Taking Advantage of Selection Bias in Archival Methods

Anjali Anand, University of Chicago
Kevin Weng, University of Chicago

Historical research in the social sciences often relies on the collection, interpretation, and synthesis of primary documents gathered in national libraries and archives. While these sources have proved invaluable in elucidating rich historical processes, primary document evidence in political science is often mined for its content to the exclusion of other aspects of the document, such as form, placement, and materiality, which crucially impact the reconstruction of historical events and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. While social scientists in anthropology and interpretive sociology and political science have made great strides in using form and placement in their analyses of historical events, these interventions have yet to be widely acknowledged and practiced in positivist research. We argue that the physicality of documents, outside of their content, can be treated as a type of “selection bias” and thereby incorporated into the mainstream of positivist qualitative research. We further demonstrate the applicability of this approach through a comparison of the authors’ experiences working with documents from twentieth century Republican China and eighteenth-century British enclaves in India.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 73. Methods of Inquiry