George Jennings, Cardiff Metropolitan University
The array of information leaflets available at the British Library
Image courtesy of George Jennings
Archives are often overlooked in research methods courses and textbooks, as well as by experienced researchers in many social sciences. Yet this is about to change. I was honoured to be invited to the British Library to take part in an exciting one-day event: The “Sociology in the Archives” workshop jointly run by the British Library (fondly known among them as “the BL”) and the British Sociological Association (BSA). Andy Rackley – who contributed an excellent blog for the DRN on his background with archives – kindly invited me to represent our network. With a programme packed full of expert scholars and collection specialists, I was very pleased to be one of the lucky 39 attendees, hailing from local institutions and across the country – even as far as Edinburgh. Following introductions by directors of research and executives form both institutions, Andy offered a useful portrait of archival research and some of the core textbooks that we, as researchers, can engage with (such as Moore, Salter, Stanley and Tamboukou, 2016). His project within the BSA helped develop this event, which aimed to highlight the role of archival research in the methodological canon for sociologists.
The BSA is taking a stronger, almost fervent interest in archival research. They are not only supporting primary data collection seen in ethnographic work, but have envisaged an “Archives Prize” for the best piece of archival research at the BSA Annual Conference. As the sociological panel of Liz Stanley, Aaron Winter, Nirmal Puwar and Kahryn Hughes demonstrated, archives are not just the preserve of historians or librarians, but can be put into action by social scientists examining the links between the past and the present. Their eclectic interests were brought together around the themes of race and ethnicity as well as equality and diversity – two current priorities for the BSA. Edinburgh professor Liz Stanley shared her work on the construction of “race” in colonialist South Africa, while the University of East London’s Aaron Winter examined the alarming racist discourse and ideology of far-right groups in the United States. Continuing in this vein, Goldsmiths professor Nirmal Puwar shared excerpts of an innovative postcolonialist film about Indian soldiers serving during the Second World War. Following that, Kahryn Hughes of the University of Lincoln (speaking also on behalf of Anna Tarrant of Leeds) provided a methodological overview of their thorough approach to using archives as methods.
Following this eclectic plenary from the academics, the lunch break and buffet allowed delegates to network and connect with each other, and I am grateful to be in contact with numerous scholars with very interesting portfolios of work. Throughout these breaks, I also perused the numerous leaflets that showed just how much the BL has to offer students, lecturers and researchers: From specialist collections of regions such as Latin America and Asia (with specialists in numerous countries) to experts in particular methods, such as oral history. Allan Sudlow, the Head of Research Engagement at the BL, provided a useful introduction to this, with his overview of what the British Library can do (and, very honestly, cannot) – addressing the what, why, how and when questions we researchers might pose. The BL has some impressive presenters and scholarly experts, and this was expressed by the talks from Mary Stewart (a proponent of oral history), Debbie Cox (a curator of British published collections) and D-M Withers, an early career research fellow interested in gender. Chatting to some of them afterwards, I was also impressed by how the methods of using archives allowed for the BL team to rotate around departments and cultivate new knowledge and skills – something that an ethnographer might be familiar with.
The day ended with a lively roundtable discussion on “Archives in the sociological research process”, where Andy invited me to provide a voice for the DRN. Eyes pricked up and keen nods emerged when I told them about our supportive space for anyone using documents as data across the disciplines. The delegates also seemed very pleased with the prospect of future specialist events on archives, and I have since been in touch with Judith Mudd, the Chief Executive of the BSA, to keep the DRN involved in these meetings and developments. Moreover, there was even talk of a pioneering methods textbook that could include a chapter on archival research – so lacking across the disciplines. We were so enthused that many participants stayed on speaking at length about their work over wine and refreshments, and some took advantage of the setting to visit exhibitions, such as one on Karl Marx that very evening. So, after this exciting day out, I can safely say that archives are very much alive and kicking, and the time is ripe to make the most of them. It is time to return to the past.
Moore, N., Salter, A., Stanley, L. and Tamboukou, M. (2016). The archive project. Archival research in the social sciences. London: Routledge.
George Jennings is a lecturer in sport sociology / physical culture at Cardiff Metropolitan University, where he teaches modules relating to contemporary issues in sport, social theory and qualitative methods. A keen methodologist, George has used autophenomenography, ethnography, life history and narrative approaches alongside documental analysis to examine martial arts cultures, pedagogies and philosophies. George is the co-founder of Documents Research Network (DRN) and is the academic consultant for DojoTV.