Theorizing with Archives: Contingency, Mistakes, and Plausible Alternatives

Abstract

What are “good” kinds of archival evidence for theorizing? Surprisingly, the word archive and discussions of the archival process rarely appear in methods textbooks or discussions of methods in historical sociology. Yet, much recent historicized sociology relies upon documents left over by a small group of actors to make large-scale claims. To address this oversight, we leverage the evidentiary strengths of qualitative sociology and translate them for historical sociology. Our central argument is that three kinds of archival evidence are likely to produce generalizable claims: positive contingency, learning by mistakes, and plausible alternatives. Examples are illustrated with the cases of jail overcrowding in Los Angeles County, anti-redlining policy in the Federal Reserve, and immigration policy in the Dillingham commission.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As we will discuss later, one exception is Ermakoff (2019), who offers broad advice.

  2. 2.

    A description in Burawoy’s (1998: 19) closely related “extended case method” helps to clarify this point. The goal of this kind of theorizing is less “to seek out common patterns among diverse cases, so that context can be discounted…” and is instead found in “tracing the source of small difference to external forces… Here the purpose of the comparison is to causally connect the cases. Instead of reducing cases to instances of a general law, we make each case work in its connection to other cases.”

  3. 3.

    3/21/2006, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Meeting Transcript [here after date reported].

  4. 4.

    3/21/2006. County officials debated whether to terminate the contract in five meetings between 2/14/2006 and 8/1/2006; especially 2/21/06.

  5. 5.

    7/11/2006. Another similar exchanged occurred on 8/1/2006.

  6. 6.

    Bakstansky, Peter, and Ernest T. Patrikis. 1980. Meeting with Bronx and Brooklyn Community Representatives. Edited by Federal Reserve Bank of New York. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

  7. 7.

    Ibid.

  8. 8.

    Ibid.

  9. 9.

    Multiple authors. 1983. CRA Implementation Evaluation Report. New York: Archives of Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the editors of the Qualitative Sociology and anonymous reviewers for their feedback in the process. Freeden Blume Oeur, Cybelle Fox, Anna Skarpelis, and Emily Erikson read previous versions of this article and provided valuable comments. We appreciate their support. The authors contributed equally to the article.

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Correspondence to Armando Lara-Millán.

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Lara-Millán, A., Sargent, B. & Kim, S. Theorizing with Archives: Contingency, Mistakes, and Plausible Alternatives. Qual Sociol 43, 345–365 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09461-0

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Keywords

  • Archive
  • Ethnography
  • Theory
  • Method
  • Historical sociology