‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research’

Historical Geography Reading Group 28/11/12

Session 3, Semester 1

Reading:  Moore F.P.L. (2010) ‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research,’

It is coming into that busy time of year again and although we had a small group than usual, we still had a very interesting and enjoyable session.  The topic of our discussion was a paper by Francesca Moore on the methodological and ethical concerns within historical geography research.  Moore speaks from her own experience of her PhD research on abortion in 19th and 20th Century Lancashire.  Through this, she explores the ethical dilemmas faced as a result of going work on sensitive subjects and sheds light on the potential for politics in the archive.  She also brings attention to the ways in which the aims and objectives of the academic researcher may conflict with the opinions of the local community.  All of us found this to be an excellent paper for discussion as we could all relate to our own research.

Much of the subsequent discussion was formed as a result of our individual experiences of doing historical research, and we began by considering what Moore intended when she spoke of the potential conflict of interest between researcher and local historians.  Some of our group agreed with Moore’s suggestion that if an archive is largely used for local and family history research, then investigation of more sensitive topics, particularly those that might highlight unsavoury practices within a local area, might encounter a greater deal of resistance.  This opinion was countered by others’ experiences of working in an archive where there is often very little contact with the local historians, and feelings of resistance were rarely, if ever, felt.

We moved on to discuss whether we, as researchers, have the right to investigate something like historical abortion practices that were deliberately conducted in secret.  It was put forth that such research puts us in a position to decide whether to maintain such secrets or expose them.  We agreed that the researcher has to make some very careful ethical decisions regarding sensitive subjects, particularly if investigating within a small community.  It was suggested that the authors’ proposal of changing the names of individuals that were named in the archives might not be sufficient to guarantee complete anonymity within a tight-knit community.  It was also noted that we have a responsibility and duty of care and respect to friends and relatives of dead individuals’.  This also brought up questions of how our ethical standpoint has the potential for change with regard to the dead and living.

We briefly digressed to consider the politics surrounding ownership and housing of archival material.  It was suggested that the various interests and intentions of collectors and archivists may have an impact upon where a collection is stored, or how it is catalogued.  This led us on to the point raised by Moore in which she described how it became necessary to re-frame her research aims in order to locate particular documents in the archive.  Many of us were able to relate to this issue and noted how contextualisation of our research interests, or how we explain them to others, may change depending upon the situation.  It was remarked that such approaches might cause the researcher to unintentionally (or in some cases, intentionally) ‘hide’ the true objective of their research from archive custodians in order to find the necessary documents.  This comment brought us back to discussing the ethical responsibilities of researchers and whether we should focus on a broader ethical horizon with regard to collecting information.

All in all, the session was extremely interesting and engaging, and provided ample food for thought.  As we were a smaller group, we had the opportunity to share some of our own project concerns and queries, which made for particularly helpful discussion.

Thanks to all attendees and to Paul for bringing along the sweets!

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