The Politics of Memory and Things: Reflections on Archives and Ethnography

Chandra Mukerji, University of California, San Diego

Field notes and public records are both "little tools of knowledge" filled with records of the lives of strangers that can be put to analytic or political use. Both are limited in scope and biased in unintended as well as intended ways. But they are usefully compared because they can reveal forms of life at the level of social practice, doing it from very different perspectives. Most strikingly, archives are full of documents about land and material relations of power, while field notes rarely discuss material forms or processes except as expressions of ideas. I will make this case first by examining a legal document, an engineering report, and political correspondence, illustrating the myriad ways that historical archives address the lives of things as intrinsic to social life. Then I will compare their content to the content of Notes on Fieldwork in Morocco, a book of advice about ethnographic research. It illustrates how the ethnographic tradition differentiates people from artifacts. There are political reasons for the differences between archives and field notes. The treaties, engineering documents, and political letters deemed important enough to archive often focus on land, property and the circulation of objects because they are intrinsic to relations of power. In contrast, taking field notes -- developed as a methodology for studying groups stripped of their material traditions and land in colonial regimes or trading relations-- have been designed to document interpersonal relations and forms of meaning-making as though they are unconnected to the material practices of social life in which they took form.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 15. Archival Work as Qualitative Sociology I: Methodological Reflections