Sunday, August 12, 2007

How Oral History Really Works

In "'If I See Some of This in Writing, I’m Going to Shoot You': Reluctant Narrators, Taboo Topics, and the Ethical Dilemmas of the Oral Historian," Oral History Review 34 (2007): 71-93, Tracy E. K’Meyer and A. Glenn Crothers present some of the challenges faced by oral historians in determining how much deference to give to a narrator's wishes. They describe a series of interviews they conducted with Marguerite Davis Stewart, a World War II Red Cross veteran, who contacted the Oral History Center at the University of Louisville offering to tell her stories.

Over three months, the interviewers recorded 32 hours of conversation, and found themselves wrestling with a number of questions. For example, they had to decide how much they should credit Stewart's dubious claim that she didn't think about race, how hard to press her for details of important but sensitive topics like her divorce, and how seriously to take Stewart's jests about not wanting some stories to be recorded. And since Stewart was blind and confined to a wheelchair, the interviewers had to decide how much time they could devote to helping her in daily life, and when to call in a qualified social worker.

Though the article does not mention IRB review, it suggests the futility of such review in solving the real questions that are likely to confront oral history interviewers. It shows that the hard questions were not present at the start of the process, but only emerged well after the point that an IRB would have approved, modified, or rejected a proposal. And that the tough questions were highly specific to the narrator. Thus, K'Meyer and Crothers write,

Conflict arose when, over time, Stewart sought our commitment to write a book according to her vision and outline. By that point in the interview process it had become clear to us that there would not be sufficient documentary resources to supplement her oral history and support a book-length manuscript. More important, because of her resistance there were gaps in the story that could not be filled. In short, we explained to her on frequent occasions that we could not write her book. We did agree to fulfill the original goal, to help her record the story, and to put an edited form of the transcript into the library for public use, organized according to the themes and chapters she identified. In effect, we promised separate products: her story deposited in the library and our interpretations in our academic work.

Even the most aggressive IRBs have not--as far as I know--demanded to review oral histories one narrator at a time, so they could not police such idiosyncratic concerns.

Finally, the questions raised in this article do not have clear right or wrong answers. It would be dreadful if an IRB could forbid the research or punish the interviewers because its members did not like the choices the interviewers made.

No comments: