Author Interview: Mia Martin Hobbs on (Un)naming

Our new issue 48.1 features Mia Martin Hobbs’s article, “(Un)Naming: Ethics, Agency, and Anonymity in Oral Histories with Veteran-Narrators,” about the complexities of anonymizing oral histories and their subsequent interpretation, arguing that “(un)naming” changes the nature of consent, and requires careful consideration of power dynamics, especially in our era of digital oral history. We interviewed Hobbs about her article and the project it drew on.

Tell us about your project on Vietnam veterans.

My doctoral project was a comparative, transnational oral history with Australian and American Vietnam veterans who had returned to Vietnam after the war. Between 1981 and 2016, thousands of veterans returned, some once or twice, others many times, and some even moved to Vietnam for good. My project examined why veterans returned and how they reacted to the people and places of Vietnam— their former enemies, allies, and battlefields—as the war receded further into history and memory.

I found that veterans returned in search of resolution, or peace, which manifested in nostalgia for wartime visions of Vietnam. Different national war narratives shaped their returns: Australians followed the “Anzac” pilgrimage tradition, whereas for many Americans the return was an anti-war act. Upon return, veterans met former enemies, visited sites of personal trauma, mourned their friends, found new relationships, and addressed enduring legacies of the war in Vietnam. Many returnees found that their memories of war were eased by witnessing Vietnam at peace. However, this peacetime reality also challenged veterans’ wartime connection to Vietnamese spaces. Veterans drew from wartime narratives to negotiate this displacement, performing nostalgic practices to reclaim their sense of belonging in Vietnam.

Why did you decide to (un)name your interviewees?

At a public seminar I gave about my research before submitting my dissertation (the Australian version of a defense), an audience member asked whether my interviewees had had the opportunity for narrator-review. I answered that narrator-review was not possible in my project, because of the number of interviewees, the transient nature of my fieldwork, and the requirements for timely completion in my PhD program (3.5 years); after a year-long ethics review process before starting fieldwork, then 18 months conducting and transcribing interviews, I had exactly one year left in my program to interpret them and write up the dissertation. I simply did not have time to pass transcripts or drafts back-and-forth with fifty-four interviewees. My doctoral supervisor followed up privately with the audience member, sought advice from colleagues who were oral historians, and then recommended that I anonymize.

What are the potential consequences of making names of interviewees public, especially in the digital age?

Our work is now far more accessible in the digital age, which is a wonderful thing, but then so too are our interviewees’ lives. The digital age allows us to easily identify, locate, and contact strangers. Many of us have passive digital footprints, meaning people could easily track us down without us realizing. I realized that it would be very simple for strangers to find my interviewees and contact them via social media. My concern was borne out here: after implementing a naming solution of partial anonymity in the final dissertation, someone contacted me trying to guess who one veteran was, indicating they wanted to challenge the veteran’s recollections. This incident confirmed to me that partial anonymity was the right thing to do. When my interviewees consented to being interviewed and quoted in my project and publications, I don’t believe that they considered that other people might contact them out of the blue questioning their memories.

Another possible consequence is the reverse situation: finding my work in digital journals and eBooks via a word-search for an interviewee’s full name. The scenario I considered is a child or grandchild conducting a family history project for school (a particularly common project with veterans). My publications and forthcoming book critically interpret interviewees’ memories, and discusses topics including war crimes, racism, and sex work—topics that most veterans alluded to rather than discussed explicitly. It is reasonable to assume that interviewees would not want this content turning up in a Google search of their name.

Another element in digital publication is the accessibility of engagement and “impact” work, like opinion editorials. I’ve written several op-eds about veterans’ experiences where I draw on my interviewees stories. Those publications are about my scholarly expertise on contemporary issues, rather than documenting and interpreting veterans’ history. It’s a good idea to have that added layer of protection for an interviewee who may not want their full name in an online article about, for instance, the politics of war commemoration or a recent war film.

How did your subjects feel about being named/(un)named in your publications?

Most interviewees received a final copy of my dissertation after it had been examined (a handful had requested not to receive it), which is now a forthcoming book. No one had any issue with naming when they saw that first final product, which I hope indicates their comfort with the convention I chose: first name and initial. I think this choice maintains their individual identities and allows them to see themselves and their stories in publications without feeling exposed.

What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

While it was a challenge to change something so detailed and foundational in my dissertation so close to submission, it was the right thing to do. Being forced to thoroughly reconsider the way I’d done things was a constructive experience, really underscoring the broader ethical quandaries of oral history practice. The experience made me want to focus more on ethical dimensions up-front with my interviewees. I’m excited about conducting a new project with a much smaller number of interviewees, building in time for narrator-review, and including explicit negotiations on naming.

I also quite like an unintentional feature of the naming convention I chose. The first name and initial convention indicated in-text the relationship I had with the interviewee, marking those oral history sources as distinct from the handful of other sources I used, such as memoirs and blogs. I prefer this, as I’d always found it odd to refer to people by their surname when we’d spent hours talking about their lives.

What should oral historians understand about naming and (un)naming their interviewees?

To be named is to give testimony, to be recorded in history. To speak anonymously is to give confession, to have permission to speak about taboo things. The choices people make about being named will therefore affect what they choose to reveal in an interview. I argue that (un)naming not only changes the terms of consent to an oral history interview, it also reopens the core ethical tension in oral history practice: conflicting ideas about what oral history is and what it does.

At the same time, we ought to be aware that digital publication puts interviewees on a permanent and publicly accessible map. Negotiating naming with our interviewees must be informed by this awareness. I propose a new framework for naming which reflects the power dynamics of the interview, one that considers the interviewee’s public profile along with the possible consequences of digital publication, and explores a range of options with each interviewee once the interpretation is complete.

Mia Martin Hobbs is an honorary fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, where she obtained her PhD in 2018. Dr. Martin Hobbs is an oral historian of war and its legacies, focusing on how survivors of conflict and perpetrators of state violence make sense of their experiences. Her research areas include the Vietnam War, the War on Terror, memory, trauma, peace and security, and international history. She has published research in Australian Journal of Politics and History and commentary in The Conversation and Australian Policy History. Her book Return to Vietnam: An Oral History of American and Australian Veterans’ Journeys is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Featured Image: Saigon 1968 – Australian soldiers waiting for bus in a Saigon Street. Photo supplied by Gary Grayson [1968]. Used with permission of Flickr user manhhai, via a CC BY 2.0 license