Using Arabic for Research

Applying Advanced Arabic to Research Part III: Intro to Archival Methods (Colonial Records Explained)


This entry in the applying advanced Arabic to research series explores archival work. Archival work is one of the most ubiquitous forms of qualitative work across disciplines, and can be an important component of collecting data for quantitative analysis. This guide focuses specifically on exploring archival work as a means of using applied research methods for language learning rather than a discussion of archival methods. This is also not a guide to finding and acquiring archival material, to which many other guides are dedicated and readily available online. Specifically, this guide uses working with colonial archives as an example of how to engage with historical documents in a systematized way to advance your language learning. I begin by discussing the utility of this kind of archive (as well as necessary precautions). I then explain why these archives are useful as a repository for your own “lesson materials.” I conclude these two posts with some brief suggestions about potential exercises and ways to use these documents in planning your studies.

Wait…why start with colonial/Western archives? Isn’t that the most problematic place to start?

While there are immense normative and methodological issues (to say the least) at stake in colonial archives, they also offer a number of advantages as “training wheels” for the self-taught learner. There are also grounds to categorically reject consulting them prior to other sources in scholarship, which is a valid position that this post isn’t seeking to refute. First, especially in history, Western scholarship on Arabic-speaking countries relies on colonial archives extensively. While it’s important not to reproduce the selection bias of Arabic-language sources as collected by colonial powers and its imbued genocidal logic, familiarizing oneself with this medium is an important tool. Writing non-colonial sources and voices back into history to challenge the assumptions of work produced through these archives requires knowing these archives. That said, this is an exercise in language. Applying the data collected from colonial archives to scholarship requires much more serious methodological training, guidance, and a consultation of a variety of sources. I present this as merely one way gain confidence and independence in sifting through archives to eventually prepare the advanced independent learner to use completely Arabic-language archives. There are certainly other ways, and there are probably better ways. But this is one way that could work well for some independent language learners comfortable with engaging with the medium with a critical eye.

But what about the Arabic? Won’t everything be in French and English? 

The main utility of colonial archives is that they will allow you to build confidence in conducting archival research independently, and represent a source type that is often relevant to many contexts. A common assumption is that colonial archives are not useful because they are written by administrators who spoke no or poor Arabic and are entirely in French or English. This is usually incorrect. For example, the majority of diplomatic cables coming out of the French and British embassies in the region up until the 1970s were essentially translations and summaries of Arabic-language periodicals, newspapers, and local government documents. Hard copies of these Arabic-language documents were usually filed in archives along with the official documents. As such, using these archives as a place to “cut one’s teeth” is a good way to have some English/French-language reference point when going through documents distinct from using online resources designed as “lesson guides.” Your guide here, usually a low-ranking colonial administrator, is an untrustworthy one, but their words are also primary documents unto themselves, which makes this an exercise in independence. These English-language cover letters, cables, and memos provide key context that can answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the appended Arabic-language documents. By referring to these, challenging yourself to examine their credibility, accuracy, and political objectives in a way that builds skills to eventually conduct research in actual Arabic-language archives. It will also push you to read as a researcher in a way that advanced textbooks and materials assembled with the goal of language instruction do not.

What’s Next

In the next section, we’ll look at putting this framework to use through tips on getting started with archival records and a few example exercises.


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