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One of the great advantages to doing archival research is that it is truly nonreactive. Whether you’re studying archival records of births, migrations, visits to a hospital, or purchases of hybrid seed, people can’t change their behavior after the fact. The original data might have been collected reactively, but that’s one reason why historians demand such critical examination of sources.

Another advantage of doing what Caroline Brettell calls ‘‘fieldwork in the archives’’ (1998) is that you can study things using archival data that would be too politically ‘‘hot’’ to study any other way. And archival research is inexpensive. Be on the lookout for interesting archival materials: government reports, personal diaries or photo collections, industrial data, medical records, school records, wills, deeds, records of court cases, tax rolls, and land-holding records.

Cultural Processes

Archival resources can be particularly useful in studying cultural processes through time. June Helm (1980) found that between 1829 and 1891, traders at the Hudson’s Bay Company posts of the upper Mackenzie Delta had surveyed the Indians who traded at their stores. On the basis of those data, Helm concluded that, before 1850, the Indians of the area had practiced female infanticide. After 1850, missionaries were successful in stopping infanticide. Nancy Howell (1981), a demographer, subjected Helm’s data to a sophisticated statistical analysis and corroborated Helm’s conclusion.

Daniel Swan and Gregory Campbell (1989) studied the population records of 1877 to 1907 for the Osage reserve. They were able to show that from 1877 to 1887, the full bloods declined at 6.4% a year and the mixed bloods increased at 7.3% a year. This had great consequences for the Osage because the full bloods and mixed bloods had formed voting blocs on economic issues. In particular, the full bloods resisted turning the reserve land into private property. Whites who married into the tribe fraudulently claimed tribal mixed-blood status. The mixed bloods were in favor of the private property measures.

Using fashion magazines going back to 1844, Alfred Kroeber made eight separate measurement of women’s clothing in the United States and France (Kroeber 1919). He measured things like the diameter of the skirt at the hem, the diameter of the waist, the depth of decolletage (measured from the mouth to the middle of the corsage edge in front), and so on. After analyzing the data, Kroeber claimed to have found ‘‘an underlying pulsation in the width of civilized women’s skirts, which is symmetrical and extends in its up and down beat over a full century,and an analogous rhythm in skirt length, but with a period of only about a third the duration’’ (p. 257). Kroeber offered his finding as evidence for long-cycle behavior in civilization.

Allport and Hartman (1931) criticized Kroeber for having been insufficiently critical of his sources. They found, for example, that the range in width of skirts for one year, 1886, was greater than the range Kroeber reported for 1859-1864 and that some years had very few cases on which to base measurements. If the data are suspect, Allport and Hartman concluded, then so are the regularities Kroeber claimed to have found (1931:342-43).

Richardson scoured the archives of fashion and extended the database from 1605-1936 (Richardson and Kroeber 1940). Before making measurements for all the new years included in the study, Richardson redid Kroeber’s measurements for 1844-1846 and for 1919 and assured herself that she was coding each plate the same way Kroeber had done in 1919 (Richardson and Kroeber 1940).

Lowe and Lowe (1982) reanalyzed the Richardson-Kroeber data for the 150 years from 1787-1936, using all the firepower of modern statistics and computers. You’ll be pleased to know that Kroeber’s first analysis was vindicated: Stylistic change in women’s dress is in stable equilibrium (changing with patterned regularity), and is driven by ‘‘inertia, cultural continuity, a rule system of aesthetic proportions, and an inherently unpredictable element’’ (Lowe and Lowe 1982:521).

Mulcahy and Herbert (1990) added data for the years 1937-1982 and found more variability in those 46 years than in the 150 years before 1937. For example, a plot of the moving average for skirt width from 1811-1926 has the same shape as the plot for 19261976. In other words, the cycle of skirt length had been cut by more than half in 1976.

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