When Historical Research Requires Confidentiality
Historians conduct interviews and write about them. Authors write that history, give names, dates, places, and events, and quote their sources and provide citations. Historians collect oral histories, either as part of a larger project, about a particular topic, or as a biographical record of an individual. It’s what we do.
We do not typically think much about confidentiality when we plan our projects. We may think about consent forms, perhaps even ponder issues of advised consent. We plan where and when and how to interview a subject. If permitted, we record them either on video or only by audio. We take notes, we ask them their names, dates of birth, family and friends, and most importantly, their memories.
There’s no getting around it — we are taking. We are taking with some goal in mind and are convinced it is for the greater good. And while we may recognize and appreciate the contributions of the respondents who give their consent with the hope of contributing to the historical record, the bottom line is that we as interviewers are taking. And with that taking there comes some inherent human responsibility, with respect most importantly at the top of the list.
There are particular projects we may know are difficult or controversial, perhaps even dangerous. We may consider the impact the resulting story might have on those who later experience the story. But do we consider the impact of the interview on the person we interview? What are the dangers to them, what risks do they take by being interviewed? Where and when should they be interviewed? And for the potential interviewees who reject our requests for interviews, do we consider that there just might be a better way?
There are ethics for historians, taught to budding researchers at educational institutions or in other academic venues like conferences and associations. But typically ethics is termed as how historians should behave ethically, like in this 2010 “Ethics for Historians: The Perspective of One Undergraduate Class” written for the American Historical Association. It includes great descriptions of issues of plagiarism, taking faithful notes, not ignoring “contradictory evidence,” issues of biases, transparency, and archiving research. But they do not address the ethical issues impacting the interviewees.
There are institutional review boards, often through universities active in research projects. They are administrative bodies, sometimes referred to as ethics committees or boards, established to protect the rights and welfare of subjects of research, to ensure that methods are ethical and comply with laws. They provide training into the history of ethical research practices as well as guidance on specific research projects. But these IRBs are generally focused on scientific medical and behavior research.
As explained by the late Lee Ann Fujii, Ph.D., who taught at George Washington University and the University of Toronto, typically historical topics are not required or encouraged to be administered by IRBs. She had hired three research assistants on a history research project, each employed in the three research sites of her project — Rwanda, Bosnia, and Maryland in the United States; and she required online training in ethical research.
Taking the online training can be an eye-opener if the topics were not part of previous venues of education. The applicable portions of the training involved the social sciences, training which ought to be required of all university students no matter what type of research they employ. In Fujii’s project, the protections were obvious because of the parts of the project involving Rwanda and Bosnia. Victims and perpetrators of crime including murder were interviewed. Not only were the protections important to the individuals and Fujii as the interviewer, anonymity was essential to the operation and success of the research project.
The importance of these requirements was not immediately apparent for the portion of the project involving the history of 1930s lynchings in the lower Maryland Eastern Shore. The Rwanda and Bosnia portions of the project involved much more recent history. The lynching history project involved much older history. Interviews were conducted with a few witnesses to lynching, but most of the respondents were quite young at the time of the lynchings. Many respondents were born after the events and relied on stories from their families and neighbors. But soon confidentiality became obvious as a necessity. A few would not agree to participate without it. Others did not care about confidentiality, but the protections benefited them, sometimes in unforeseen ways.
So how does confidentiality factor in oral history projects? Confidentiality should factor in projects from the beginning, most particularly in the planning phase for any oral history project, large or small. In fact, one of the first questions considered during the planning stage should be whether anonymity is needed. Would the project benefit from anonymity, and if so, how? Should all respondents be given anonymity? When is it not necessary? And if anonymity becomes part of the oral history project, what steps are required to fulfill what is essentially a profound ethical obligation?
Some historical topics may not seem applicable to an evaluation of whether to employ anonymity. Interviewing persons who had been employed as carpenters or boat captains, for example, might not seem to need confidentiality. But examining the question could make a substantial difference to how the project unfolds. There may actually be good reasons to employ anonymity. Or, if planning for a project does not include promised confidentiality, contingency plans should be in place should the question of confidentiality arise during the execution of the project. What if a respondent suddenly decides not to talk, or states they don’t want their name used, what procedures should be taken? And are interviewers prepared to protect anonymity as much as can be done under IRB guidelines?
What topics might benefit from planned confidentiality? Topics of abuse, discrimination, and violence require obvious protections. Planning and discussion help in identifying the possible scenarios, particularly to ascertaining how beneficial confidentiality would be to the interview project. Issues of place and community are important. People being interviewed about their form of employment or political service might not agree to being interviewed, or if they do, they might not be as forthright with their descriptions if they still lived in those locations. Issues of family and community affiliations factor into the completeness of the results of the interview.
Not long ago a friend expressed interest in conducting an oral history project by interviewing domestic workers who had been so employed during a period of segregation; a topic that would benefit greatly from confidentiality considerations. During the project involving lynching history, some respondents who were forthright in discussing their memories of the events were reluctant to give much description of their own background, thinking it irrelevant or uninteresting or perhaps implicating. Yet, these details were important to the project. In some cases, the confidentiality protections actually made it easier for them to discuss their personal backgrounds. And different strategies of methodology might improve the quality of the results.
Fujii explored issues of interviewing in her 2017 book Interviewing in Social Science Research, A Relational Approach from the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods. It involved the above-mentioned project about interviewing in Rwanda, Bosnia, and the United States. While it does not in depth discuss these issues of confidentiality, the book provides a practical approach to interviewing particularly strategies, interviewing practices, and ways of evaluating results.
All this said to urge serious consideration of issues of confidentiality and anonymity of documenting history. The how-to steps and requirements can be described elsewhere in more detail. But those planning an oral history project could benefit from better results if these issues are given their due during the planning process. It boils down to respect and consideration of the people interviewed. Their interviews are gifts, important contributions no matter who they are and their place in history. These gifts are often offered freely, but there are ethical considerations to accepting these gifts.
Interviewees consent because they understand they are providing something important that will be used to benefit recorded history. It is up to historians to honor these contributions through good-faith ethical practices.