Historical Ethnography: Archival Data, Causal Trajectories, and Locating the Past in the Present

Diane Vaughan, Columbia University

We can think of all ethnography as historical because it intervenes in the ongoing process of a place, revealing social life at a particular moment in time. The ethnographer intersects history, observes a slice of it for a while, then leaves the setting. The advantage of ethnography is it captures time: it exposes both structures and processes as they unfold on the ground at a particular historical moment. Yet, it, too, is time-limited. Often we are in the dark about the links between the past and the present and what happens to the patterns we discovered after we depart. Sometimes, however, an ethnography needs to be intentionally historical: the field work is located between the past and the present because the past is necessary to explain what is happening in the present. In these circumstances, history is cause. Drawing from an historical ethnography of four air traffic control facilities, I trace my process of discovery: the sifting and sorting of archival data that exposed the patterns and variations of the past as they materialize in the air traffic control system and individual facilities in the present. I am interested in the system and system effects. During the development of the system prior to the field work, the causal trajectory is characterized by contingency and unanticipated consequences. Specifically, I focus on the co-incidence of multiple trajectories of innovations, begun in separate locations by different social actors at different times that intersect in the present in ways that impact controllers work and the safety of the system.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 158. Archival Work as Qualitative Sociology II: Case Studies