Analysing Figurations

Analysing Figurations

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

1. The concept of the figuration, drawn from the work of social theorist Norbert Elias, is widely recognised as difficult to pin down in precise terms. Elias came perhaps closest to doing so himself in indicating the analogy with a dance. People come together for a common purpose, which is to hold a dance, although their sense of combining in a shared endeavour can be more or less than how others think about this; the kind of dancing involved can be any of the different possibilities; the dance continues over a long period of time; people dance and stop and dance again; and people arrive at the dance, people leave it, but the dance goes on. These broad properties are helpful, while at the same time recognising that each figuration will have its own specific characteristics as well.

2. In thinking with Elias, rather than just applying his ideas and concepts, the figuration is important in WWW research, and has been thought about and operationalised in two different although connected ways.

3. The first has been to cut through the conceptual complexities by recognising that an archived collection of letters and other papers associated with a particular person or family or organisation can itself be seen in figurational terms, for such collections result from communicative exchanges occurring over long periods of time between sets of people who may at any one point in time be seen in terms of a network or number of overlapping networks, but which over the total period involved has figurational properties through a changing but ongoing sense of connection. In part this may cohere around particular persons and nodes, and in part around the sense that such exchanges have a greater meaning when considered in their entirety for they are assignment of past and present ongoing relationships. Succinctly, collections of letters with their many letter-writers and addressees and changes in these over time have in themselves strong figurational characteristics and these can helpfully be analysed in some detail.

4. The second follows and is that the trails of these detailed figurational connections can be found within, but also extend beyond the confines of, single collections, no matter how large these are and how extensive their longevity may be. People’s lives were not lived within the boundaries of what came to be kept and preserved, usually initially by ‘family archivists’, or equivalent figures in respect of other kinds of collections such as organisational ones. The sense of connection and the entanglement of lives is strongly marked through the peopling and placing of the content of letters. Also the writing of letters itself crosses such boundaries. John Philip can be traced in Townsend letters, Mrs Townsend in Pringle papers, a Pringle in the Rhodes Papers, Rhodes in the Forbes letters, David Forbes and Alexander McCorkindale in the Lys diaries… And many other trails too are traceable, for it is possible to trace out links from the very earliest letter-writers in the 1770s through to the later ones in the 1970s, with the complexities of such interconnections discussed in ‘Entangled lives’.

5. Tracing these connections involves working in detail on particular letters and other documents and sets of letters between particular letter-writers and their addressees, or particular addressees and the many letter-writers who may correspond with them. The ‘Analysing Traces’ overview and the main ‘Traces’ pages provide information on this.

6. Alongside this, the structure each collections has been analysed for its figurational properties, and the content used to explore particular figurations and the activities involved. The ‘Collections’ pages provide the first stage of analysing the collections, while the ‘Figurations’ pages are concerned with in-depth analysis of the interconnections present and their figurational properties.

Last updated: 6 May 2021