By Steven High
Ethics is at the heart of oral history theory and practice. Oral history encourages us to rethink dominant academic research practice from a mode of knowing about to knowing with. Who controls the research process clearly matters. Collaboration is an ongoing process of dialogue and sharing. At its best, sharing authority is about much more than speaking to new audiences; it requires the cultivation of trust, the development of collaborative relationships, and shared decision-making. This cannot be rushed. “A commitment to sharing authority is a beginning, not a destination,” observes Michael Frisch, and “the beginning of a necessarily complex, demanding process of social and self-discovery. There are no easy answers or formulas and no simple lessons.” Doing oral history is therefore “long-haul” work.
Community–university research functions within the context of institutional ethics review at Canadian universities, as defined by the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Research Ethics. Before conducting an interview, faculty and students must get the approval of their university’s ethics review board. Researchers wishing to interview within aboriginal communities are now required to go through “incoming” ethics review (of aboriginal communities) as well as the “outgoing” university review.
At the core of this review process are the ethical principles of informed consent, the mitigation of harm and the right of withdrawal:
Obtaining Informed Consent
Interviewees must agree to participate. But to do so they need to know what the project is about and what you intend to do with the audio-video recording and with their words. Will future researchers have access to the recordings? Ethics is a lot about diffusion. The written consent form (see example) has been the traditional means of ensuring that informed consent is respected. At COHDS, our consent forms are right-of-use agreements rather than copyright agreements. This is an important distinction. We recommend that the consent forms should be designed so as the interviewer and the interviewee both have to sign it. It is also good practice to sign two copies, leaving one copy with the interviewee. The signing of the consent form often occurs at the outset, before the audio or video recorder is turned on. But it is good to return to the consent form at the end, to ensure that the interviewee is still comfortable with her or his choices. Increasingly, oral historians are going beyond the consent form, exploring new ways of negotiating ongoing consent.
Mitigation of Harm
Revisiting the past may prove deeply emotional or distressing for participants. Researchers’ experiences of listening to these stories may also prove painful. The publication, reinterpretation and dissemination of participants’ stories may also be an upsetting experience. To address these issues, oral historians should consider what resources are available from area social workers, counsellors and psychologists (be it a helpline, community support, or access to a university counsellor). This contact information can be attached to the interviewee’s copy of the consent form, as a matter of normal practice. No stigma is therefore attached to this. Researchers may also consider the ways in which their methodology might provide additional support to participants. Multi-session interviews, for example, insure a return visit. It is crucial that you don’t simply take what you need and leave. At COHDS, interviewees should receive a thank you note and a copy of their recorded interview. Should interviewees opt to remain anonymous to others, it is necessary that researchers deliver on the promise. There have been recent legal cases in the United States and Canada where police and the courts have sought to access “closed” or anonymous interviews. At COHDS, we suggest that you transcribe anonymous interviews – sending the edited transcript to interviewees who can further cut the parts that expose them before signing off on what is now a public transcript. The original interview recordings are then destroyed.
Right of Withdrawal
A participant may choose to end the interview at any time and may ask that the recording of the interview be destroyed. This right to discontinue should be discussed with interviewees before the start of the interview and be included on the consent form. Later requests to alter the interview or the terms under which it was made available to researchers should be honoured. Practically speaking, however, this cannot be applied retroactively but to subsequent usage.
The History Department has implemented its own supplemental ethics policy. Please visit the Department of History’s website and review the Department of History Ethics Protocol if you are a Concordia University history student or you are submitting course work for a history department course.
As true elsewhere in the world, university research ethics review is predicated on the idea that researchers and human subjects are two distinct groups of people who inhabit different places. Accordingly, the interaction between the two can be regulated and policed in advance. University ethics also assumes that the faculty member is in control of the research process: that they “own” the process and its products. True community–university collaboration destabilizes these assumptions. Increasingly, the interview is part of a longer continuum of research and research-creation.
This text has focused on the interview, but the issues raised apply to other storytelling spaces and arts or performance-based methodologies being practiced by COHDS affiliates. How informed consent, mitigation of harm, sharing authority, confidentiality, authorship, and the right of withdrawal function in practice in these other spaces also need to be thought through in advance.
Some Useful Articles and Books
- Yow, Valerie. “Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships in Oral History Research.” Oral History Review 22, 1 (1995): 51-66.
- Schaffer, Kay, and Sidonie Smith.“Venues of Storytelling: The Circulation of Testimony in Human Rights Campaigns.” Life Writing 1, 2 (2004): 3-26.
- Salverson, Julie. “Change on Whose Terms? Testimony and an Erotics of Injury.” Theater 31, no. 3 (2001): 119-25.
- High, Steven. Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014.
- High, Steven. “Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media,” Oral History 38 (Spring 2010), 101-112. [or Sharing Stories, chapter 7 in Oral History at the Crossroads]
- Holcombe, Sarah. “The Arrogance of Ethnography: Managing Anthropological Research Knowledge.” Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (November 2010), 22-32.
- Tillmann-Healy, Lisa M. “Friendship as Method.” Qualitative Inquiry 9, 5 (2003): 729-49.
- Wong, Alan. “Conversations for the Real World: Shared Authority, Self-Reflexivity, and Process in the Oral History Interview,” Journal of Canadian Studies 43, 1 (Hiver 2009), 239- .
- Mauthner, Natasha S., and Andrea Doucet. “‘Knowledge Once Divided Can Be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices.” Sociology 42, 5 (2008): 971-85.
- Stacey Zembrzycki, “Sharing Authority with Baba,” Journal of Canadian Studies 43, 1 (Hiver 2009), 219-238.
- Rouverol, Alecia. “Collaborative Oral History in a Correctional Setting: Promise and Pitfalls.” Oral History Review 30, 1 (2003): 61-85.
- Bishop, Libby. “Ethical Sharing and Reuse of Qualitative Data,” Australian Journal of Social Issues 44, 3 (2009);
- Christen, Kimberly. “Access and Accountability: The Ecology of Information Sharing in the Digital Age,” Anthropology News (April 2009),
- Christen, Kimberly. “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012),
- Salverson, Julie. “Anxiety and Contact in Attending to a Play About Land Mines,” in Popular Political Theatre and Performance: Critical Perspectives in Canadian Theatre in English, Vol. 17, ed. Julie Salverson. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2010.
- Henry Greenspan and Sidney Bolkosky, “When is an Interview an Interview? Notes from Listening to Holocaust Survivors,” Poetics Today 27, 2 (Summer 2006), 431-449.
- Jessee, Erin. “The Limits of Oral History: Ethics and Methodology amid Highly Politicized Research Settings.” Oral History Review 38, 2 (2011): 287-307.
- Sheftel, Anna, and Stacey Zembrzycki, “Only Human: A Reflection on the Ethical and Methodological Challenges of Working with ‘Difficult’ Stories.” Oral History Review 37, 2 (2010): 191-214.
- Parr, Joy. “‘Don’t Speak For Me’: Practicing Oral History amidst the Legacies of Conflict.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 21, 1 (2010): 1-11.
- Blee, Kathleen. “Evidence, Empathy and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories with the Klan.” Journal of American History 80, 2 (1993): 441-69.
- “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations” Community-University Research Alliance (“Montreal Life Stories” project based at COHDS, 2007-2012) Training Manual, September 2010 version. (See attachment )
- Sajnani, Nisha. 2011. “Coming into Presence: Discovering the Ethics and Aesthetics of Performing Oral Histories within the Montreal Life Stories Project.” alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage, Vol. 9.1 (septembre 2011), p. 40-49.
- Young, Stuart. 2017. “The Ethics of the Representation of the Real People and Their Stories in Verbatim Theatre.” In Ethical Exchanges in Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy, edited by Emer O’Toole, Andrea Pelegri Kristic, and Stuart Young, Volume 9:21–42. Leiden; Boston: Brill/Rodopi.
Sample consent forms and interview guides