January 2013

Advice for Graduate Students Embarking on Archival Research

After visits to over a dozen archives in pre-dissertation and actual dissertation research, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences and render some practical how-to advice.* All of what I say is inherently provisional, as I have yet to produce the end product (the dissertation) that would prove my advice sound. And all of what I say relates to my own experience and is not necessarily transferable to other people or places. In particular, a few idiosyncrasies: 1) I drink coffee in the morning and I am vegetarian; 2) my research has been at archives in the United States, mostly in suburbs or college towns; 3) my project is not based on a single archive but rather requires the construction of an archive of sorts. Let me explain further why these points matter.

Gun Violence in the United States: Reverberations of Empire

I don’t know much about guns. Nor do I, an otherwise inherently inquisitive type, want to know that much. Playing with GI Joe figures as a white boy in the suburbs in the 1980s was enough, thank you very much. What I do know something about, however, is the boomerang effects of colonial forms of rule: how techniques of power deployed in far-off lands by imperial rulers tend to be repatriated for domestic use. Hannah Arendt advocated a version of this thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950). For her, the roots of the Nazi Holocaust sit with the Boers in South Africa. Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended, a collection of 1975-1976 lectures, refers to the “considerable boomerang effect”

"Anti-Klan (Part 1)": The FBI, the Police, and the KKK

The historical question of the role of FBI informants in destroying radical Left movements and organizations in the 1960s and 1970s has been raised anew by Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives. By radicals, the use of informants is felt to be particularly pernicious insofar as informants not only abuse the very trust that is essential to building social movements but they weaponize that trust itself to undermine movements. What's more, although informants are defended by the security apparatus as essential and essentially neutral tools in the capturing of bad guys, no one believes they are neutral (or, put more clinically, as sociologist Gary T. Marx does, their mandates are not always clear.) Instead, they frequently direct movements toward illegal, or more illegal, activities in order to build cases for prosecutions. I return to this topic not because informants interest me per se but because they are one symptom of a broader complex that is the relationship of the state and social movements and the state and racism. Where I am going with this is actually a relatively narrow question of the relationship of right-wing extra-legal violence and the police, which I pose by looking at the FBI during COINTELPRO’s spying on white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. But first let me take a wide berth.

© 2021 Stuart Schrader