June 05, 2023

Using Archival Data in Sociological Research

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

A few years ago I wrote about comparative historical research, a method sociologists use that overlaps with historical research. Doing this type of research often requires us to use some form of archival data, something from the past that has been saved that we can go back to examine.

Archival data can take many forms, from information collected for the purpose of future research (like census data) to publications like newspapers and magazines and even personal journals and diaries that were not initially collected with research in mind.

Archives might be housed in special places—sometimes called archives themselves—and libraries often house collections that can be deemed archives. A famous author’s personal papers, for instance, might be donated to a local public or university library. The federal government maintains a museum, called National Archives, where visitors can see original founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There are also opportunities for researchers to review special collections by appointment. Cities, states, and counties also house their own records that researchers might be able to access.

While it is obvious why historians would want to use archival data, why might sociologists?

Archival data are useful for sociologists when we are studying something from the past, and those who are familiar with the events are either deceased or are likely not to remember specific details. We can also use archival data to trace how local policies are created and negotiated.

For instance, Leland Saito used city records that detailed the process by which large-scale projects, such as the city’s convention center were built for his book Building Downtown Los Angeles. Archival data is useful for getting details that people will likely not recall decades later, as was the case for the building of convention center and other venues such as Staples Center (now called crypto.com Arena) and LA Live. Examining documents like newspaper articles, permit filings with the city, city council meeting minutes, communications between officials, and lawsuit filings, for instance, can give us a more complete picture of the ways in which cities are created.

Listen to a clip of Leland Saito discussing archival data with Karen Sternheimer:

Podcast: Interview with Leland Saito about archival data

We can also study cultural shifts, as I did in my book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream. In researching celebrity culture of the past, I was able to use fan magazines dating back to 1911 to observe the changing narratives about when it meant to have “made it” in America. Movie fan magazines are very different from official city records in that they were intended to be forms of entertainment and can be hard to access. I was fortunate that my university’s Cinematic Arts library has a collection that I could use, drawn from donations over the years of magazines that might have otherwise been easily discarded.

For my book Pop Culture Panics, I used databases of historical newspapers (such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers and LexisNexis) to find stories from the first half of the twentieth century about concerns regarding movies, comic books, pinball machines, and music. I also used memoirs and biographies of those involved in moral crusades about these and other forms of popular culture.

As these examples illustrate, almost anything from the past can later be useful as archival data. Going through archival data can be tedious at times, but it can also be a fascinating step into a time machine that allows sociologists to better understand the broad context of the topic we are studying. I liken archival data to Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, where we can become mesmerized by “another world” that is in fact part of our own.

As I noted in my post on comparative historical research, when distinguishes sociological research from historical research is that we ask sociological questions that go beyond “what happened?” (which is of course a very important aspect of historical research). Saito’s Building Downtown Los Angeles uses archival data to analyze the process of racial special formation, or how meanings of race are constructed via the creation of urban spaces. Sociologists also connect our research with sociological theory in order to build upon the ongoing sociological conversation.

What can the past teach us about the present? And what archival sources can help you create a deeper understanding of the topic you are interested in studying?


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