When conducting oral history, what should the interviewer’s highest priority be, gathering information for their own research or the well-being of their informants? My previous post raised the question of what ethical responsibility oral historians have to share transcripts of interviews with their narrators. In part, my concern about receiving truly informed consent from my informants and defining what such consent constitutes is related to another question about the ethical practice of oral history, albeit a more fundamental one. Is using someone’s testimony to make career progress exploitation? Or by giving wider voice to someone’s story is oral history empowering to narrators? This dilemma relates back to the purpose of the research, which for some historians is very politically charged and related to advocacy whereas for others is more academic, primarily an attempt to understand a vexing historical question. This is not to deny the very real political context of all research, only to observe that it is more explicit in some cases. To compliment this discussion about oral history as exploitation, I plan a future post on the equally fraught understanding of oral history as empowerment.
My own research tends to the academic side. I am seeking to understand how contemporaries understood their decision to move to the British Empire-Commonwealth after the Second World War and beyond that to gain insight into the role that migration played in the wartime and post-war British Empire and its collapse. Regardless, the potential dimension of power implicit in the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is certainly an important consideration for me, as for all oral historians and so is a related question, that of informed consent. This is also a legal concern for universities as the proliferation of human subject committees and release forms attests. Beyond the formalities, Valerie Yow’s useful book on oral history methodology, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, goes so far as to question whether informed consent is possible. While advocating consent as a vital aspect of research, she argues that in many cases, it only appears to be entered into by the narrator voluntarily, that the “narrator may be too much impressed by [the authority of university research] to utter any reluctance to cooperate.” Of course, this again depends on the nature of the project. Concerns about exploitation tend to be greater when narrators come from a much lower socio-economic background or a completely different cultural context than the interviewer. Given my relative youth and similar background compared to potential narrators in the case of my research, I find it hard to believe that they would feel obliged to participate against their will.
While I certainly agree that researchers should not coerce narrators and should take into account the cultural and social context in which they are working, there is only so much that can be done to ensure participants are truly willing, without second guessing their words and actions. It is condescending and oddly paternalistic despite the good intentions behind it to assume that the interviewer or academic writer knows best the intentions of the narrator and what will result in the narrator’s well-being. As Stephan Miescher notes in his Making Men in Ghana, all the men whose life histories he used to examine masculinities in twentieth-century Ghana asked to be mentioned by name and were motivated to participate in part because they sought a kind of permanence through inclusion in a published book. An academic writer assuming that by using a pseudonym, he was respecting the privacy of these men in this case would have been completely wrong and perhaps even disrespectful of their wishes. However, this does not give the oral historian free rein and it remains important to seek confirmation that one has correctly understood the narrator, which is where my concern about transcripts came from. While the potential difference in power between oral historians and narrators is real and those conducting oral history should always be clear about how they intend to use the stories they collect and honest about the content of their project, I don’t believe that researchers should be paralyzed by such concerns. Ultimately the value of actually conducting oral history research, especially for marginalized groups about whom there are few written sources, must outweigh concerns about a difference in power between the researcher and the informant.
 Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Lanham: Altamira Press, 2005), 131.