A Critical Archaeology of Documents: Analyzing Plans, Maps, and Bureaucratic Artifacts with Federico Pérez

The May 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Excavating Legal Landscapes: Juridical Archaeology and the Politics of Bureaucratic Materiality in Bogotá, Colombia, by Federico Pérez. Pérez is Assistant Professor of Urban Anthropology at the Urban Honors College at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. He is currently working on a book manuscript on city planning, downtown redevelopment, and militarism in Bogotá; an outline of some of the questions explored in that project can be found in his 2015 Hot Spots piece. His current research interests include the circulation of infrastructural expertise and transportation technologies across urban Latin America.

In this Teaching Tools post, readers can learn more about how Pérez arrived at the concept of critical archaeology and get some tips on how to teach this key idea from his article. In addition to exploring some of Pérez’s thoughts on his ethnographic work inside Bogotá’s City Planning Department, this post provides suggestions for learning goals, exercises, discussion questions, and additional readings to help instructors create a successful in-class activity focusing on the critical analysis of documents and how they are materialized through interpretation and use.

Anthropologists have increasingly turned their attention to the study of bureaucratic documents as ethnographic objects in their own right. Pérez’s article points out that while recent scholarship has illuminated the central roles of materiality, aesthetics, and technicalities within bureaucratic process, it has tended to privilege notions of nonhuman and artifactual agency over social actors’ interpretative practices and strategic manipulations. By tracking the meanings and uses of what urban planners in Bogotá call “juridical archaeology,” Pérez develops a more dialectical approach to the relationships between bureaucrats and documents, and between knowledge practices and materiality.

This post provides some ideas for using Pérez’s article to prompt class discussion about the importance of social meanings and performances to the materialization of bureaucratic artifacts. It has been created for an audience of anthropology students at various levels, as well as others interested in city planning, bureaucracy, and urban law.

Interview with Federico Pérez

Sean Furmage: What inspired this article? Did you have specific experiences or encounters that helped you to clarify your thoughts on the critical archaeology of documents?

Federico Pérez: During the early stages of my dissertation fieldwork in 2010, a senior functionary at the Planning Department told me that the interpretation of the city’s complex land use and building regulations required something akin to a “juridical archaeology.” This was the first time I had heard the term, and my anthropological curiosity was immediately stirred by the notion’s evocation of bureaucratic temporality and materiality. I continued to explore the use and significance of juridical archaeology as I joined a team of planners at the Planning Department and followed their daily routines for six months in 2011. I found that juridical archaeology—both as a way of imagining legal spaces­­ and as a technique for navigating them—was quite widespread among city officials. It brought into view an intransigent landscape of legal artifacts that overpowered its operators and betrayed the intentions of its architects.

My initial inclination was to map out this legal terrain and examine the agentive qualities of the disparate artifacts that composed it. But as I looked closer I realized that legal operators approached and configured these juridical landscapes in widely divergent ways and for very different purposes. The story about Bogotá’s legal strata was incomplete. It was not only about bureaucratic materiality, but also about how social actors themselves deployed ideas about bureaucratic materiality in daily practice. My most revealing encounter in this sense was with a retired lawyer and former city functionary who was deeply skeptical of juridical archaeology and who told me that it was essentially a tactic that legal operators used to manipulate the law. This moment brought into focus the performative dimensions of juridical archaeology and the politics of bureaucratic materiality that I explore in the article.

SF: What would you want to highlight in a lesson for undergraduates about how to critically approach the analysis of documents and how they are used? What would you want them to understand after that lesson?

FP: In general terms, I would want students to reflect on the complex relationships between social actors and bureaucratic artifacts. This means understanding that documents mediate social and political action—as Matthew Hull (2012) has carefully shown in his work—but also how agents give form to bureaucratic materialities through their interpretative practices. What I find particularly interesting about the notion of juridical archaeology is that it points to both of these facets: it calls attention to the material sedimentation of legal artifacts as well as to how agents actively shape them. As I argue in the article, legal experts in Bogotá do not simply uncover subterranean legal topographies but rather assemble legal frameworks through their excavations of juridical fragments. Ultimately, I would hope for students to think about juridical archaeology as an analytic concept that can shed light on the temporal and sociopolitical constitution of bureaucratic artifacts across different settings. A critical archaeology of documents could enable them—to examine the multiple layers and historical traces that constitute bureaucratic objects from plans to decrees—and the sociocultural and political conflicts that mediate such processes of documentary sedimentation.

Suggested Learning Goals

  • Viewing bureaucratic documents and artifacts as more than instruments or containers of information, but rather as material and discursive forms that social actors constitute, contest, and deploy strategically in everyday practice.
  • Understanding how anthropologists have recently approached the study of documents and considering directions forward in the study of bureaucratic artifacts.
  • Considering the production of documents as a temporal process mediated by actors’ interpretations and uses.
  • Exploring applications of critical archaeology to analyze a document or plan.
  • Reflecting on materialization as an interactive process that involves both materiality and representation.

Suggested In-Class Exercises

A simple in-class exercise might start by inviting students to list the documents that mediate their daily experience on or off-campus, reflecting on the ways in which they and others talk about or interact with documents. Students could bring documents that they already have on their person, such as student ID cards, and analyze how they relate, use, and view them in their everyday routines. Invite students to participate in a “show-and-tell” activity where they explain some of their thoughts on these documents. For advanced students conducting independent research, encourage them to think about the material and discursive roles that bureaucratic artifacts perform within their own projects.

For an extended in-class activity, students could analyze the different documents and plans that regulate a specific site. Select and inform students of a site in advance, and then bring (or invite them to collect) a set of ordinances, codes, and plans that regulate the space to class. In preparation for this activity, ask students to read selections from Mariana Valverde’s (2012) Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity. Once in class, assign students to small discussion groups, each of which will be responsible for one document.

Ask students to conduct a critical archaeology of the artifact considering the following aspects: the diverse elements that are layered within the document, the temporal and sociopolitical dimensions of its production, and its physical and graphic features. Ask each group to think about how documents come to have material power through their interpretation and use. Students can then discuss their findings with the whole class, drawing on the concepts of critical archaeology and materialization to explore how the artifacts conflict with or layer upon one another. Invite students to discuss concepts of materiality and materialization in light of their findings.

Suggested Discussion Questions

What roles do bureaucratic artifacts perform in social life?

What does it mean to say that bureaucratic materiality mediates social and political process? How might social narratives and practices mediate the production of bureaucratic artifacts and shape their biographies (see Appadurai 1986)?

Recent emphasis on bureaucratic materiality has kept temporality and historicity partly out sight. How could we conceptualize bureaucratic temporalities? How are such bureaucratic histories performed and materialized in the present?

How portable is juridical archaeology as an analytic? How might it be useful in other contexts and areas of research?

Suggested Readings

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bear, Laura. 2007. Lines of the Nation: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self. New York: Columbia University Press.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2011. Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hoag, Colin. 2011. “Assembling Partial Perspectives: Thoughts on the Anthropology of Bureaucracy.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34, no. 1: 81–94.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012a. “Documents and Bureaucracy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 251–67.

_____. 2012b. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2010. The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d'État. Cambridge: Polity.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2007. “Make-Believe Papers, Legal Forms and the Counterfeit Affective Interactions between Documents and People in Britain and Cyprus.” Anthropological Theory 7, no. 1: 79–98.

Riles, Annelise, ed. 2006. Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.  

Schwenkel, Christina. 2015. “Reclaiming Rights to the Socialist City: Bureaucratic Artefacts and the Affective Appeal of Petitions.” South East Asia Research 23, no. 2: 205–25.

Valverde, Mariana. 2012. Everyday Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.