Ownership, Connectedness and Archives: Making Sense of Archival Connections

This is the second of two joint blog posts in which we consider, from different positions, ownership, connectedness, and archives. In our previous joint blog post: Ownership, Connectedness and Archives: Changing Perceptions Over Time we discussed how our work with multiple longitudinal data sets in the Timescapes article meant that we felt a growing sense of connection to participants and their accounts, and to the commitments of the original researchers, thereby shifting our perception of ownership. In this contribution we consider quite what that sense of connection is to.

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash

To do this we think it is fruitful to bring the work of sociologists who have been thinking about archival investigations in the social sciences into engagement with secondary qualitative longitudinal data discussions.  While archival researchers may be dealing with various forms of documents not produced directly for research purposes, secondary qualitative researchers too are working with materials that have been archived, whether in a formal digital research repository such as Timescapes, or a more ‘informal’ digital or paper storehouse in that another social researcher or team has given them access to all or part of a data set that they generated, or are looking again at their own, stowed-away qualitative research material.

Making sense of present-day traces

In their co-authored book The Archive Project, Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley and Maria Tamboukou, consider the ‘it’ that archival research is concerned with, including the nature and boundaries of their contents (Moore, N et al, 2017).  They discuss how archival research involves making sense of present-day traces – the remains of people’s past lives, activities, realities and events, inevitably incomplete and fragmented in character: ‘We are dealing with the mere traces of the complex and visceral ways that such things were lived, told or written, and subsequently recorded in the researcher’s notes or databases, transcriptions or digital photographs’ (Moore, N et al, 2017, p.156).  The authors raise the epistemological problematic of how knowledge may be derived from the partial and disjointed archive: how to make sense of the traces?

The relationality of digital objects

A linked, ontological question noted in The Archive Project, is how can we understand the relationality of digital objects separated in a series of file structures?  In the case of the Timescapes collection, a single interview is a textual rendering of (part of) a conversation between a research participant and researcher and is located within a series of interviews over time with that participant, all of which are integral to the longitudinal study in which they participated, which in turn are embedded in the wider Timescapes project endeavour that shaped the form and content of the archive, and so on.  Temporally, the Timescapes Archive may hold digital objects that were generated over time by social researchers in the near past, but the Archive itself is located in the now present, including socially and politically, and so is the qualitative secondary researcher’s intellectual use of it.  It is a hybrid ‘now/past’ in its temporal structure.

Secondary qualitative researchers are often also primary researchers, and it can be easy to work with the secondary data, once accessed, as we do with primary without too much reflection on our processes.  In her chapter for The Archive Project, Liz Stanley unpacks how archival researchers may make sense of traces and get to grips with the epistemological and ontological issues.  She discusses what archival researchers broadly do, with resonances for qualitative secondary research endeavours.  Liz Stanley elaborates a process of (re)writing (whether pen on paper or fingers on keyboard) articulating with a process of (re)reading, as we actively engage with the content and organisation of the secondary material.

Making sense of archival connections

As we undertake the process of accessing and analysing the, usually digital, secondary qualitative data that we are working on, we download files, make notes and summaries, construct our own metadata tables, manipulate data through processing programmes, select and interpret, pull out quotations, and so on, towards the production of our knowledge claims – in effect, says Stanley, we are making ‘an archive of the other archive’.  The Breadth-and-Depth project that we referred to in our first paired  blog post provides a clear example of this iterative process, as we ‘archived our other archive’(Davidson et al 2019).  The data from multiple Timescapes projects that we worked with was merged into one data set that we then reorganised by gender and age, and subsequently redeposited in the Timescapes Archive.

Across these two blog posts, we have delved into two different positions on ownership, connectedness and archives.  In the first,  we considered the senses of ownership and sense of connectedness to research participants that we experienced in working with Timescapes data, and in this second blog piece, we shifted stance to reflecting on the partial and disjointed nature of the data available to us and other secondary researchers through the Timescapes and other archives.  We cannot necessarily reconcile feelings of connectedness and make sense of partial traces, but for us, the important issue is to be aware of and reflect on them.

Bibliography:

Davidson, E., Edwards, R., Jamieson, L. and Weller, S., 2019. Big data, qualitative style: a breadth-and-depth method for working with large amounts of secondary qualitative data. Quality & Quantity53(1), pp.363-376.  Available from: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11135-018-0757-y.pdf

Moore, N., Salter, A., Stanley, L. and Tamboukou, M., 2017. The archive project: Archival research in the social sciences. Routledge.

Timescapes.2021 Big Qual Analysis: Teaching Dataset.Timescapes Archive.[Online].[Accessed 16th January 2022].Available from: https://timescapes.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/view/project/BigQual.html

Weller, S and Edwards, R. 2022. Ownership, Connectedness and Archives: Changing Perceptions Over Time.[Online][Accessed 22.1.22].Available from: https://timescapes-archive.leeds.ac.uk/ownership-connectedness-and-archives-changing-perceptions-over-time/

Authors

Professor Rosalind Edwards
Professor Rosalind Edwards is a Professor of Sociology within Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Southampton. Rosalind is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and...
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Dr Susie Weller
Dr Susie Weller is a Senior Research Fellow in the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford and in Clinical Ethics, Law and Society at Southampton (CELS). She is affiliated to the UK’s National Centre...
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