Dori Beeler, CMH Affiliate, writes: As a medical anthropologist, my research focus has been on the subjective experiences, identity and construction of meaning for individuals and groups with respect to health and well-being. The product of that research has been ethnographic writing that is based upon what was heard in the field, rather than for instance, what was seen (Forsey 2010). In my work I have found the theory of a ‘social life of things’[1] helpful in understanding how meaning is caught in things and concepts such as health and wellbeing. Archives were in my view, until recently, what historians were concerned with and otherwise lacked any significance for my research. And yet, I was neglecting the very nature of material culture as having a social life. Likewise, I was missing out on how these artefacts create living meanings for the individuals and groups that had, up until now, captured my research interest. It quickly became clear to me that the socio-historical perspectives that can be found in archives provide important context for understanding of the deeper layers of an issue. Archival methods, while rarely taught in anthropology, are something that we should take more stock in. An example of this thinking can be found in Trundle and Kaplonski’s (2011) discussion of the importance of archives and for an expansion of the archival field within anthropology. My own appreciation for archives developed during my observation of a meeting where individuals discuss a collection of records and manuscripts in their various formats that could fit in a three cubic feet of space.

Sitting with coffee cups in-hand in what appears to be a chaotic and unorganised room, three men discuss an archive. One of the men is an archivist and the other two are practitioners. The boxes and shelves bursting to capacity are not actually archives but finding aids for archives and documentation relating to their management. Each folder contains summaries of conversations, such as the one I am observing, concerning the possible deposit of archives going back 50 years. This appearance, however, does not deter the men who are there to discuss creating a protected and socially engaging home for their material culture. Seemingly they are not aware of the bursting shelves around them nor do they appear concerned about their own artefacts meeting such a fate. During this meeting, I am for the first time exposed to the compelling nature of archives and the construction of their social life. I will consider each, the specialist and the practitioners, and how they have shaped the social life of this archive during the short time span of this meeting.

In this meeting each of the men had a position pertaining to their particular interest in this social life. For instance, the archivist was concerned with practical matters such as how much space does this material require, one bay or two; who would it be of most value too and what were the legal ramifications of how the records and manuscripts were collected? Additionally, his concern was centred on who would get the most use out of the collection for the purposes of further research and cataloguing. Ultimately, the resting place of this archive would to some extent dictate how the social life of these materials might expand in the future. Therefore, his concern was if it should be more of a public facing institution or if it should be a niche research group within a much wider facility. This particular focus was on the future potential for the life of the archive in connection with those that would exist and engage more readily with it.

On the other hand, the two men representing this material were concerned with the material’s symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1990) and in ensuring that its final resting place would provide a certain prestige. This resting place would further the prestige of the discipline by according it a kind of academic legitimacy they feel it deserves. This concern was a direct reflection of the emotional investment they had for their discipline as well as the construction of and historical biography of this archive and its social life. So for them, the final resting place of the archive was not a determining factor for this imagined and potential social life. As they were concerned, the archive had already manifested a certain reputation and character and the institution that housed it needed to also imbue this character. Additionally, the type of institution was important as this would determine the ease of access to the archives for their, as well as other researchers’, purposes. For them, it was important that the archive be in a location that they felt had developed the same degree of symbolic capital as, in their view, their archive had.

In this context, temporality is what distinguishes the two processes of the social life of an archive. The archivist was looking at the future of the life of the archive as the factors that would determine its resting place. Whereas the practitioners implied, through the discussion, that the archive already had a certain level of legitimisation and capital at the present phase of its life. It did not require a justification for its future. Instead, it was their concern that it be aligned with those institutions that would continue to imbue it with that distinctive quality that it currently embodied. These different meanings behind how the social life of an archive is constructed can create interesting discourses in a meeting such as the one I observed. As the meeting drew to a close, each party negotiates and decides the next course of action based on how the social life is understood by all involved. It ended with the particular archive in question still without a home. I believe that I had the best outcome from this meeting as it has inspired me to consider new methodological encounters and collaborations. More importantly perhaps, I have seen how a critical regard for interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary methods enriches research in the medical humanities.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The logic of practice. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. P.

Forsey, Martin Gerard. 2010. “Ethnography as participant listening.” Ethnography no. 11 (4):558-572. doi: 10.2307/24048026.

Trundle, Catherine, and Chris Kaplonski. 2011. “Tracing the Political Lives of Archival Documents.” History and Anthropology no. 22 (4):407-414. doi: 10.1080/02757206.2011.626777.


[1] Igor Kopytoff and Arjun Appadurai were instrumental in this understanding of a social life of things such as commodities and cultural artefacts. Appadurai, A., 1986. The social life of things : commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. P.


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