Friday, October 9, 2009

Oral History Association Considers Guideline Revisions

At its annual meeting next week, members of the Oral History Association will vote on a set of General Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History.

The most striking feature of the new guidelines is that they avoid the confusing format of the existing Evaluation Guidelines, which pose dozens of questions without offering the proper answers or explaining whether answers might vary by project. Instead, the new guidelines present clear, declarative statements about how best to conduct oral history.

A more substantive change concerns harm. The existing guidelines state that "interviewers should guard against possible exploitation of interviewees and be sensitive to the ways in which their interviews might be used," and they suggest that interviewers must endeavor "to prevent any exploitation of or harm to interviewees." While the new guidelines offer many specific protections to narrators, they eliminate this vague language of exploitation and harm. And they caution that interviewers cannot guarantee control over the interpretation and presentation of interviews.

More generally, while the guidelines reflect historians' concerns with informed consent, they show the irrelevance to historical research of the biomedical concerns of risk/benefit analysis and equitable selection of subjects. There is more to research ethics than what is contained in the Belmont Report.

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