The Associational Archive. Rethinking Volunteerism through its Documentary Fabric (Second Workshop)

LOCATION: École Française d’Athènes, October 21-22, 2021

The two-day workshop entitled “The Associational Archive. Rethinking Volunteerism through its Documentary Fabric” was organized at the École Française d’Athènes, in Greece, on October 21-22, 2021. A first workshop on the same topic took place on October 15-16, 2020 at the European University Institute, in Florence, in the framework of the COST Action 18119 “Who Cares In Europe?” meeting. As stated in the call for papers, the aim of this workshop series is to rethink one of the three constitutive elements of our COST Action i.e. voluntary associations, using their documentary practices as privileged points of observation. A third and last workshop in this series will be organized in France in 2022.

In their Introduction, Fabio Giomi (CNRS, CETOBaC, Paris) and Lukas Posselt (University of Lucerne and EHESS, Paris), after a brief overview of the main assets of the so-called “archival turn”, recalled the general goal of this collective reflection i.e. to explore associational culture as a “unitary phenomenon” (Maurice Agulhon, “L’histoire sociale et les associations”, La Revue de l’économie sociale, 14, 1988, p. 35-44) and to contribute to “transversal and comparative study of associations” (Chloé Gaboriaux, “Introuvable mais foisonnante, l’histoire des associations en France”, Le Mouvement Social, 2021/2 (N° 275), p. 3-11). They tentatively organized their reflections around two concepts: the archive as “contact zone” (Antoinette Burton) and as a “boundary object” (Susan Leigh Star). Following this line of reasoning, they interpreted the associational archive as a site where tensions and boundaries of different kinds can be detected i.e. professional tensions, between all the different agents involved in the fabric of the archive (activist, archivist, historian, collectors etc.); tensions between the individual and the collective; the boundary between state and voluntary association; boundary between different temporalities (past, present, future). Participants were invited to address the issue of how associations produce documents, how they circulate, and how they become sources in an archive in historians’ eyes. Without claiming to provide a theoretical framework, the introduction attempted to show how abstract questions could be explored through concrete, situated case studies.

In her paper, Dimitra Lampropoulou (National & Kapodistrian University of Athens) examined a Greek archive, the Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI), which stores documents from Greek political and social movements, mostly from the second half of the 20th century. Her paper looked at both the historical context of the creation of documents, their “rescue”, and the conditions of preservation, demonstrating that the border between activist, archivist, and historian is far from clear and set once for all. Using a case study of the association “Unions of Athens of the Families of Political Banished and Imprisoned People” (ASOPEF), from the 1950s, she showed how individual documents circulate from prison inmates through their families to the national organization and then on to international organizations, and how, thanks to this circulation of document, the activists (mostly women) managed to build a counter-space for social welfare. She concludes that the archiving practices of the association should be understood as a multi-directional endeavor, structured in nodes of circulating documents. 

The contribution of Efi Avdela (University of Crete) revisited a project she instigated several years ago, the construction of a database of voluntary associations in Greece during the 20th century. Efi Avdela argued that the production process of this tool implied a set of difficult decisions, real dilemmas for the historian-archivist, that will determine future possible uses, in particular the categories organizing the plethora of associations, the tension between privileging the number of associations recorder over a detailed description of the individual entries etc. In her intervention, she stressed as well the importance of considering silences and informal activities, which are so important in associational labor.

Jörg Hackmann (University of Szczecin) discussed a paper dealing with the revival of voluntary associations in Estonia, and the Baltic Sea region more in general, after the end of Soviet rule. In his paper, Jörg Hackmann considered the buildings of associations, with their architectural and aesthetic specificities, as associational sources. Following this line of reasoning, he focused on renovations, the nationalization of urban space, in close relation to the function of these buildings.

In his paper, Michele Mioni (University of Bremen) addressed the issue of the possibilities of doing historical research on an association without having access to its archives. His paper was built on his experience with the still operational association of the “Broken Faces”, founded in France after the First World War. Michele Mioni considered the impossibility of visiting the association’s archives as a starting point for methodological reflections on the relationship between archive, published and digitized sources. He also addressed the issue of associational leadership as the gatekeeper of the archive, and of its effects on historiographical practice.

In addition to archival access for historians, association activists can also come into conflict with each other over the preservation and archiving of documents. One such example was explored by Ariane Mak (LARCA, University of Paris) in her paper. She used oral history to investigate how internal association conflicts are also negotiated over the preservation and access of symbolic and highly normatively laden archival objects. The archive with its material objects (documents, but also flags, symbols etc.) becomes here a capital of legitimacy for the associational leadership(s). This perspective invites us to study the division of labor between activists, archivists, and historians as situated practices instead of presupposing a general pattern beyond individual associational archives.

Finally, Despo Kristotaki (Independent Researcher) presented a paper on how personal archives of the Greek psychiatrist Panayiotis Sakellaropoulos, an eminent figure of Greek healthcare reform in the second half of the 20th century, are later appropriated by an association. Sakellaropoulos was the founder of the “Association for Social Psychiatry and Mental Health”, and the organization which nowadays is led by family members of his family. Despo Kristotaki explains how the rearrangement and inventory of the personal archives negotiate borders between the psychiatrist’s individual life, the family, and the association.

Seen globally, the contributions of this second workshop addressed different areas and different kinds of voluntary associations. In the final roundtable challenges and dangers of such a broad project were discussed. The ambitious project to study associational culture instead of associations through the lenses of archival practices entails the postmodern danger that all boundaries of (voluntary) archive are dissolved. Two major research avenues for further contributions were discussed. A first avenue lies in the fluidity of the boundaries of the associational archive. Associational archives can be many things; the presented papers put forward a perspective that sees the associational archive as particular processes and not things. A second avenue interprets the archives as documentary circuits. The associational archive becomes then the space sketched by the constant and restless circulation of documents across a multitude of hands, desks, and folders. Finally, the possibility of a third and final workshop was discussed.

Fabio Giomi (CNRS, CETOBaC, Paris) & Lukas Posselt (University of Lucerne and EHESS, Paris)