Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork
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Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork

This article offers an overview of the literature on anticipating and managing danger in qualitative fieldwork as it pertains to the practice of oral history in various settings. It offers an alternative perspective to the widespread assumption that oral history is an inherently positive endeavor that results in good relationships and positive outcomes. This article explores some of the circumstances through which danger can emerge in the course of oral historical fieldwork, both in relatively benign and in overtly hostile settings. It also offers preliminary recommendations for anticipating and managing these forms of harm.


ethics, danger, harm, political violence

On September 8, 2015, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) proposed that "oral history, journalism, biography, and historical scholarship activities that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected" should be excluded from human subject regulation.1 This recommendation emerged from the recognition that oral history, an established discipline, has developed its own ethical standards, central to which is the highly regarded practice of establishing informed consent with research participants. On January 19, 2017, the HSS's proposed revision was adopted by sixteen federal agencies, deregulating the practice of oral history in the US in an effort "to better protect human subjects involved in research" and "to modernize, simplify, [End Page 322] and enhance the current system of oversight."2 For many oral historians, this policy shift was unexpected good news in an otherwise seemingly stagnant debate between oral historians and federal policymakers that dated back to the early 1990s.3 At the heart of the debate lay a fundamental difference of opinion regarding the potential for oral historical research to inflict harm upon the people and communities its practitioners studied. Whereas the US government interpreted any human subject research to be a potential source of harm, following a series of "glaring medical abuses" that occurred during World War II, oral historians argued that "efforts to force oral history and historical inquiry into a regulatory framework designed for scientific research caused harm, confusion, and undue burden."4

Subsequent comments by oral historians on the HHS recommendations and subsequent deregulation have, nearly unanimously, reinforced this latter position.5 Indeed, for most oral historians, research is a predominantly positive endeavor that involves minimal harm for all involved. Oral historians are typically conscientious about maintaining reputable, discipline-specific ethics codes and best practices. To cite but two English-language examples: In the US, the Oral History Association's "Principles and Best Practices" were adopted in 1989 and revised in 2000 and 2009 in accordance with advances in the field.6 In the UK, the Oral History Society published a similar set of legal and ethical guidelines for academic and community-based practitioners in their research design and practice in 2003; these guidelines were subsequently revised in 2012.7 Beyond [End Page 323] these discipline-specific ethics standards, oral historians commonly pride themselves on their ability to build intimate and trusting relationships with the people and communities with whom they work. The literature abounds with accounts of such relationships, which, in turn, allow practitioners to document previously underrepresented populations with an eye toward democratizing history.8

Only in rare instances have oral historians engaged critically with the negative impacts that these intimate relationships can have for our research and ourselves.9 Even more rare are accounts in which our best efforts to establish trust and build effective relationships fail, resulting in distance, insecurity, hostility, and various potential forms of harm to the interviewer, research assistants, and/or research participants. Yet the fact remains that as part of the practice of oral history, we frequently insert ourselves into the intimate, everyday lives of people who we do not always know well in advance and whose mental and physical health, deeply held beliefs, and motives surrounding the interview are not always immediately clear to us. Moreover, many of us—particularly the steadily growing cohort of oral historians engaged in the study of political violence in its various manifestations—find ourselves working with research participants who constitute "unloved groups" and who can pose a threat to researchers.10 Even more...