Towards a History of Files

 Max Weber famously observed that the modern office is based upon »files«. In his characterization of the »bureau« he went as far as to say that it was composed of the »body of officials actively engaged in a ›public‹ office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files« (Gerth/Wright Mills 1946: 197). In recent years, anthropologists, historians, literary critics and media historians as well as sociologists, have moved beyond reading documents just »as evidence of any kind of historical reality«, but rather as »testimonies of the practices and cultural techniques embodied by them«. (Siegert 2003: 25) Drawing from the study of discourse, materiality, cultural techniques as well as of science and technology, scholarship on bureaucracy increasingly examines the role of documentation processes in the life of institutions.

With respect to processes of administration this body of scholarship revealed that »bureaucracies don’t so much employ documents as they are partly constructed by and out of them« (Gitelman 2014: 5, referring to Hull 2012). Files are connecting administrative acts: »Every file note indirectly contains a command. Reporting the execution of an order triggers the next one. […] An executed command, then, has a double orientation: it generates the next command and notes its own execution.« (Vismann 2008: 8) In other words, records generate files and build a papery organism that embodies and at the same time realizes the logics of law, state, and government.

Based on this observation, we would like to develop the analytical viewpoint by strengthening the historical perspective. This opens several important questions. The first asks what actually is considered to be a file under specific historical circumstances? Some studies understand files chiefly as those administrative objects referred to as »files« in particular bureaucratic settings. More commonly, scholars follow Weber in identifying files as »written documents«. However, we want to attend to files as a particular documentary type, which was and is subject to change both as an integrative written record and as material artefact. Therefore files belong to a particular genre of documentation and are defined by their relation to other records. Understanding files as artefacts, therefore, allows for an analysis of the historically specific ways through which documents are physically and discursively interrelated.

Related to this is the second questions which focuses on the role of political, medial, or material transformation for the ways in which files gather, organize, articulate, store, and circulate individual documents. Unlike other kinds of documents, whose completeness and temporal finality is essential to their function, files grow and expand unlimitedly. What effects have for example political transformations for this process? Are filing routines interrupted, efforts made to restore a continuity of documentation, to destroy or to hide files? Changes in mediality (e.g. the use typescripts instead of manuscripts, or more ephemeral notes as post-its instead of forms) will affect equally the potential of files for organizing and synthesizing the various kinds of paperwork. Do these changes affect the way in which people, places, things, and processes are transformed into cases and issues.

We invite contributions that explore files that shape or emerging during moments of political, medial, or material transformation. Situations of turbulence highlight specific qualities of files and therefore allow for observing particular qualities. We are looking for contributions dealing with cases outside Europe or North America as well as papers engaging with pre-modern times.


  • discourses dealing with files
  • structures of participation
  • laws, norms, procedures, techniques of production, access, circulation, storage
  • materiality, material media, including electronic media and their impact on files and vice versa
  • interaction of files and administrations, including human and non human actors
  • material and reality effects of files
  • historical emergence of files
  • the file as a genre and its boundaries (ephemeral notes)
  • speech and writing (catastrophes for administrative writing e.g. destruction of files, telephone, type writer, post-its, email et cetera)

ADMINISTORY aims to foster debate on the history of states and administrations. With its innovative articles and broad methodological and theoretical spectrum, the yearbook is a key interface between historical and cultural science research, and discussions on the state and administration in the social, legal and political sciences. The yearbook publishes original contributions in English and German. On average our articles contain 9000 words including footnotes.

If you intend to contribute to this volume, please submit a title and a short abstract (max. 2500 signs) by August 31 2018 to We expect an outline sketch (around 10’000 signs) by end of September 2018 and the submission of the final article by end of January 2019.

For more information on the yearbook:

Cited Literature

  • Hans Heinrich Gerth/Charles Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, New York 1946
  • Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge. Toward a Media History of Documents, Durham/London 2014
  • Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper. The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 2012
  • Bernhard Siegert, Passage des Digitalen. Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900, Berlin 2003
  • Cornelia Visman, Files. Law and Media Theory, Stanford 2008
Veröffentlicht: 2018-07-25

Call for Contributions: Emotions and Bureaucracy - vol. 3 of Administory


In recent years, historians have increasingly turned towards a cultural history of bureaucracy. Drawing on works in micro-sociology and political science, they cast a fresh look at bureaucratic governance, informed more by a theory of social practice than by a normative concept of bureaucratic rationality. They look at networks, attitudes, loyalties, forms of knowledge and affiliations - to name just a few analytical perspectives on the production of state knowledge and its use in bureaucratic decision-making.

While much of this work challenges Max Weber’s classic depiction of bureaucratic governance as a formalized, hierarchical form of social governance, studies on the history and sociology of public administration have paid less attention to questions of emotions; assuming that bureaucratic systems seek to neutralize personal attachments and emotional investments. Yet, in the age of bureaucratic governance civil servants and other bureaucrats continually had to combine their role as professional and subservient state servants with their personal attachments to family, their fellow citizens, other officials and the state. This could trigger serious internal conflicts, but it also spawned creative ways of incorporating emotional attachments into the daily practice of governance.

In a traditional perspective on bureaucratic governance, emotional attachments only become visible through the “cracks” of modern bureaucratic systems (moments in which bureaucrats cannot live up to the formal expectations of their profession). However, the significance of this model of emotion-suppression has already been challenged in many other fields of study. For instance, within legal studies law and emotion has been already established as a specialized field of inquiry. In this area, authors focus not so much on the suppression of emotions in decision making processes, but rather look at the integration of emotions in the programming of judicial procedures. We, similarly seek to adopt a broader approach to bureaucratic subjectivity by analyzing “emotional practices” and their integration in bureaucratic procedure from various interconnected perspectives in order to make a valuable contribution to the cultural history of bureaucracy.  We therefore like to take the debates within law and emotion as well as the current discussions in cultural studies perspectives on emotions as inspirations for a new approach towards public administration.

Two ways to think about the role of emotions in bureaucratic practices are:

•    The Emotions of Citizens: In which settings did citizens’ emotions become objects of bureaucratic knowledge and procedure? When were they objectified, pathologized (e.g. grousers), or even instrumentalized (e.g. patriotism, volunteerism, hate against enemies of the state) by bureaucrats when dealing with citizens?

•    The emotions of bureaucrats: How were emotions mobilized for bureaucratic work, were emotions regulated or even part of the normative expectations towards public officials? Were emotions functional for the division of labor within the administration? When were officials’ emotions problematic and how was their in-/exclusion in bureaucratic practice negotiated?

The yearbook publishes original contributions in English and German. Because we publish only online we are rather flexible regarding the length of your contribution. So far, our authors have submitted articles within a range of 60.000 to 100.000 characters including spaces and footnotes.

If you intend to contribute to this volume, please submit a title and a short abstract by April 30, 2017 to

For more information on the yearbook:

Veröffentlicht: 2017-02-02

Administory. Band 1: Verwaltungsgeschichte im Dialog - Jetzt verfügbar!

ADMINISTORY. Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsgeschichte
Band 1

Verwaltungsgeschichte im Dialog
Administrative History in 

 Was haben Niklas Luhmann und der Hühnermann mit der Verwaltungsgeschichte zu tun? Wir sehen die künstlerische Strategie dieser Collage als Analogie zur interdisziplinären Beschäftigung mit Verwaltung: Die Begegnung mit dem Hühnermann steht für einen transdisziplinären Dialog, der mit Aneignungen und Verfremdungen operiert, um das konzeptuell Andere in die eigene Forschungswelt zu integrieren.

Veröffentlicht: 2016-05-10
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