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The Archive as a Social World

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Historical scholars often adopt a solitary ethic, conceiving of their work as the product of a lonely and isolated individual toiling away in a dusty archive. In this article, we assess the validity of this ethic by examining the actual practice of archival research. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with practicing historical sociologists, we reveal that the solitary ethic is largely illusory, and that, instead, the archive is in fact a robustly social world. We identify two core sets of social relationships in the archive—relationships with the archivist and with the archival community—that shape the historical sociologist’s experience in the archive. We further show that historical sociologists mobilize these interactions to solve concrete research problems in the archive. We thus argue that the archive’s social character should be understood as a methodological opportunity for historical sociologists, allowing them to maximize and extend their research by inspiring creative research strategies.

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  7. Indeed, some archivists affirmatively celebrate this aspect of their work; as Gauld (2017, 232) declares, “the profession needs to shout loudly, clearly, and without shame that archivists engage in privileging...The archivist as gatekeeper, as a privileger of the historical record and narrative, can and should still be applicable in the twenty-first century.” Of course, archivists hold a variety of intellectual positions and degrees of self-consciousness and professionalization, and adopt different stances towards their materials and the users seeking to access them (Lövblad 2003), which are also subject to important regional (e.g., Pederson 2003) and historical (e.g., Holmes 2006) variations.

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We thank the historical sociologists who generously agreed to be interviewed about their research practices; and Clayton Childress, Brian Sargent, Anna Skarpelis, and the QS editors for helpful feedback on a previous draft.


This research was supported in part by a Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline Grant from the American Sociological Association.

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Correspondence to Damon Mayrl.

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Mayrl, D., Wilson, N.H. The Archive as a Social World. Qual Sociol 43, 407–426 (2020).

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