Skip to main content

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. These statistics are reported in UN-Habitat (2013), Statistical Appendix (p. 151). See UN-Habitat (2003) and Marx et al. (2013) on the characteristics that define urban slums.

  2. For examples, see Krishna (2013), Resnick (2013), Heller et al. (2015), Holland (2016), and Rains et al. (2018). These studies join an interdisciplinary literature on the politics of urban informality, including Roy (2003), Jha et al. (2007), Björkman (2015), and Hyun et al. (2017). They also follow an earlier literature on slums in comparative politics (Ray 1969; Cornelius 1975; Collier 1976; Stokes 1995).

  3. See Stokes et al. (2013) and Weitz-Shapiro (2016) on clientelism.

  4. On causal mechanisms and process tracing, see Slater and Simmons (2010), Soifer (2012), and Bennett and Checkel (2014).

  5. On the importance of description, see Gerring (2012).

  6. The term “slum” is used to describe a variety of urban poverty pockets. I focus on squatter settlements—low-income neighborhoods that are constructed by residents in a haphazard, unsanctioned manner (see UN-Habitat 1982). I continue to use the terms “slum” and “settlement” for ease of exposition and to conform to the colloquial and official use of the term in India.

  7. For examples, see Trachtenberg (2006), Frisch et al. (2012), and Lee (2015).

  8. See MacLean (2014) on using ethnography and oral histories to study informal institutions. See Das and Walton (2015) for an example of combining ethnography and oral historical research to study political organization in India’s slums.

  9. Frisch et al. (2012: 2) define archives as “collections of records…that are generated by, and reflect the efforts of, an individual, organization, or institution…[they] have been judged, usually by an archivist, as being worthy of preservation…”

  10. For examples, see Nunn (2009), Rodden (2009), and Woolcock et al. (2011).

  11. Important exceptions include Trachtenberg (2006), Frisch et al. (2012), Kapiszewski et al. (2015), and Lee (2015).

  12. Barnes, for example, notes, “Thanks to the generosity of three residents who were active in public affairs…I was given access to private papers and files which were invaluable in reconstructing the development of [the town’s] political institutions…” (Barnes 1986: 224).

  13. For example, Gooptu’s study of the urban poor in India, based on more conventional archival sources, provides a rich picture of urban popular politics, albeit not for specific neighborhoods (Gooptu 2001).

  14. Tarlo (2003) and Holland (2012) encounter similar types of materials on urban slums within formal government archives in Delhi and Bogotá, respectively.

  15. On research ethics in conflict zones and areas of “limited statehood,” see Wood (2006) and Cronin-Furman and Lake (2017).

  16. See Elman and Kapiszewski (2014) and Büthe and Jacobs (2015) on debates in political science surrounding data access and research transparency.

  17. On the politics of archives, see Foucault (1972), Derrida (1998), Tarlo (2003), Blouin and Rosenberg (2011), and Dirks (2015). On contestations between approaching archives as “authentic” sources of facts versus political constructs, see Schwartz and Cook (2002), Manoff (2004), and Blouin and Rosenberg (2011).

  18. See Lustick (1996) and Lee (2015) on bias in archival and historical research.

  19. “Archives do not simply arrive or emerge fully formed; nor are they innocent of struggles for power in either their creation or their interpretive applications” (Burton 2005: 6).

  20. This holds for formal archives as well (Trachtenberg 2006; Lee 2015).

  21. This is not limited to informal archives. Ghosh states, “Historical research as it is commonly carried out in government archives disciplines historians toward particular national narratives that are appealing or acceptable to those who are the archive’s gatekeepers” (Burton 2005: 39).

  22. This does not include the stages of interpretation, analysis, and narrative construction. These stages are discussed in detail elsewhere: Bates et al. (1998), Büthe (2002), Trachtenberg (2006), Grzymala-Busse (2010), Slater and Simmons (2010), and Bennett and Checkel (2014).

  23. This can be true for formal archives as well. For example, while describing her archival research in a Slum Department office of the Delhi Government, Tarlo (2001: 77) notes, “unlike historians sifting through the records of the distant past, my assistant and I were in the fortunate position of having access to present-day housing officials who could and did assist us in decoding official realities.”

  24. See Guha (1982), Tarlo (2003), and Pandey (2013).

  25. Cohen (1988: 2).

  26. For examples of combining ethnography with archival research, see Mayaram (2003), Pandey (2005), and, of particular relevance, Tarlo (2003), who masterfully combines these field methods to study a Delhi resettlement colony during the Emergency Period.

  27. Mishra and Dasgupta (2013: 5). On India’s urban informal economy, see Agarwala (2014) and Thachil (2017). On informality more generally in urban India, see Roy (2009).

  28. See Auerbach (2016: 117–19).

  29. I enumerated 513 party workers living across 80 sampled squatter settlements in Bhopal and Jaipur (Auerbach 2016).

  30. See Gupta (2012) and Hull (2012) on the politics of official paperwork in everyday governance in India and Pakistan, respectively.

  31. Ordinary residents also hold on tightly to official papers—government survey numbers, electricity and water bills, ration cards, and voter IDs—to claim citizenship and resist eviction (Das 2011; Srivastava 2012). Indeed, as Tarlo (2003: 10) asserted in her study of a Delhi resettlement colony, “the state’s demand for paper proofs generates the popular production of paper truths as people mimic the very writing technologies that ensnare them.”

  32. The names of settlements and people have been changed to ensure the anonymity of research subjects.

  33. Interview with Majid, May 30, 2011.

  34. A letter from Pahari to an official noted, “A close encounter between the [troops] and the Muslim community occurred that has spread feelings of mistrust” (January 1, 1991).

  35. Interview with Majid, May 30, 2011.

  36. Interview with Khan, May 30, 2011; petition to the Secretary of Mines, February 17, 1985.

  37. Photograph by A. Garg, who was working in the settlement on child education during the early 1980s.

  38. Interview with Rasooq, June 22, 2011; committee notes, January 6, 1980 and July 12 and 15, 1980.

  39. Committee meeting notes, February 26 and July 15, 1980.

  40. Petition for electricity and roads to Rajasthan Chief Minister, July 26, 1982; committee meeting notes, February 10, 1981; petition for water to deputy engineer of water department, January 13, 1985.

  41. Committee meeting notes, August 17 and September 21, 1980.

  42. Committee meeting notes, January 6, 1980.

  43. Meeting notes demonstrate Uttam’s involvement: “In Pahari a common meeting was held to discuss getting water taps and electricity. The meeting was held under the guidance of Uttam and the President…for the facilities of water and electricity we have been given a time when the Chief Minister will see our situation. This will happen Sunday at 7” (August 17, 1980). Another letter stated: “Pahari is settled below the mountain. We came to you for help on July 19, 1981 and you assured us that we will get help soon….The only things we have are forms from the state office that were brought by Uttam, which we filled and have submitted to the district collector but we have not received anything from his office” (Letter to the Chief Minister, 1981).

  44. Committee meeting notes, June 15, 1980.

  45. Committee meeting notes outlining proposed rules, July 16, 1996.

  46. Committee meeting notes, July 15, 1980.

  47. Committee meeting notes, October 12, 1980.

  48. Committee meeting notes, undated.

  49. Interview with Kureshi, June 26, 2011.

  50. Letter to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, July 20, 1982.

  51. Letter to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, October 10, 1980.

  52. Letter to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, undated.

  53. Letter to the Electricity Board, May 5, 2001.

  54. Committee meeting notes, April 13, 1997.

  55. Interview with Kureshi, June 26, 2011.

  56. Interview with Pahari residents, May 31, 2011; interview with Pahari residents, June 4, 2011.

  57. Interview with Pahari residents, May 31, 2011; interview with Rasooq, June 2, 2011.

  58. Interview with Rasooq, June 2, 2011.

  59. Interview with Majid, May 30, 2011.

  60. Abdul held the position of development committee president for a period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

  61. Abdul meeting notes, January 19 and February 9, 1992.

  62. Abdul letter to a district officer, November 20, 1991.

  63. Abdul letter to Jaipur Municipal Corporation, December 13, 1999.

  64. Abdul letter to a government official, June 29, 1999.

  65. Interview with a Pahari resident, June 26, 2011.

  66. Interview with Abdul, June 17, 2011; letter to police, November 25, 1989.

  67. Interview with Sultan, June 2, 2011.

  68. Interview with Rasooq, June 2, 2011; field notes, June 3, 2011.

  69. Interview with Rasooq, June 2, 2011.

  70. See Varshney (2003) on Hindu-Muslim riots in India.

  71. Interview with a Pahari resident, June 27, 2011.

  72. Residents noted in an interview (May 31, 2011) that Hindus made up roughly 30% of Pahari’s population before the riots.

  73. Interview with Khan, May 31, 2011.

  74. Interview with Abdul, June 3, 2011.

  75. Interview with residents from Uttar Pradesh, June 4, 2011.

  76. Interview with residents from Uttar Pradesh, June 4, 2011.


  • Agarwala R. Informal labor, formal politics, and dignified discontent in India. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014.

    Google Scholar 

  • Agrawal A. Environmentality: community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Curr Anthropol. 2005;46(2):161–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Amin S. Event, metaphor, memory. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1995.

    Google Scholar 

  • Auerbach AM. Clients and communities. World Politics. 2016;68(1):111–48.

  • Auerbach AM. Neighborhood associations and the urban poor: India’s slum development committees. World Development. 2017;96:119–35

  • Auerbach AM, Thachil T. How clients select brokers: competition and choice in India’s slums. American Political Science Review. 2018.

  • Auyero J. Poor people’s politics. Durham: Duke University Press; 2001.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barnes S. Patrons and power. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; 1986.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bates R, Greif A, Levi M, Rosenthal J-L. Analytic narratives. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1998.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bennett A, Checkel J. Process tracing. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Björkman L. Pipe politics, contested waters. Durham: Duke University Press; 2015.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Blouin F, Rosenberg W. Processing the past. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Burgwal G. Struggle of the poor. Amsterdam: CEDLA; 1995.

  • Burton A. Archival stories. Durham: Duke University Press; 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Büthe T. Taking temporality seriously. American Political Science Review. 2002;96(3):481–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Büthe T, Jacobs A. Introduction to the symposium. Qualitative and Multi-Method Research Newsletter. 2015;13(1):2–8.

    Google Scholar 

  • Census of India. Primary census abstract for slums. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner; 2011.

  • Chakrabarty D. Conditions for knowledge of working-class conditions. In: Guha R, editor. Subaltern studies II. New York: Oxford University Press; 1983.

  • Chatterjee P. The politics of the governed. New York: Columbia University Press; 2004.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohen B. An anthropologist among historians and other essays. New York: Oxford University Press; 1988.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collier D. Squatters and oligarchs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1976.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cornelius W. Politics and the migrant poor in Mexico City. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 1975.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cronin-Furman K, Lake M. Ethics abroad. PS: political science and politics, forthcoming; 2017.

  • Das V. State, citizenship, and the urban poor. Citizenship Studies. 2011;15:319–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Das V, Walton M. Political leadership and the urban poor. Curr Anthropol. 2015;56(11):S44–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Derrida J. Archive fever. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1998

  • De Wit J. Poverty, policy, and politics in madras slums. Delhi: Sage Publications; 1997.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dirks N. Autobiography of an archive. New York: Columbia University Press; 2015.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Elman C, Kapiszewski D. Data access and research transparency in the qualitative tradition. PS: Political Science & Politics. 2014;47(1):43–47.

  • Fischer B. A poverty of rights. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2008.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foucault M. The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon; 1972.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frisch S, Harris D, Kelly S, Parker D. Doing archival research in political science. Amherst: Cambria; 2012.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gay R. Popular organization and democracy in Rio de Janeiro. Philadelphia: Temple University Press; 1993.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gerring J. Mere description. Br J Polit Sci. 2012;42:721–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gooptu N. The politics of the urban poor in early twentieth-century India. Cambridge: New York; 2001.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Grossman S. The politics of order in informal markets. Book Manuscript; 2017

  • Grzymala-Busse A. Time will tell? Comparative Political Studies. 2010;44:1267–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guha R. Subaltern studies I. New York: Oxford University Press; 1982.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gupta A. Red tape. Durham: Duke University Press; 2012.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Heller P, Mukhopadhyay P, Banda S, Sheikh S. Exclusion, informality, and predation in the cities of Delhi. Centre for Policy Research; 2015.

  • Holland A. The squatters’ records. In: Research Note, Harvard University; 2012.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holland A. Forbearance. American Political Science Review. 2016;110(2):232–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hull M. Government of paper. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2012.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hyun C, Post A, Ray I. Frontline worker compliance with transparency reform. Governance. 2017:1–18.

  • Jha S, Rao V, Woolcock M. Governance in the gullies. World Dev. 2007;35(2):230–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jourde C. The ethnographic sensibility. In Political ethnography by Edward Schatz ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2009

  • Kapiszewski D, MacLean L, Read B. Field research in political science. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2015.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Krishna A. Stuck in place. J Dev Stud. 2013;49(7):1010–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Koster M, de Vries P. Slum politics. Focaal. 2012;62:83–98.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lee A. How (and how not) to use archival sources for hypothesis testing. Working Paper, University of Rochester; 2015

  • Lustick I. History, historiography, and political science. Am Polit Sci Rev. 1996;90(3):605–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MacLean L. Informal institutions and citizenship in rural Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2014.

    Google Scholar 

  • Manoff M. Theories of the archive from across the disciplines. Libr Acad. 2004;4(1):9–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marx B, Stoker T, Suri T. The economics of slums in the developing world. J Econ Perspect. 2013;27(4):187–210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mayaram S. Against history, against state. New York: Columbia University Press; 2003.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCann B. Hard times in the Marvelous City. Durham: Duke University Press; 2014.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mishra A, Dasgupta S. Evolution of national policies for basic services, affordable housing and livelihoods for the urban poor. In: Inclusive urban planning: state of the urban poor report 2013. Delhi: Oxford University Press; 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nunn N. The importance of history for economic development. Annual Review of Economics. 2009;1:65–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pandey G. Un-archived histories. New York: Routledge; 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pandey G. Routine violence. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rains E, Krishna A, Wibbels E. Urbanization and India’s slum continuum. International Growth Center Working Paper (C-35309-INC-1); 2018.

  • Ray T. Politics of the barrios of Venezuela. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1969.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rodden J. Back to the future. In: Comparative politics. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2009.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roy A. City Requiem, Calcutta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 2003.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roy A. Why India cannot plan its cities. Planning Theory. 2009;8(1):76–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Resnick D. Urban poverty and party populism in African democracies. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2013.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Schwartz J, Cook T. Archives, records, and power. Arch Sci. 2002;2:1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scott J. Domination and the arts of resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1992.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shefner J. The illusion of civil society. University Park: Penn State University Press; 2008

  • Slater D, Simmons E. Informative regress. Comp Polit Stud. 2010;43(7):886–917.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Soifer H. The causal logic of critical junctures. Comparative Political Studies. 2012;45(12):1572–97.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spivak G. Can the subaltern speak? In: Marxism and the interpretation of culture. London: MacMillan; 1988.

    Google Scholar 

  • Srivastava S. Duplicity, intimacy, community. Thesis Eleven. 2012;113(1):78–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stokes S. Cultures in conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1995.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stokes S, Dunning T, Nazareno M, Brusco V. Brokers, voters, and clientelism. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2013.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Stoler A. Colonial archives and the arts of governance. Arch Sci. 2002;2:87–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stoler A. Along the archival grain. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2010.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tarlo E. “Paper truths.” The everyday state in modern India (edited by C.J. Fuller and Veronique Benei). London: Hurst and Company; 2001

  • Tarlo E. Unsettling memories. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2003.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thachil T. Do rural migrants divide ethnically in the city? Am J Polit Sci. 2017;61(4):908–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trachtenberg M. The craft of international history. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2006.

    Google Scholar 

  • UN-Habitat. Survey of slum and squatter settlements. Dublin: Tycooly International; 1982.

    Google Scholar 

  • UN-Habitat. The challenge of slums. London: Earthscan; 2003.

    Google Scholar 

  • UN-Habitat. State of the world’s cities. London: Earthscan; 2013.

    Google Scholar 

  • Varshney A. Ethnic conflict and civic life. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2003.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weitz-Shapiro R. Curbing clientelism in Argentina. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2016.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wood E. The ethical challenges of field research in conflict zones. Qual Sociol. 2006;29:373–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Woolcock M, Szreter S, Rao V. How and why does history matter for development policy? J Dev Stud. 2011;47(1):70–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam Michael Auerbach.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Auerbach, A.M. Informal Archives: Historical Narratives and the Preservation of Paper in India’s Urban Slums. St Comp Int Dev 53, 343–364 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Urban slums
  • Informal institutions
  • Archival research
  • India