Creating an Ethics Advisory Committee for Oral Historians

Martha Norkunas's picture

For some time I have been thinking about the need for an ethics advisory committee for oral historians. I discussed the idea with the officer in charge of IRB at my university (when oral history was subject to IRB review), noting that while IRB review as it was then constituted was not helpful to oral history, an ethics advisory committee would be useful. I think such a committee would be of enormous benefit to oral historians nationally and perhaps internationally.

The idea for the oral history ethics advisory committee is modeled on the ethics advisory committee for Hospice. From time to time, as clients face difficult moral decisions, a meeting of the ethics advisory committee is called. The advisory committee members discuss the situation with the people involved and offer their thoughts on how to proceed. They are advisory only--that is, their recommendations are nonbinding. The group is composed of volunteers who have a depth of experience in issues related to death and dying. They are willing to meet as needed, often at short notice.

The oral history advisory committee could meet on a regular basis via skype or other online systems and offer their thoughts on ethical issues that arise in the context of oral history interviews. The discussions would be completely confidential and the advice would be nonbinding. Oral historians would send in requests to discuss an ethical issue they are facing in their work. If there were multiple requests, the committee would meet more than once a month. The committee would be composed of volunteers with in-depth knowledge of the field and would rotate annually or every two years. 

OHA members would have access to thoughtful discussions of the particular ethical issues they encounter that would assist them in making well informed decisions. The ethics advisory committee’s role could also be incorporated into the revisions OHA is making to the Best Practices guidelines. It could serve as a model for fellow humanities organizations, as their members encounter ethical issues unique to their disciplines. The ethical issues oral historians face will likely increase as the digital age progresses, making the ethics advisory committee even more important over time.

Respectfully submitted,

Martha Norkunas, Professor of Oral and Public History

Middle Tennessee State University



You have a really good idea. I guess that many oral historians call up a friend and talk about the problem, but it would be helpful to have a committee that would consider the issues involved and suggest ethical ways to proceed.

Thanks so much for your suggestion. I hope the Oral History Association will proceed with the establishment of an Ethics Advisory Committee.
Valerie Yow

As a doctoral student who uses oral history in my work, I think such a committee would be helpful!

Hello all,

How wonderful to discover this discussion group. A colleague forwarded this to me and I was delighted to read the thread.

I am working on a paper now on this subject -- versions of which will be presented both at the American Anthropology Association and Columbia History and Memory conferences this December.

The paper is about "Ethnographic and Narrative Approaches to Genocide Testimony" focusing on how to work with testimony as texts and the ethics of working with people's stories.

Anyone have any recommendations of folks doing powerful work around this?

I think it's a great idea to start the proposed ethics committee, I could see it being really helpful both for institutional practitioners and freelancers like myself. I agree that the ethics issues that have always underpinned this work grow all the more pressing as the digital age transforms access, exposure, and audience.

What an excellent idea, Martha. Not only would such a committee be worthwhile in the academic sphere, but also among community oral historians. As the methodology increasingly expands to include new practitioners, new geographic areas, and vulnerable populations, I believe it is important for new questions to be raised and discussed at the OHA-level.

Thanks for sharing your idea. What are the next steps?


Nancy MacKay
Berkeley, California

Hi Sarah, We have an extensive chapter on ethics in using people's stories in our book, Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories by Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis (Routledge, 2016). Good luck on your paper.

Great idea Martha! The OHA has just set up a Principles and Best Practices Task Forces to revise the association's current best practices in light of the recent deregulation of oral history in the US. I can raise the idea of an advisory committee in our next meeting if you like, and if others think it would be relevant for their work. Feel free to get in touch if you'd like to chat further about it!
Best wishes,