This blog essay is based on research by Lauren Kitz in support of project exploring the viability of a social science archive conducted by Drs. Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Dyan Mazurana.
The absence of an archive to capture primary source data on conflict does not mean that there are no models to inform such an endeavor. In this essay, we introduce several models of archives related to human security issues and discuss some of the challenges that would be involved to create an archive for social science data.
Traditional archival practice consists of collecting, storing, and making accessible material whose long-term preservation has been deemed critical due to its intrinsic cultural, historical or evidentiary value. In the human rights or human security context, archives are seen to play additional key roles in supporting advocacy activities and transitional justice processes, shaping historical memory, guarding against impunity, and preventing recurrence of future abuses. Drawing on research by Lauren Kitz, this project documented three major models, primarily but not exclusively drawing on U.S.-based institutions: traditional research archives; audiovisual archives; and mapping, new media and multimedia archives.
Traditional Research Archives This is the most common archival model and the one most likely to self-define as an archive (rather than a research project, data journalism, or other type of initiative). This model is also the most likely to conceive of its audience as a targeted community of researchers, students and academics, rather than members of the general public. The majority of traditional research archives are located within or associated with universities and housed within library collections. They tend to be comprised of physical holdings in document, audiovisual and object format, although some have digital collections or have digitized a percentage of their physical holdings. The collections of traditional academic archives typically must be accessed on-site at the archiving institution, examples include: the Centre for Human Rights Documentation and Research at Columbia University, Duke University’s Human Rights Archive, the South African History Archive, the Humanitarian Law Center Archives, and the Human Rights Documentation Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin (HRDI).
The HRDI is an extensive archive of human rights advocacy and research materials in both physical and digital format. It has three components: The HRDI hosts digital materials for other initiatives which are archives in their own right, including the Texas After Violence Project, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive, El Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, and the WITNESS Media Archive. It also holds a collection of archived web resources from nearly 200 smaller organizations that lack the resources to archive their own work. Finally, the UT Collection is comprised of the personal collections of close to 100 individuals and initiatives in traditional archive format, which include documents, photographs, audio and video recordings and ephemera.
A type of traditional archive that is closely related to our concern with places in conflict is the records of truth and reconciliation commissions as well as legal tribunals. As would be expected, however, both of these types of repositories are very specific to the context, formats and purposes for which they were created. Nonetheless, their archiving standards are also extremely varied. For instance, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is fairly well-documented on a government run website, as is the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whereas the slightly older UN-sponsored Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission has no dedicated archive.
Audiovisual Archives Audiovisual archives demonstrate three main characteristics that distinguish them from other collections: first, the examples of this model work with audio and video recordings exclusively. Second, the “original” material increasingly tends to be digital. Additionally, audiovisual archives as defined here are self-generating – that is, they are initiatives that produce film oral histories about a particular human rights theme or event specifically for inclusion in their own collection. Some examples include: B’teselem’s the Israeli Documentation Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust History (Yale University), the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Voices of Rwanda, the Witness to Guantanamo Project, and the Prisons Memory Archive.
Products from social science research A number of online or physical archives of the end products from social science research do exist. Within this category, we include online and physical libraries, as can be found through various UN agencies, human rights organizations and in the publications of university-based researchers. Further, there are an increasing number of interactive digital projects that serve as vehicles for accessing and displaying primary data. Crisis mapping, for instance, is one way to present raw data in a disaggregated form while still creating a coherent picture of the overall situation. Another example is The Land Matrix, a global and independent land monitoring initiative that promotes transparency and accountability in decisions over land and investment, which enables access to primary source data about land deals. Some examples of this model may call themselves archives but more closely identify their mandate as investigative journalism or social justice media.
Across these various models, different institutions also articulate a range of aims. Some archives with human rights materials have an explicit social justice mission, others conceive of themselves merely as historical repositories (such as the 780 Commission Archive), whereas “Open Secrets” and “Witness to Guantanamo,” for example, collect testimony with the goal of influencing legislation on current political issues. The oral history project, “Voices of Rwanda” has an equally important but less immediately political goal of raising international genocide awareness. However, as we noted earlier, we have not yet found any examples of archives which express the aim of contributing to reflection on and education about methods of social science research, per se, in addition to goals related to the specific themes of the actual data collected.
Social Science Research Archives The largest gap in human rights archival practice is in social science research archives, which are defined as interactive archives that provide access to primary datasets, allowing the user/researcher to manipulate data in relation to their own research questions. While as of now, no such archive exists for primary sources data, there are several models of archives or collections that enable access to secondary source data collected from media, government or other (often human rights) reports.
One example of this latter category is the newly launched “Gedelt Project,” which provides daily updated global media datasets on over 300 different search terms. In 2014, the group also launched the GDELT Human Rights Global Knowledge Graph, which augments the group’s focus on news media to include an additional 110,552 documents from Amnesty International, FIDH, Human Rights Watch, International Criminal Court, International Crisis Group, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United States Department of State. They make available coded metadata from these reports on a range of human rights issues. However, this data collection has been reported by some researchers to have not yet balanced quantity with the quality and accuracy required for strong research data.
Comparable datasets include the CIA generated Political Instability Task Force and its Atrocities Watch list, ACLED, KOSVED, the Social, Political, and Economic Event Database, the Polity database, and so forth. Further models can be found in the collection of highly respected datasets produced by researchers and teams of researchers associated with PRIO or SIPRI, none of which are produced from data that is generated in the field, but rather through analysis of media and other reports. Likewise, many individual researchers similarly rely on secondary sources to construct datasets. The shortcomings of relying on media or other sources have been noted by many researchers, who argue that the research produced by these sources measures attention paid to phenomenon rather than phenomenon itself—reinforcing the value of rigorous primary source studies.
While there is much to be learned from each of the models illustrated above, we note that the peace and security research community does not yet have a flagship repository for sharing the research datasets it produces from field research on issues related to conflict and mass atrocities.
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