Author interview: Noah Riseman on what’s left unsaid in oral histories

We asked Noah Riseman, author of “‘Describing Misbehaviour in Vung Tau as “Mischief” Is Ridiculously Coy’: Ethnographic Refusal, Reticence, and the Oral Historian’s Dilemma” in the latest OHR, to discuss his use of oral history as a research method, reflecting on situations that lead oral historians and narrators to avoid certain topics, just one of many ethical issues oral historians grapple with in their work.

What sparked your interest in oral history?

I actually fell into oral history. I did my PhD on the role Yolngu people from Arnhem Land, Australia played in the Second World War. For that project I had it in my head that I would go to this remote part of Australia and interview the survivors and descendants of a group of Aboriginal men who served in a small unit. In the end, several factors, Ied me to do two oral history interviews for that project. However, in the process I learned quite a bit about the ethics of working with Indigenous people, preparing me well for future projects.

For my postdoctoral research, I developed a project to document the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service in the post-Second World War era. By its very nature the project had to be oral history-based as individual accounts were the natural source base, and that because this helped ensure that Indigenous people were being treated respectfully as participants, rather than objects, of the research. I absolutely loved it. The Indigenous service members I met over the years were so generous with their time and stories, and I met some incredibly inspiring people.

Since then, I have consistently developed projects with oral history as the principal methodology. I love it because I get to meet such interesting people, and I never know what is going to come out in an interview. It makes my research exciting, and there is something to be said about working with living subjects to craft histories that have not adequately been told.

I do believe there are times when ethnographic refusal is a valid and important approach to research. Now that I recognize it, though, I have become more consciously reflective in my practice.

Please explain the concept of ethnographic refusal, as well as how you have dealt with/ overcome it?

My colleague Kat Ellinghaus from the University of Melbourne first introduced me to the concept of ethnographic refusal, which she learned about from Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson. At the time I had already committed to present a paper about ethics and oral history practice, so I immediately chased up the reference when I returned to my office.

Ethnographic refusal comes from the discipline of anthropology, coined by Sherry Ortner in 1995. While not widely used, I found the term a perfect description of the dilemma I wanted to write about. Ethnographic refusal occurs when a researcher chooses to avoid going down an analytical path or examining particular research questions because of the adverse consequences such findings may have on their research participants. When Ortner introduced the concept, she did so in a critical way, arguing that it was not appropriate. Since then, scholars including Audra Simpson have reconceptualized it positive, sometimes necessary methodology, because of the cultural or political damage some research findings may have on Indigenous (or other) communities.

While the scholarship on ethnographic refusal describes it as a conscious decision, in my own experience it occurred more as an unconscious bias. I have focused my work on writing histories of marginalized people, especially Indigenous and LGBTI people in the military. Given my objective of restoring people to the historical record who most narratives have overlooked or denigrated, my instinct to focus on the positive aspects of their service was, on reflection, a form of ethnographic refusal. As my OHR article explains, I do believe there are times when ethnographic refusal is a valid and important approach to research. Now that I recognize it, though, I have become more consciously reflective in my practice.

Can you describe the concept of “reticence” as it relates to your oral history methodology, and any strategies you have used to counter it?

I can still remember the word ‘reticence’ being one of the SAT vocabulary words we had to learn in Grade 11. Seared in the back of my mind is the definition ‘passive acceptance.’ In oral history practice, the work of Leonore Layman describes reticence as the interview participant avoiding particular topics, sometimes through silence, other times through deflection or changing the topic.

It is challenging during an interview to counter reticence. I sometimes return to a question again later, perhaps probing for a bit more information. When a participant clearly does not want to talk about something, though, it is most appropriate to respect their wishes and to move on.

During the wider research and analytical phase a researcher can best counter reticence. For instance, using multiple narrators means that some participants may be willing to talk about topics others are reticent to discuss. Written records may expose that which is left unsaid. This was certainly the case for the topics which sparked my OHR article: written records told more about Vietnam veterans’ bad behavior in Vung Tau than what the oral histories revealed.

In my early days as a scholar, ethnographic refusal and reticence almost combined, unconsciously, when I often became more prone to avoid the topics in my writing that the participants did want to discuss. It was a referee report that sparked me to be more reflective about this. Now in my writing, if there is a topic that interview participants are reticent to discuss, I note that in the text and analyze the reticence.

Of course, sharing authority is not exactly possible when someone has been dead for eighty years!

Do you believe oral historians are held to a higher ethical standard than other historians?

Any historian who works with living subjects is held to a higher standard. To an extent this is rightfully so, as what we write can affect these people’s lives personally and professionally. There is also always the threat of defamation suits.

That said, those who work with deceased subjects can learn a lot from oral historians’ respect for their participants. I recall a few months ago attending a talk from a historian doing work on human trafficking in the early twentieth century. She discussed how she wanted to make sure to treat the subjects of her research in a respectful way and this was a challenge for her. In our chat afterwards, I talked about her objective as a noble and important goal, and pointed her to some literature on working with living subjects in oral histories which may inform what she wants to do with archival sources. Of course, sharing authority is not exactly possible when someone has been dead for eighty years!

Can you think of any examples from your own interviewing experience where you see ethnographic refusal as necessary?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. The conclusion I came to is that ethnographic refusal is best guided by reticence. When participants are reticent to talk about a subject, even if other material exposes information, it may be best not to discuss it (at least not without their explicit permission down the track).

Sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse are two specific examples where I have been most prone to exercise ethnographic refusal. For instance, one of the Aboriginal ex-servicemen I interviewed unexpectedly mentioned in an interview that he was raped at boarding school as a teenager. I have never written about that because it is not pertinent to my research. In my project on LGBTI military service, though, there have been at least a dozen participants who experienced physical or sexual abuse as children. When there are more participants, in some ways it becomes ‘easier’ to write about the topic because I can write generally/broadly without needing to implicate specific people.

What has the role of “shared authority” been in your research?

Shared authority is another concept I have been grappling with lately. I always give interview participants an audio copy and written transcript of our interview, along with the opportunity to make revisions. Most narrators have been happy with the interviews as they were, but occasionally some have requested I cut sections, when they regret what they said.

I take different approaches depending on what I am writing, the audience, and the content. When I am writing straight biographical pieces, whether a chapter or a book, I always send the work to the narrators to make sure they are happy with what I have written (and sometimes this necessitates a bit of to- and fro-ing). When I write pieces with multiple short excerpts from interviews, I have been less prone to do this because it can become unmanageable. In those situations, I have to make a judgement call: is this such sensitive or potentially harmful information that they should read it in advance? The best example of this was an article I had published in the International Journal of Transgenderism, when I allowed all of the transgender women quoted in the article to read and comment in advance. This was because most were still serving in the Australian Defence Force and there could be ramifications for their careers.

How do you contemplate the role of the future researcher when interviewing about sensitive subjects? Do you consider yourself more accountable to that imaginary scholar, or to your narrators?

Normally I don’t think about future researchers when interviewing because I do not know what is going to come up. On consent forms I request permission to archive, so there is the abstract knowledge from both participant and myself that one day someone else may use the interview as well. I consider myself accountable to my narrators, and there is a genuine uncertainty about what future scholars may say, but only occasionally do I even think about it.

That said, I have recently come across literature about secondary analysis of oral history interviews, and I think that the field of oral history needs more reflection in this space. One of the reasons we do oral history is to record voices of people whose histories have been marginalized, and archiving those interviews for future use is a vital part of the preservation practice. Yet, there almost seems to be a stigma in the field against those scholars who use existing archived interviews – like they have somehow failed as researchers for not doing their own (unless of course the potential participants are all dead). If that is the attitude, then what really is the point of archiving interviews? We need to destigmatize the practice of secondary analysis of oral history interviews, while simultaneously thinking through all of the questions of ethics and ways of sharing authority. As I say: another article for another day!

Noah Riseman is an associate professor of history at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. His research interests include Indigenous and LGBTI history, and he is the author of Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service since 1945 (with Richard Trembath), In Defence of Country: Life Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Servicemen and Women and Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War. His forthcoming book (with Shirleene Robinson and Graham Willett), Serving in Silence? Australian LGBT Servicemen and Women, will be published by NewSouth Publishing in 2018. 

Featured image “VUNG TAU 1967” licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) by Flickr user manhhai.