Reflections of a Novice Spelunker in the Archives

In her CSSH essay, “Determining Emotions and the Burden of Proof in Investigative Commissions to Palestine,” Lori Allen explores the long history of investigative commissions to Palestine. In her reflections below, she talks about how she conducted her research and the special challenges she faced as an ethnographer in the archives.

As a novice spelunker in “the archives,” one of a lengthening line of anthropologist interlopers into history, the distinct challenges and pleasures of historical and ethnographic research have been constant niggling companions as I worked on this project addressing a century of international investigative commissions to Palestine. I suspect that I have reinvented very imperfectly many methodology wheels as I have meandered through libraries, memoirs, and old newspapers, trying simultaneously to: perceive the broad, dripping brush-strokes of several different historical eras and how they run into each other; figure out how to identify who would become relevant characters in my story; discover how to find their paper trail and then try to convince some librarian, diplomat, granting agency, or research assistant to help me gain access to it; notice (usually too late) the social, personal, or family connection between this guy and that. And in the midst of juggling these different puzzle pieces (the mixed metaphor is intentional), I realized I was developing strong likes or dislikes, irritations, affinities, or bemusement towards the individuals whose lives, letters, and diaries I was rummaging through.

It is probably impolitic in these fact-fragile, anti-academia days to admit as a social scientist that one’s feelings and intuitions figure into this serious business of analyzing social and political relations. But given how clear it is that feelings and intuitions shaped those social and political relations under examination (as I hope my article shows), I think it’s only fair to come clean about this dimension of the research process, too. And this is one of my first observations about the differences in archival and ethnographic research: the variation in the sources of one’s emotions and attitudes towards one’s research subjects, the ways these have to be managed during the research and analysis, and the impact of those subjective experiences.

In conducting ethnographic fieldwork, regardless of one’s personal feelings towards any given interlocutor, the anthropologist usually has to remain polite. Talking with another human in the field always entails some balance of decorum and seduction—an attempt to convince someone to be open with you, reassure them of your intentions, and cajole them to share their information and their analyses of it. Practically, this means you have to be both honest and nice, if not sympathetic or empathetic (an issue anthropologists have disagreed over). Even if I did not agree with, or particularly like, who I was talking with, I did want to hear what they had to say, and kept an open mind to allow them to do so in their own terms. In my experience of fieldwork, living with people who are living under military occupation, people subject to outrageous levels of stress, violence, and injustice, I have felt many things about my interlocutors and their situation, including sympathy, frustration, anger, impatience, exhaustion, fear, and astonishment. My ability to share these feelings with them in real time, as we looked up together at the same drone- and helicopter-dotted sky (metaphorically and literally), shaped what they allowed me to learn and how I ended up analyzing the socio-political dynamics of Palestinian society under Israeli military occupation. It colored how I tried to portray it in writing and what senses of ethical obligation I carried while doing so.

But in the archive, it wasn’t always a natural instinct to be sympathetic towards all my research subjects. From their first memo to the metropole or letter to the missus, some of them struck me as arrogant, sexist, racist, petty, and ambitious, and equal parts long-winded in their boring views of “the Orient,” and tight-lipped when it came to what I thought I wanted to know from them. I have developed a genuine dislike for a couple of what I have come to refer to as “my guys,” my brood of Western commissioners who have traipsed through Palestine over the decades. And I could let those feelings bloom. I could frown and fume (silently and in my head in the library) at their biased attitudes, at their self-congratulatory pride, at their unselfconscious sense of self-importance, and it wouldn’t hinder my research. They were dead and elsewhere, unable to stop me from flipping through their onion-skin papers, thumbing through their travel expenses, reading their clumsily crafted memoirs and obviously politically curated diaries. I wasn’t compelled to give them the benefit of the doubt to continue the conversation, since I was just there to catch up on their monologue that finished a while ago. My resentment only increased when I discovered that some of them hadn’t had the courtesy to leave one complete copy of all their papers in one library, but instead scattered them about four or five different universities, with no indication of what might be unique to a particular collection, as if each copy of a memo on the dangers of Muslim fanaticism was some precious Goldbergian variation on an “intelligence” masterpiece. Hardly. I filed this archival proliferation away as just another symptom of this man’s inflated sense of imperial self-importance.

The obstacles set by the Palestinians in my story were of a distinct kind, some due to personality peculiarities and others resulting from a collective condition of not having a nation-state. In contrast to the Orientalist I love to hate, one posthumous contributor to my research whose personal life I know a bit more about took a great deal of convincing to participate in the production of his memoirs, and he mainly relented from a combination of being ill in bed and wanting to leave his story to his grandchildren. But even then, his arm needed twisting because, unlike so many of my Western commissioners, he did not consider himself a world-historical figure whose every action or sneeze of an opinion was worthy of recording. His humility means that, unfortunately, he didn’t keep his personal papers for the future researcher.

The repetition of war and dispersal that is a core of modern Palestinian history has also shaped the deposits of some of my Palestinian subjects’ written detritus. Many did not have the luxury of a sedentary life in which to accumulate masses of papers, or lost them upon exodus or death under a rain of bombs. And none had a state archive or national university system eager to preserve their every letter, radio address, and publication in one convenient spot. Some of them I mainly found mediated by newspaper accounts and colonial intelligence reports, or as they presented themselves all buttoned up and tidy in testimonial to the commissioners—a kind of challenge many scholars “reading against the grain” have tackled. Some of their papers were captured by the Israelis, and there remains some mystery around what happened to PLO papers after the civil war in Lebanon. The materials they did leave behind feel comparatively more fragmentary and scattered. So, I do not yet have the same kind of personal or emotional reactions, or imagined relationship to most of my Palestinian historical interlocutors from the archives as I do with some of the commissioners. Instead, the political ideas and forms of argumentation of my Palestinian subjects are much more thoroughly underscored in my understanding of their lives.

But the research continues, and as the picture I have of the Palestinian actors in my saga gains color and depth with each new snippet of their recorded reactions and words that I find, my approach to the analysis shifts. I started this project with a theoretical problem, broadly, of ideology. My concern was with the ways people develop their ideas and understandings, and what actions and inactions those prompt. As I find more expressions of the hopes and disappointments in the narrations of the Palestinians I am reading in the archives, as I learn more about the adjustments to the delivery of their arguments over time, and as the alterations in their political projects become clearer to me, the emotional dimensions and dynamism of ideology itself are coming into view. In this way, I remain thoroughly an anthropologist, working inductively from the human details. The evidence I find, the characters I stumble across and what their documents care to reveal to me, influence the way I understand the theoretical problem I am pursuing. One rule of thumb for the intrepid ethnographer is that once you start getting a little bored, or somewhat less surprised, once you stop learning much that is new from new interlocutors, you’ve reached a point of saturation and you can go home and start writing. I don’t know what the rule of thumb is for historians. As the tempestuous dramas continue in the archives I’m exploring, I can’t imagine ever getting bored.

Lori Allen is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, University of London. Her first book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2013) won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize in 2014. She has published previously in American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Critique of Anthropology, International Journal of Middle East Studies, and Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).


By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History

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