory of bracketing, absence and erasure. Cambridge: Working Paper. Harvard University.
Skarpelis, A.K.M. 2019. When whiteness fails: Racially supremacist thinking, classification and arbitration in National Socialist Germany, 1933 to 1945. Cambridge: Working Paper. Harvard University.
Skocpol, Theda 1979. States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia, and China Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, Dorothy E. 1974. The social construction of documentary reality. Sociological Inquiry 44 (4): 257–267.
Spencer, Quayshawn. 2014. A radical solution to the race problem. Philosophy of Science 81 (5): 1025–1038.
Starr, Paul. 2019. Entrenchment: Wealth, power, and the constitution of democratic societies. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Steinlight, Alexandra. 2017. The liberation of paper: Destruction, salvaging, and the remaking of the republican state. French Historical Studies 40 (2): 291–318. https://doi.org/10.1215/00161071-3761631.
Steup, Matthias. 2017. Epistemology. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/epistemology.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2002. Colonial archives and the arts of governance. Archival Science 2 (1/2): 87–109.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2010. Along the archival grain: Epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Strasser, Bruno J., and Paul N. Edwards. 2017. Big data is the answer … but what is the question? Osiris 32 (1): 328–345. https://doi.org/10.1086/694223.
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). doi: https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-3.1.883.
Tavory, Iddo, and Stefan Timmermans. 2009. Two cases of ethnography: Grounded theory and the extended case method. Ethnography 10 (3): 243–263. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138109339042.
Thomas, David, Simon Fowler, and Valerie Johnson. 2017. The silence of the archive. London: Facet.
Tilly, Charles. 2002. Event catalogs as theories. Sociological Theory 20 (2): 248–254. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9558.00161.
Trace, Ciaran B. 2002. What is recorded is never simply ‘what happened’: Record keeping in modern organizational culture. Archival Science 2 (1–2): 137–159.
Vaughan, Diane. 2014. Analogy, cases, and comparative social organization. In Theorizing in social science the context of discovery, ed. Richard Swedberg, 61–84. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Vismann, Cornelia. 2008. Files: Law and media technology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Weber, Max. 2013 . Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Weld, Kirsten. 2014. Paper cadavers: The archives of dictatorship in Guatemala: Paw prints.
Yeo, Geoffrey. 2011. Rising to the level of a record? Some thoughts on records and documents. Records Management Journal 21 (1): 8–27. https://doi.org/10.1108/09565691111125071.
Earlier versions of this piece have greatly benefited from comments and questions after presentations at various conferences and workshops. These include the NYLON Berlin conference in March 2018, the First Chicago Comparative Historical Conference at Northwestern University in May 2018, the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2018, and the Annual Meeting of the Social Science History Association in 2019. I would like to thank Nadja Klopprogge, Lis Clemens, Craig Calhoun, Emily Erikson, all the contributors to this special issue, the editors of Qualitative Sociology, as well as the anonymous reviewers for comments on previous versions of this article. Kevan Harris, Lorenzo Sabetta, Gustave Lester, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Jesús R. Velasco, Marisa Fuentes, Nicholas Wilson, Damon Mayrl, Moran Levy, Paige Sweet, Aliza Luft, and katrina quisumbing king: thank you for being such joyful companions in the study and use of archives.
A MacCracken fellowship as well as a number of internal New York University grants supported research for this article, which was conducted while the author was a Ph.D. candidate in the sociology department at New York University. Subsequent writing of the piece was made possible thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at RIJS and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Skarpelis, A.K.M. Life on File: Archival Epistemology and Theory. Qual Sociol 43, 385–405 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09460-1
- Sociology of knowledge
- Racial classification