Sunday, January 7, 2007

Nancy Janovicek offers a Canadian perspective

Historian Nancy Janovicek of the University of Calgary has written a thoughtful description of the problems faced by Canadian oral historians as they face ethical review by scholars "not well versed in historical methodologies." The article, "Oral History and Ethical Practice: Toward Effective Policies and Procedures," is slated to appear in the Journal of Academic Ethics, but it has already been posted at the SpringerLink website.

In Canada, institutional review boards are known as "research ethics boards" (REBs), and the Canadian equivalent of the Common Rule is the Tri-Council Policy Statment: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. But though the names are different, the effects are the same. Janovicek's complaints will be familiar to anyone who has followed the American debate over IRB review of oral history, but her account is particularly eloquent on two points.

First, she notes ethics boards' obsession with confidentiality and anonymity, despite the wishes of both researchers and subjects. When Janovicek told one narrator of this poicy, "a lesbian activist who has struggled to maintain lesbian visibility in her communinity replied, 'I like my name.'" (This point would have resonated better had Janovicek named the activist in this article.)

Second, Janovicek complains of policies that seek to prevent the exploitation of Aboriginal communities by requiring reseachers to "acquire written approval from Band Councils in order to interview members of the community." But, she asks, "what happens when leaders act as gatekeepers for research about less powerful people in their communities?"

Both of these arguments show how well-meaning policies crafted for medical research can strip power away from autonomous adults who are not only able to decide whether they want to speak to a historian, but are able to seize the opportunity to challenge existing power structures.

My one cavil concerns Janovicek's statements that "the American Historical Association has argued successfully that oral histories should not be subject to review by Institutional Review Boards" and that, in the United States, "oral history projects are exempt from IRB review." As and have noted, the AHA's 2003 declaration of victory was premature, and the debate continues on both sides of the border.

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