Undisciplining the Archive, or, What is Sociology For?

Image: Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

Wednesday 1st August, 2018

Lisa Kalayji

In an atypically high-spirited opening panel at Undisciplining, panellists and audience members latched onto a catchy phrase from The Sociological Review’s manifesto: ‘demonstrably alive’. It became the unofficial slogan of the conference, closely followed by Michaela Benson’s remark that ‘sociology doesn’t have a monopoly on the sociological’. Delegates and presenters kept returning to these two ideas, and they funnelled our thinking as we weaved through cognitive, emotional, and corporeal experiences over a strikingly immersive three days. A sense of political urgency resonated amongst participants as we continued to ask how the ‘demonstrably alive’ sociological imagination links Card Carrying Sociologists with the broader world of sociological minds, a concern which raised a still more fundamental question: What is sociology for?

There has rarely been a more pressing need than there now is to get to grips what has brought things (all of them, really) to where they are and what it means for us as sociologists. Unsurprisingly, those imperatives have taken many of us to the archives. Archives are generally associated with the past, but the pervasive presence of ‘the archive’ at Undisciplining felt more oriented toward the future. Sociologists use archives to make sense of the present through the past, but we also create archives for future use. Our work both relies upon and generates the precious historical traces used to construct stories and build futures. The archive is, of course, famously ‘demonstrably alive’ - archive fever is highly infectious and without a cure. The array of engagements with the archive we saw at the conference engendered precisely the lively, undisciplined thinking that drew us all to it.

Satnam Virdee’s lecture examined the genealogies of recent reactionary populist trends with a thrilling, historically attentive detail. These trends, he argued, make little sense in abstraction from the specificities of their historical legacies. At a time when clumsy analyses of right-wing populism abound, Prof. Virdee laid out in minute detail, through concrete historical traces, the entanglements of capital and race and the false elisions that curtail sociologists’ abilities to fully apprehend them. Sweeping and sedimented disciplinary assumptions become clearest when they are read against hyper-local traces in the archive, and many of us left Prof. Virdee’s lecture with archive fevers running high.

Ben Carrington’s address on the often-fraught relationship between sociology and cultural studies provided a tantalising glimpse of Stuart Hall’s personal archival collection. Rendering Hall as his own archivist, Prof. Carrington noted that he’s now exploring Hall’s thinking through his annotations in the books that sat on his own bookcase. Archival researchers rarely encounter more ‘demonstrably alive’ traces than the marginalia (not to mention coffee stains) left by previous users of texts, and at a moment which demands every intellectual resource that sociologists can muster, we want our intellectual forebears as alive as we can get them. Sociologists often regard cultural studies with not only dismissal, but open derision – a disciplinary fidelity which belies the debts that we owe to a host of other disciplines – and Prof. Carrington’s rousing lecture offered a vital reminder of what many of us already know: the disciplining of sociology is political, and so is its undisciplining.

The archive appeared in truly discipline-challenging form where academics themselves were revealed as archivists. Ayona Datta’s keynote gave us a dystopian tour of the ‘smart city’ programme in India. Her analysis explicitly foregrounded what archivists and archival researchers are perhaps most attentive to: stories. The smart city programme, she argued, is designed to induce historical amnesia, keeping India’s gaze on the future so that critiques of the past might not disrupt power consolidation projects in the present. What most gripped me in Dr. Datta’s address, though, were the maps and images. The archives we generate in the course of doing research are intended for our own use (and possibly that of other researchers), but given the alarming political shifts that Dr. Datta elaborated, I wondered what the traces of her research might be taken to signify 20, 50, or 100 years from now. What stories will people tell about India with these images? About the present historical epoch more broadly? What stories will they tell about sociology?

The film series within the conference was bursting with perhaps the most ‘demonstrably alive’ undisciplined archives, and extended a stirring invitation to rethink what sociology does. Fay Dennis’s film featured body-map drawings from her research with people in London who inject heroin. In addition to vividly illuminating the lived experience of heroin use, Dr. Dennis and her research participants have created an archive with which a multitude of stories might later be told. Magali Peyrefitte, using photography rather than drawing, exhibited an affectively immersive multimedia montage of the gentrification of Soho. Having formally studied photography in preparation for the research, Dr. Peyrefitte has now generated, over the course of two years, what is likely one of the most expansive and systematic photographic records of the rapid transformations happening there. It’s difficult to imagine where these drawings and photographs might be archived in the distant future, but people someday attempting to understand life in London today will be indebted for a rich window on it to sociologists who were doing what was, for them, research. 

These exciting dances with the archive, if taken seriously, can bring us into exactly the confrontations with un/disciplining that the conference was intended to evoke. Rigid disciplinary boundaries obscure sociology’s reality: robust, ‘real’ sociology requires some co-mingling with cultural studies, anthropology, history, geography, policy studies, science and technology studies, psychology, archive studies, and other disciplines.

At the Undisciplining early career researchers’ day, a conversation opened up around academics being mistaken for administrative or facilities staff at university events. Though the gendered and raced politics of these incidents leave academics understandably irked, Adam Elliott-Cooper proposed a tilt on our protestations: rather than asking ‘Why am I mistaken for cleaning staff?’, we might ask, ‘Why do most of the cleaning staff look like me?’. Along similar lines, rather than asking ‘Why is my work mistaken for that of another discipline?’, we might ask, ‘Why don’t I want my work to be mistaken for that of another discipline?’ Archives anchor our understanding of the present to traces of the past, but they also anchor sociology to other disciplines. Defending the fortress of sociological purity (an untenable and ahistorical enterprise in itself) prioritises the nominal over the normative, and if we are prepared to do that, then what is sociology for?

Lisa Kalayji is a feminist sociologist of emotion and affect, and has recently had her sociology PhD viva at the University of Edinburgh. She does historical sociological research concerning the counter-hegemonic emotion cultures of social movements, as well as theoretical work on affect in sociology and cultural studies.

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