Research Programme

"Archives, Power, and Knowledge. Organising, Controlling, and Destroying Stored Knowledge from Antiquity to the Present"

The Graduate Research Programme (GRP) "Archives, Power, and Knowledge. Organising, Controlling, and Destroying Stored Knowledge from Antiquity to the Present" was established in 2005 by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) at the Department of History at Bielefeld University.

For up to 17 highly qualified junior researchers, the Programme offers an opportunity to obtain a doctoral degree at Bielefeld University. Study groups, colloquia, workshops and conferences with guests are held regularly. The program is interdisciplinary and international. Doctoral students are offered support and supervision from Bielefeld University?s faculty and enjoy regular opportunities to interact and communicate with annually changing postdoctoral researchers as well as international Visiting Fellows. Research abroad is encouraged.
The Programme aims at combining a variety of methodological approaches, ranging from Material Culture to Historical Semantics and the history of institutions. Thus, central propositions of a "new cultural history" are integrated into the project of a historical exploration of differing constructions of knowledge. Furthermore, sponsored research projects focus particularly on the specific character of historical sources as such.

Research agenda and points of inquiry

"Archives and museums are mirrors of power and cosmologies." Thus the Australian historian Greg Dening comments on the recently growing interest in archives.

The GRP aims for a comparative investigation of the role of archives in different epochs and cultures. Drawing on an extended meaning of the term ?archive? (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault), it is taken to describe not only institutional collections of records, but libraries, museums and semi-, sub- or counterinstitutional stores of knowledge, as well.

Fundamentally, the question is how historical research can explore archives at all ? given the methodological dilemma that historians studying formations of knowledge can access only such traditions as survive archivally. Regarding the GRP?s work, three main areas of interest can be outlined:

1. Archives as constructions of knowledge

The first line of inquiry relates to the interpretation of given inventories of knowledge. What conclusions can be drawn from specific inventories regarding aims and processes of the construction of knowledge? What do they reveal about the ways of specific societies of coming to terms with past and present and with themselves? Thus, studies will focus on how particular historical actors judge particular bodies of knowledge to be archivable, storable and presentable.

Furthermore, we ask how specific forms of storage affect the structuring of knowledge. Which particular practices of storage, conservation and destruction allow either to transmit, to canonise, to censor or even to eliminate knowledge? Such questions are intimately linked with an analysis of power structures concerning archives as institutions, their content and the relevant personnel. They are also connected with the problem that perceptions and ?experiences? of the archive in turn can transform the construction of bodies of knowledge.

2. Organising, Controlling and Destroying Knowledge

A second line of inquiry is concerned with the interpretation of cultural practices of constructing knowledge and of perceiving and experiencing archives. It deals for example with the reconstruction and the analysis of particular mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that guide the collection, the storage, the conservation and the presentation of archival material. Similar mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion can also influence the perception and ?experience? of archives by organising access to and influence within archives. Another important aspect is the destruction or the loss of bodies of knowledge through controlled or uncontrolled processes of forgetting. Research therefore also deals with the question of how historical actors deal with destruction, loss and retrieval of storages of knowledge.

3. "A Mighty Fortress"?

Finally, this research aims at a synthesis of such questions, trying to distinguish carefully between varying influences and competing forms of power in the construction, transmission and destruction of bodies of knowledge in different epochs and cultures. One case in point could be the often-used definition of archives as ?fortresses? that as institutions inherently defy outside interference. To what extent does that definition hold up in times when the debate about political legitimacy is particularly intense and the ?politics of history and memory? particularly aggressive, using archival knowledge as ?proof?? Thus, the meaning of archives as sites of collective memory, of identity allocation and of heuristic evidence will be explored, both with regard to their political meaning and with regard to their role in the history of science and the humanities.