Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 53, Issue 3, pp 343–364 | Cite as

Informal Archives: Historical Narratives and the Preservation of Paper in India’s Urban Slums

  • Adam Michael AuerbachEmail author


Historical research is challenging when studying informal spaces like urban slums, where extant scholarship is limited, government data are sparse or absent, and populations change rapidly due to eviction, environmental shocks, and the everyday churn of migration. Moreover, written materials and political ephemera generated within slums are rarely preserved in accessible state archives, limiting the usefulness of conventional archival research. In such contexts, the discovery of informal archives—unmapped, non-systematized collections of materials kept by individuals and groups in the spaces under study—can contribute to the reconstruction of local histories. This article draws on 20 months of fieldwork in India’s urban slums to offer insights on the collection and use of informal archival materials. These materials afford an intimate look at how the urban poor organize and make claims on the state. Their analysis, however, involves inferential challenges. Researchers must consider how processes of production, preservation, and provision shape the content of gathered historical materials and thus the inferences that can be drawn from them. Beyond urban slums, informal archives are likely to be useful sources of historical data for a range of studies in comparative politics, especially those that focus on informal institutions and local quotidian politics.


Urban slums Informal institutions Archival research India 



I thank Leonardo Arriola, Jennifer Bussell, Erin Collins, Keith Darden, Daniel Esser, Carolyn Gallaher, Shelby Grossman, Kyle Hanniman, Alisha Holland, Adrienne LeBas, Jordanna Matlon, Alison Post, Benjamin Read, Diane Singerman, Tariq Thachil, Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro, and seminar participants at American University, the University of California-Berkeley, and Queen’s University, Canada, for their valuable comments on this article. The Fulbright-Hays Program, National Science Foundation, and Social Science Research Council supported the fieldwork on which this article is based. The IRB protocols associated with this study are SE-2010-0376 (University of Wisconsin) and 15098 (American University).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of International ServiceAmerican UniversityWashington, DCUSA

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