Lack of protection for confidentiality in oral histories

Sociologists and other researchers can offer confidentiality in consent forms but whether this promise would stand up in court is another question:

Researchers who conduct oral history have no right to expect courts to respect confidentiality pledges made to interview subjects, according to a brief filed by the U.S. Justice Department on Friday.

The brief further asserts that academic freedom is not a defense to protect the confidentiality of such documents.

With the filing, the U.S. government has come down firmly on the side of the British government, which is fighting for access to oral history records at Boston College that authorities in the U.K. say relate to criminal investigations of murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes in Northern Ireland. The college has been trying to quash the British requests, arguing that those interviewed as part of an archive on the unrest in Northern Ireland were promised confidentiality during their lifetimes…

Many historians have been backing Boston College in the case. Clifford M. Kuhn, a historian at Georgia State University who is a past president of the Oral History Association, filed an affidavit on behalf of Boston College in which he said that if Britain’s request is granted, the field of oral history could be damaged.

This is part of a long-running battle involving researchers and courts. Some of this is covered in the 2000 piece “Don’t Talk to the Humans.” When I’ve used this particular article in class, students always ask why researchers don’t have the same legal rights regarding confidentiality that journalists have.

Whenever these sorts of cases pop up, it always seems like we get the slippery slope argument: if they start with oral histories, how long until there is no confidentiality in other forms of research? In the meantime, we’ll have to see whether this goes beyond just this one brief.

h/t Instapundit

The location of the actual “Tally’s Corner” is revealed

Tally’s Corner is a classic ethnographic work:

It’s a remarkable book, an academic work – it grew out of Liebow’s doctoral thesis – that isn’t dry or boring. It’s an in-depth look at a group of men who routinely hung out on a Washington street corner in the early 1960s. These are poor men, flawed men, unemployed and underemployed men. But they are treated with respect. And although Liebow used pseudonyms, giving the men such names as Tally, Sea Cat, Richard and Leroy, they come across as flesh-and-blood individuals. When “Tally’s Corner” was published in 1967, the New York Times called it “a valuable and even surprising triumph.” The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called it “nothing short of brilliant.”…

“Tally’s Corner” remains in print, has been translated into multiple languages, and has sold more than a million copies, an amazing feat for an anthropological text.

But there has been some confusion over the years about where exactly Elliott Liebow interacted with the men who were the focus of his study:

According to many sources, it was Ninth and P streets NW. Except Answer Man happens to know it wasn’t…

Liebow picked a location that would be easy to get to from his office and his home in Brookland: 11th and M streets NW in Shaw, a corner that had a carryout, liquor store, dry cleaner and shoe-repair shop. This is the first time the exact location has been revealed. “I feel free to say that because it’s no longer that street corner,” Harriet told Answer Man. “The carryout’s gone. That whole world is gone from that street corner.

It is often the case that ethnographic works conceal the location of the study as well as the identity of the participants. And it sounds like the location was only revealed now because the area has changed so much that no individuals or businesses could be identified at that corner.

I’ve had discussions with people about the exact location of ethnographic works, as if the location was some mystery that needed to be solved. The authors sometimes do a better job to conceal the location that others – it can often take quite a consistent effort. I feel like I have read some studies that try to use vague terms like “a liberal-arts college in the Midwest” but then later give enough clues (unintentionally?) for the reader to figure it out.