‘Documents of Power’: Historical Method and the Study of Politics

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorTanweer Fazal
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterNotes on Method
‘Documents of Power’:
Historical Method and
the Study of Politics
Tanweer Fazal1
Historical method refers to the craft that historians deploy in collecting, assessing, validating and inter-
preting evidence to gain knowledge of a past event or occurrence. However, history, as we are now
aware, is as much a reflection of the present as it is a record of the past. The past–present continuum,
applied to the study of ideologies, mobilizations, state formation or electoral performances, can
potentially contribute more to political analysis than what ahistorical comprehensions offer. What
I wish to make is the case for an interpretative understanding of political phenomenon through
historical research. It requires contextualizing the historical material and according meaning to human
action. Of varying kinds of evidence, documents as embodiments of experience are coeval to the recon-
stitution of the past, particularly so of literate societies. They are not politically inert, but rather are
produced in power-laden settings and have differential bearing on sections of populations. I therefore
argue for separation of ‘documents of power’ personifying the state and its agencies from documents
retrieved from resistance groups, personal collections, organizational archives of social movements
and so on.
I also propose an expanded idea of politics, beyond its formal sphere. If politics were to do with the
constellations of power, its legitimation and contestations in a given society, we need to cast our net
wide. The object of enquiry then does not remain confined solely to the formal institutions and processes
such as elections and their outcomes, high politics of state building and government formation or
party system. Whether within the family system, in the emerging market-induced class structure, in the
undercurrents of transformation in the agrarian relations or in the contestations that have erupted, the
archetypal conception of politics—who gets what, when and how—remains a central question. This
broadening of the field of enquiry begets methodological innovation, both in the sources of information
and in the tools of data collection and analysis. The method of the historian to study past societies offers
plausible answers for the problem at hand. It is not with the intention to reconstruct the past that a social
scientist inclined towards understanding the present dynamics of power makes forays into the past. He/
she goes to the past recognizing the fact that human behaviour and institutions are not merely what they
Notes on Method
Studies in Indian Politics
11(1) 140–149, 2023
© 2023 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166179
Note: This section is coordinated by Divya Vaid (divya.vaid.09@gmail.com).
Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, Telangana, India
Corresponding author:
Tanweer Fazal, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, Telangana 500046, India.
E-mail: fazaltanweer@yahoo.co.in

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