The institutional and archival social ecologies of a state mental hospital’s records, 1870 to present




Dong, Lorraine Alison

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In this dissertation, I construct the social ecologies of records from a state mental institution in order to explicate the impact and value of the records to different groups and individuals over time, with a focus on the social implications of the organizational records becoming archival objects. I engage with the repercussions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 on the access of health information, and posit what are the social complexities underlying potentially sensitive institutional records in general. My research site is a still-active facility that arose out of the Reconstruction South, and exclusively served the state’s African American population until it was desegregated after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Through the theoretical frameworks of social constructionism, and specifically Actor-Network Theory, I examine the discursive work that mental hospital records perform in order to mediate relationships between people. The design of the research is rooted in sociological and archival activist research so that I can focus purposefully on the power inequalities and silent participants within record ecologies. I collected data for my study from archival registers and minutes from several distinct eras in the hospital’s history and from interviews with people who currently have or had substantive connections to the creation, management, or use of the archival collection, including former and current facility personnel. In order to construct themes from the data, I use grounded theory with an emphasis on situational analysis and critical discourse analysis. By employing multiple means of analysis, I form a longitudinal picture of the human and non-human participants involved in record-creation and record-keeping work at the hospital. I also develop several major themes, including accountability, classification, the development of psychiatry, and power, which point to the overarching institutional use of records to help bureaucratic bodies control various populations and maintain hierarchies. In illustrating how the records support and perpetuate hegemonic structures, I advocate for a pluralization of the stakeholders who have the right to be included in the discussions about if and how the historical records are to be preserved and accessed.



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