Analysing Traces: Texts in Action

Analysing Traces

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘Analysing traces’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. There are many ways in which documentary, textual and other traces of the past can be analysed. Analysing texts is fundamental to the Whites Writing Whiteness project, for its research data is composed primarily of letters, that is, a genre of documentary or textual traces of the past. The analytical approach that has been taken to letters as texts draws on the work of feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith, who has theorised and analysed institutional texts of a range of kinds as part of the ruling relations that help organise how social life unfolds. More detail is provided in the Overview essay on ‘Working with Dorothy Smith’.

2. Smith’s work stresses that texts should be seen as ‘active texts’ in the sense that they intend a particular reading and they have consequences in terms of how they are taken up and responded to, whether positively or negatively, maximally or minimally. But also people are active readers, they are not innocent before the power of textuality, but interpret and put into practice or not. Texts are also located in time. They come into existence in one context and point in time, they are distributed and communicated in another, they are read and responded to or not in yet another. And as this indicates, sequence has both a temporal and a spatial aspect. For Smith, in an analytical sense the ’act-text-act sequence’ is as important as the idea of the ‘active text’.

3. These key ideas are drawn on in how the trace – the many extant remaining letters and also telegrams, notes, Wills, diaries, photographs, accounts and other material remnants of the past – has been conceived and analysed in the framework of WWW research. In particular, the covering ideas of ‘texts in action’ and ‘the active reader‘ have led to an emphasis on sequence and context, using the broad framework of context, pre-text, text, post-text, and new context, as ways of directing the analysis of particular traces. Content is not forgotten and is looked at in detail in examining the text itself, but these other important aspects by which texts originate, are seen to hold meaning, and have effects, are also brought into the analytical frame.

4.  The WWW relationship with Smith‘s work is developed in the Overview essay on ‘Working with Dorothy Smith’, and detailed discussions with examples are provided in the many practical examples analysed in the ‘Traces’ pages. There are also further examples and detailed description in the further reading referenced below.

Liz Stanley. 2017. The Racialising Process: Whites Writing Whiteness in Letters, South Africa 1770s-1970s. Edinburgh: X Press. Go to

Liz Stanley. 2018. Dorothy Smith, Feminist Sociology & Institutional Ethnography. Edinburgh: X Press. Go to

Last updated: 6 May 2021