I am a cultural and comparative historical sociologist studying race and authoritarianism.
My dissertation asked how social institutions like citizenship and the welfare state respond to challenges to ethnic and racial classification schemes. Empirically, I conducted a comparative study of how Japanese and German bureaucrats historically translated diverse forms of racialized thought into practice in both nations and their empires. I sought to better understand the emergence of meaning under different institutional and organizational contexts, and the role of bureaucratic agency in retrofitting racial scientific knowledge fields. Earlier work explored sites of institutional disintegration and collective reactions to them. This included projects on the transformation of higher education in the US, the decline of collective bargaining in Germany, women’s professionalization on social policy activism in Japan, and demographic change on political participation in Europe. Methodologically, I have worked ethnographically and mostly straddle both archival research and a variety of computational sociological approaches (specifically text analysis). My work to date has contributed to the literatures on sociological theory, race and ethnicity, comparative historical sociology and STS.
Assimilation in Multi-Ethnic Empires
How do bureaucrats translate nativist legislation into practice? Since Martin Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucrats and Celeste Watkins-Hayes’ New Welfare Bureaucrats and Cybelle Fox’s Three Worlds of Relief, we know that bureaucrats’ agency plays a crucial role in transforming legislation from paper into action. How did this agency play out in National Socialist Germany?
Empirically, I reconstruct German citizenship and naturalization practice by drawing on a variety of German-language archival and primary materials collected at the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, the Berlin State Libraries and the German Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde for the period 1933 until 1945. Produced by different arms of the Nazis’ behemoth bureaucracy, these archival remainders allow us a glimpse into National Socialist processes of ethno-racial classification. I traced processes of racial formation along three axes: On the macro-level, through drafts of laws and policy briefs; on the meso-level, through inter-ministerial bureaucratic communication, questionnaires and other documents that over time reified the ethnic German race concept; and on the micro-level, through records of interactions between potential Germans and the judges of their Germanness captured in epistolary communications between immigration agents, and through field reports from low-level administrators of the Race and Settlement Main Office dispatched to the East. I sought out these multi-level documents in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the thought processes behind changing organizational structures and classification infrastructures that were simply not apparent from a macro-level analysis that focused mainly on legal records, memoranda and stenographic records of political debates.
(2018) A.K.M. Skarpelis, The Administrated Human: Making Germans in the Nazi Empire
Best Paper Prizes: Eastern Sociological Society, 2018 and American Sociological Association, Reinhard Bendix Prize (Honorable Mention), 2018
Abstract. The National Socialist (NS) regime had three explicit purposes for engaging in the cumbersome process of large-scale ethno-racial classification within its national borders and across some of its annexed and occupied territories: The identification of Jewish persons in Germany and Europe for expulsion and ultimately genocide, the singling out of future forced laborers who could be conscripted to work, and the identification of persons who could be naturalized as German in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe for resettlement, ethnic cleansing and governance of the occupied regions as part of a plan to racially homogenize and reorder the continent. This paper investigates the third instance and draws on an array of archival documents to examine the case of state-led naturalization practices and attempts at ethno-racial classification applied to prospective German East Europeans during National Socialist rule (1933-1945). The paper makes three substantive and theoretical contributions: First, it complicates the conventional understanding of race as National Socialist category of practice as predominantly centered on a binary, hierarchical and essentialist Aryan/Jewish distinction by considering the often-involuntary assimilation of Eastern European populations and their naturalization as Germans. Second, beyond better understanding the multiple racial worlds of National Socialist classification practice, the paper tracks the fragmentation of Germanness as state needs for labor, soldiers and durable governance of the annexed territories progressed. Third, although the categories Nazis used to determine whom to make into a German were messy, their influence outlasted the Nazi regime and remained consequential for the decades to follow and had unintended afterlives. The National Socialist period thus is a critical juncture that led to significant path dependent consequences for post-war naturalizations both in the liberated countries and defeated Germany.
How much sense does the jus sanguinis / jus soli binary make in a context of moving borders, multi-ethnic states and forced assimilation? We often think of citizenship as a comparatively stable attribute, one that most individuals are unlikely to change over their lifetime, compared to citizenship changes as mostly singular and voluntary events. But this is largely a phenomenon of post-1945 nation states. Over two papers, I ask how ethnicity and race factor into citizenship and naturalization decisions of states generally considered to be nativist.
(2018a) A.K.M. Skarpelis, Going Native: Birthright Citizenship, Trump and the Pesky Question of Indigeneity
Abstract. White nationalists maintain that the US was founded on white supremacy; they are right. This paper does not interrogate the constitutional mooring of the 14th amendment or ask how easy or difficult it would be to do away with the amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship. In a Margaret Atwoodian move, it reflects on what a departure from birthright citizenship could look like instead and asks about possible futures, seeing that such a departure would be motivated by racial nativism. I draw on the German development of jus sanguinis (citizenship by descent) as a relevant reference point to what is happening in the US today.
(2018b) A.K.M. Skarpelis, Citizenship in Motion
Abstract. In this paper, I suggest not only that the jus soli / jus sanguinis binary is an inaccurate distinction to describe the development of German citizenship legislation, but also that it is an incomplete one that ignores and blurs significant fault lines shaping expulsion and naturalization. 19th and 20th century Germany saw many citizenship changes for those who saw the border move across them throughout the many territorial re-orderings of German borders that period entailed. German citizenship was in motion not only for the individuals whose citizenship changed throughout their life course, which impacted their ability to access public goods, but also for the fledgling German nation itself. Ethnicity and descent did play a role in German citizenship allocation, but more important and historically overlooked has been the question of how geopolitical and foreign policy considerations as well as territory played into ideas of German citizenship. I show that territory and residence have been significant criteria prior to NS rule in shaping naturalization decisions, and that eligibility criteria for naturalization had little to do with ‘race;’ even under NS rule, on-the-ground practice veered away from the racial nativist citizenship legislation encapsulated in the Nuremberg Laws. This was especially so for citizenship administration outside of the pre-1938 German territories.
In the 1990s, the study of the American welfare state experienced a racial turn as scholars from diverse disciplines began systematically investigating what role race played for structure, scope, and distributive effects of the welfare state. The same has not happened in Germany or Japan although welfare states are immensely consequential institutions in their capacity as instruments of redistribution that significantly impact life chances and reveal nations’ moral and normative judgments. A comparative take on welfare state racialization yields does away with frustrating accounts of exceptionalism.
(2018) A.K.M. Skarpelis, Racialized Welfare States (invited submission to Journal of the History of Ideas)
Abstract. In this article, I draw the cases of German and Japanese welfare state development into comparison with the American experience in order to critically reflect on the scholarship on welfare state racialization. Much like the US, Germany and Japan for much of their history were riveted by ideas of racial domination and executed those visions through annexation, colonialization and exploitation that in parts filtered through to their fledgling welfare systems. And yet, very different strands of causal and narrative arguments have developed around the racialization of each country’s welfare state. The German welfare state literature insists on the exceptionalism of the National Socialist period and while scholars consider its welfare state to have been temporally altered under the NS regime but otherwise see it as uncompromised and left intact since the Bismarckian days of early social provision. The Japanese literature similarly employs a logic-of-parentheses argument, although it does not quite resort to a German or US-style exceptionalism argument. The logic-of-parentheses view retains that explicitly racialized periods of welfare state development built around de jure discrimination, and that these periods are distinct from “history as usual;” with the dissolution of de jure discrimination, so the argument goes, unequal outcomes should disperse. What all three literatures have in common is that they reify racial categories; they engage methodologically nationalist frameworks that take the nation-state as primary site of analysis and confine inspection to legitimate borders. This risks missing a number of significant processes and policies taking place in occupied and otherwise affiliated territories for single-country analyses, but is also problematic for comparative analyses seeking to understand how specific ethnic and racial groups fare in different countries. This article makes two contributions: It reorients comparative welfare state research in order to ascertain the problem of race in the non-American welfare state, and it contests the American exceptionalism literature on racialized welfare by carving out questions arising out of the particular historical trajectories of German and Japanese welfare state development.
Comparative Historical Methods
There is little by way of historical and archival training for sociologists. As consequence, doctoral students often get lost in the archive and fundamentally misunderstand what archives are. I propose the term archival bodies to make sense of documentary creation, preservation and interpretation. The heuristic of archival bodies allows us to better understand archives as organizations within which professionals exercise agency that shapes data and knowledge construction.
The project contributes to organizational sociology by treating the creation of documentary reality as an organizational and thus traceable and legible process; to cultural sociology by unboxing how the meanings we can recover are contingent on specific power structures and organizational processes and the agency of professional archivists; to historical comparative sociology by providing a framework to think about comparison of distinct datasets; and lastly to sociologists more generally interested in robust research, as archival bodies can help us dispel the illusion of false necessity.
(2018) A.K.M. Skarpelis, Life on File: Archival Epistemology as Theory
Abstract. Life on File asks how archives shape the production of sociological knowledge. A central problem of archives in sociological research is the illusion of empiricist false necessity; that is to say, the likelihood of drawing false generalizations and abstractions based on contentious data taken at face value. I suggest the heuristic of ‘archival bodies’ to render manifest comparative historical sociologists’ epistemological practices, which will ultimately facilitate the evaluation and reproducibility of qualitative and quantitative historical research. Through three heuristics that I call archival bodies — the turning of a person into a record, the collating of files into a set of records preserved by the archive, and the act of recovery by the scholar — sociologists can follow ‘life on file’ all the way from the creation of documentary reality to a final state of archivization.