The social life of small archives and emotional labour

In a recent talk, Excavating Yugoslav: Socialism Archives, Social History and Research Methodology, delivered at the University of Graz, Vladan Vukliš drew from his dual roles as historian and archivist (at Arhiv Republike Srpske, Banja Luka) in outlining some key issues for undertaking historical research in Bosnia Herzegovina and the wider post-Yugoslav space. As part of his presentation, Vladan displayed a graph which maps out the chances of document preservation against scales of hierarchy and function. A broken green line divides the fonds. The material Goran Musić and I have been working with for the “Between class and nation” project tends to lie stubbornly north of the division in the “low chance of preservation” space. For the last two years, archival research more often than not has meant attempts to access living archives (i.e. still located inside factory premises) or to negotiate a few hours to consult unprocessed and haphazardly organised holdings under the watchful eye of reluctant local archivists.

vuklis hierarchy of dox
Graph prepared by Vladan Vukliš (2017)

Reflections about the value of conducting research in smaller archives and the unpredictable, time limited nature of access has been doing the rounds in recent weeks (in my facebook echo-chamber at least). An excellent piece by Max Bergholz recalls his time-limited access to archives in Bosnian Krajina while researching Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community:

But it was in the field—in the basements and storage depots of dusty Bosnian archives—where I learned something that universities don’t really teach. This is the importance of capitalizing on small windows of opportunity to literally grab hold of the past, which sometimes unexpectedly open up, and must be seized immediately, or perhaps lost forever.

Despite the contemporaneous nature of our research on late socialism, these small window of opportunity revealed themselves repeatedly. On at least three occasions access to documents was time limited and I suspect cannot be repeated. The postsocialist afterlife of socially owned firms and the tumultuous local events will lead to the documents’ disappearance or destruction rather than preservation. Ongoing bankruptcies, (usually failed) privatisations, flawed “social programmes” as well as elections and political battles from the level of state president and premier right down to the municipal level negatively impact upon archive preservation.

The small windows of opportunity that emerged for us did so because of a factor that Bergholz does not elaborate on – as a consequence of managing of social relations. Attempting to gain access to obscure local archives and living archives still inside factories is an intensely social process. It is dependent on finding connections and entry points, negotiating with gatekeepers, presenting oneself in a way that engenders trust and many, many hours of chatting, waiting, and drinking unwanted coffees with whoever may staff the factory offices. One should be affable in terms that are socially recognisable. This form of emotional labour appears to be largely unacknowledged in social history. Oral history methodology can offer some pointers – certainly in terms of ethical guidelines and on ways of establishing a cooperative working relationship with interlocutors. It is social anthropology however, that probably most capable of providing the vocabulary and concepts for interrogating the processes taking place.

Even though in his talk Vladan advocated formal institutional cooperation and the professionalisation of archival and research practices in the discussion that followed having “connections” [veze] was cited by some of the audience members as an essential component when undertaking research in local libraries and archives in former Yugoslav states. While this is certainly true I am of the view that social historians underestimate the emotional labour that fieldwork entails and at times confuse this labour with the cultivation of veze. The social historian does not always need friends in high places to access materials (though it undoubtedly helps). They do however have to be willing to painstakingly attend to social relations in the field. In non-institutional conditions where access to archives is personalised and depends on informal, negotiable rules, not only does the historian have to manage their own feelings towards interlocutors while conducting research but must also attend to the expectations, assumptions, grievances, suspicions and hopes of the various gatekeepers and interlocutors through whom access to archives rests. The researcher’s affective display should be appropriate for the particular context. To simply request access to documents in a transactional manner is likely to yield limited results.

In Serbia and Montenegro during 2015 and 2016 the locations where we were seeking access to archives were deindustrialised and economically depressed. Those workers who were still in formal employment often had not been paid for months, even years. Pension and healthcare contributions were in arrears. In at least two of the plants which were still functioning heavy handed private security had quashed stirrings of labour movements. The initial meetings, coffees and discussions at our fieldwork sites were understandably dominated by these concerns which were ravaging these communities. As our research topic was labour and everyday life in late socialism interlocutors would invariably compare contemporary working conditions with those of the socialist era. In fact, it would be impossible to begin our research without engaging in such conversations.

In FAP Priboj, a truck and heavily vehicle manufacturer in Sandžak, a pattern emerged whereby on average each hour spent in the archives would need to be matched by an hour drinking coffee and chatting to a rotating cast of employees (mostly white collar employees in offices – blue-collar workers would occasionally enter to have documentation stamped or signed but were not usually encouraged to converse with us by the interlocutors). Though never explicitly stated, we were expected to “sing for our supper”, by listening sympathetically and respectfully. Each working day would begin with an extended coffee. This was frustrating at times – time was limited, it was clear that access would be a one-off event and the quantity of materials we were attempting to scour in five days was formidable.

priboj archive
FAP Priboj archive, 2015

18 months after this stint of archival research in Priboj was undertaken the main FAP building containing the archives is under lock and key. The entire plant is now shut and the last workers have been made redundant. At times when tensions rise in the municipality – usually because of broken promises related to redundancy packages – private security patrol the parking lot and prevent anybody from approaching the entrance. I did not dare to park by it on my visit last summer but I did meet some of the interlocutors for coffee.

Rory Archer, 07.04.2017