Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Tenured Radical is Offered An Oral History Methodology Tutorial

Today at history camp I had a wonderful conversation with a person famous in some radical activist circles starting in about 1965, a woman who is now almost seventy, very pretty, with graying hair, a keen mind and a gentle expression. Part way through the conversation I asked whether I could talk with her at some point about the many interviews I want to do for a book that engages radical feminism in the 1970's and '80's. Since my first book was about Violent Criminals, some of whom were alive but refused to be interviewed (one said she was afraid she might be arrested again, and this was about sixty years later) I know that there are both ethical standards outlined by the Oral History Association that one must adhere to, and there are circumstances in which one needs to be doubly thoughtful about being responsible to participants in an oral history project.

"I realize," I said, "that FBI surveillance, and the constant fear of arrest back then must make people very wary of being interviewed, even to this day. And of course, recalling divisive struggles within feminism may be something people are reluctant to do because they will also have to recall the pain of those struggles. I mean," I babbled on, intending to show how thoughtful and professional I intended to be, "As I understand it from other historians, a lot of people are still really traumatized by the FBI raids that surrounded the search for New Left fugitives, and the ways their communities were violated and torn apart by suspicion. And I wonder," I continued, "given that they have been hurt by outsiders in the past, if you could give me advice on how best to approach people."

There was a moment of silence. "Well," said my new radical acquaintance said, "You should tell them to get over it."


Lesboprof said...

That is awesome! :-)

As someone who has been conducting interviews with some folks who are very hinky about the questions, and others who are afraid for their jobs and social standing, I am with your advisor. I just act like everything is cool--no big deal--and hope they roll with it.

By the by, your project sounds great!

PMG said...

At my current university, doing oral histories with living people counts as doing research on human subjects, and is therefore subject to IRB approval, or at least a petition for exemption.

Which sucks. And is rarely enforced. But still sucks.

Susan said...

It's so interesting, but in my (vicarious) experience with students, people vary a lot. One woman was interviewing women she had known since childhood, including her older sister. We still insisted that she get permissions. They thought it was hysterically funny. . . then the interviews started showing that several of the husband/partners had been involved in the less legal end of the informal economy. . .