Doing Archival Research in Political Science

by Scott A. Frisch, Douglas B. Harris, Sean Q. Kelly, and David C.W. Parker


Archival research is uncommon in contemporary political science. During the behavioral revolution of the 1950s, political science ceded archival collections and archival reading rooms to history. This volume seeks to reclaim the archives in the name of behavioral and post-behavioral political science.

This volume is a showcase for top-notch, archives-based research in American politics. Part advocacy and part “how to,” with a focus on doing archival research, the essays in this volume illustrate how archival data improves empirically based political science. Cross-disciplinary collaboration with archivists is reflected in several chapters allowing readers to develop an appreciation for how archival practice influences research strategies.

Doing Archival Research in Political Science is a natural addition to undergraduate and graduate courses on research methods. The readable and sometimes irreverent essays in the volume will keep students’ interest and promote discussion. Faculty who are interested in adding to their methodological arsenal will benefit from the lessons, advice, and thoughtful perspectives of those scholars who have preceded them (and had to learn some lessons the hard way!).

Political science students specializing in American politics are rarely, if ever, exposed to the use of archival documents in political science research. The editors of the volume therefore fashioned a book that encourages political scientists to explore the promise of archival research. In this regard, the book is an exercise in advocacy.

Given the dearth of training in archival research the editors envisioned a book that addresses the “how to” of archival research by involving the perspective of archivists. The editors identified chapter authors who demonstrate in their research-oriented essays how archival research influences and improves empirical political science research. They weave their scholarly contributions together with their practical experiences and “boots on the ground” advice to ease readers toward their first foray into the archives.

Because archives were largely abandoned by political scientists in the 1950s, archivists’ understanding of their collections and their archival practices is heavily influenced by the habits and methodological concerns of historians. The essays in this volume help archivists better understand the somewhat unique perspectives and habits political scientists bring to archival collections. This volume challenges archivists to think “outside the box” of the conventions of history and reconsider their collections from the perspective of the political scientist.

This first-of-its-kind book—traversing political science and library and information science—challenges political scientists’ reliance on “easy data” promising in return “better data.” The editors propose that the archival record is replete with data that are often superior to current, available public data, both quantitative and qualitative. Substantive chapters in Doing Archival Research in Political Science illustrate how archival data improve understanding across the array of subfields in American politics. It also challenges archivists to rethink their collections through the prism of political science.

Doing Archival Research in Political Science holds tremendous cross-disciplinary appeal. Students and faculty in political science are exposed to a fertile but underutilized source of empirical data. Political scientists will benefit from the methodological perspectives, the practical advice about doing archival work, and the concrete examples of archives-based research across the subfields in American politics (e.g., congressional studies, presidential studies, public opinion, national security, interest groups, and public policy).

Students and faculty in library and archival studies will benefit greatly from the candid discussion of the unique theoretical and methodological concerns inherent in political science, improving their ability to reach out and promote their collections to political scientists. Examples of archives-based political science research will help library faculty better understand how their collections are being utilized by users.


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