Thursday, April 7, 2016

Oral Historians as Ethical Proofreaders

Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri of the Australian Generations Oral History Project explain that the ethical challenges they faced came after they had conducted the interviews.

[Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri, “Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues,” Australian Historical Studies 47, no. 1 (2016): 75–91, doi:10.1080/1031461X.2015.1122072.]

The project asked Australians from four generations “about the interactions and overlaps between generations, and the ways in which class, gender, ethnicity, race and region inflect with and cut across age and generation.” It elicited some frank responses on sensitive matters. As Bradley and Puri explain,

The Australian Generations project required a process to ensure that potentially problematic material was identified and assessed before being made publicly available, especially online. We developed a ‘traffic light system’ to manage this issue when we realised how many interviews contained sensitive material. Unlike other oral history projects undertaken by the [National Library of Australia], the Australian Generations team did not fully anticipate the extent to which narratives about domestic and sexual abuse would appear in the interviews. The project adopted the key considerations used in the Forgotten Australians project to identify problematic material: namely, whether someone would be seriously offended or hurt by what was said and whether police would take action. In assessing contentious material, the project’s attitude was shaped by the library’s preference to err on the side of access, but to consider the risk in each instance.

In particular, project staff flagged content that, if made publicly available, “might be actionable for defamation or might cause harm to some other individual. Seven interviews were labelled red because they contained material about unreported sexual or domestic abuse where the perpetrator was identifiable and likely to still be alive.” In such cases, “the entire interview will be closed until a certain date.” Slightly less sensitive interviews can be studied in person at the National Library of Australia but will not be posted online, to reduce the chances of harm or misuse. Eventually, after everyone involved has the chance to die, the interviews will become unrestricted.

The essay only glancingly mentions IRBs/ethics committees, but it reinforces the claim that for these kinds of interviews, it is likely futile to try to anticipate in advance all the questions to be asked and all the answers that may be given. Thus, ethics committees’ emphasis on prospective review of is misplaced.

Instead, the most serious deliberation must come at the stage between interview and publication. In 1982, Carole Gaar Johnson called this “ethical proofreading,” and Bradley and Puri have shown themselves to be conscientious practitioners of the art.

[Carole Gaar Johnson, “Risks in the Publication of Fieldwork,” in The Ethics of Social Research: Fieldwork, Regulation, and Publication, ed. Joan E. Sieber, (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982), 87.]

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