The dilemma of raising sensitive topics in oral history interviews

bff7a1fa-6ea3-413b-8bd3-1a581fe11e3dIn the latest oral history research seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, Marjolein van Bavel (left), a PhD student at University College London, outlined some of the ethical dilemmas thrown up by her interviews with women who posed as Playboy models.

Van Bavel, whose oral history research focuses on 10 British models, told the seminar that she wanted to avoid the binary narratives of liberation or exploitation so often applied to research on women in the glamour modelling industry. This approach constitutes them as either mere sexual objects and victims or, overly simplistically, as sexually liberated. Although the interviews showed that the interviewees had been exposed to problematic pressures, they also indicated that the women had strategies of navigating these pressures.

Some of Van Bavel’s interviewees recounted solely positive experiences but others dwelled on the negative. One interviewee told how at her first modelling session at the age of 17 she felt powerless to refuse the photographer’s request for her to do more explicit poses than she was comfortable with, an experience she still feels emotional recalling.

Hence, Van Bavel described several of the interviews as emotional and intense experiences for both herself and her interviewees. She said, “I didn’t want to transcribe these interviews. It caused me some emotional labour. It wasn’t about re-listening to difficult experiences – it was the sense of responsibility I had towards the interviewee that weighed on me. It made me wonder about the ethical consequences in asking my respondents to bring up experiences that were hard for them and how I should deal with what they had trusted me with.”

She discussed the difficulties of talking about “sensitive topics”, especially the problem of identifying such topics. She explained that due to their individual as well as relational character, any topic can be a sensitive one and its recounting can be potentially empowering or traumatic, depending on the context of its recounting. Van Bavel said, “I did not want to avoid sensitive topics or prevent the women from exploring more conflicting parts of their stories. But I wanted to avoid manipulating an individual into talking about certain topics.”

Van Bavel’s interviews touched on stories of “stigmatisation, violence and objectification” and one interviewee in particular was very negative about her past experiences as a model.

Nevertheless, Van Bavel said she also wanted to give space to the positive experiences the women had had. She quoted Margareta Hyden, who warned that focusing on the dark side may cause suffering and limit research.

After all, for many of the models Playboy gave these women access to a lifestyle that would otherwise not have been available to them and they had had experiences they still recounted with much joy.

At the end of the seminar it was clear that Van Bavel was grappling with many questions regarding her research. Some interviewees had said that they were happy for their full names to be used but Van Bavel has decided to anonymise them as she doesn’t want to “make them vulnerable to portrayals they’re not happy with”.

And, like so many oral history interviewers she struggled with the power dynamics between interviewee and interviewer. And what was Van Bavel’s role in this? She is a student at UCL, an elite institution by any standards, but as a Belgian does not carry the class baggage a UK researcher might have. She was conscious that she did not want to be another middle-class researcher being critical of working-class women’s choices. “I have come to think a lot about reflexivity: who I am, who are the respondents and what are the power dynamics?” she said.

  • The next seminar takes place on Thursday March 2 and will be led by Tom Harrison, retired psychiatrist and currently PhD student at Birmingham University. Tom’s research focuses on a therapeutic community in north east London and he will discuss how his clinical experience was more relevant than he expected when conducting oral history interviews. The seminar starts at 6pm and takes place at the Institute of Historical Research, in the John S Cohen Room (203), North Block, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. The seminar is free and open to all.

New Sheffield Blitz Exhibition

A brand new permanent Sheffield Blitz exhibition opens from 18 Feb 2017 at the National Emergency Services Museum in Sheffield featuring artefacts, stories, oral history recordings along with a wealth of images from the collections at Sheffield Libraries and Picture Sheffield.

Venue address: National Emergency Services Museum, Old Police/Fire Station, West Bar, Sheffield, S3 8PT

Please click here to find out more.

Reminiscence work training launched


Applications are open for a new training course and apprenticeship scheme in reminiscence arts in dementia care.

The training and apprenticeship, in partnership with the University of Greenwich, will be of interest to arts practitioners, community arts workers, occupational and arts therapists, group workers, reminiscence practitioners and staff from health and social care services.

The course will be led by highly experienced reminiscence arts practitioners and trainers, with input from volunteers and former carers. It will be certificated by the European Reminiscence Network.

The two-day course will be held at the University of Greenwich on March 8 and 9.

There are also up to 10 places for trainees on the above course to join the new apprenticeship scheme to become an accredited facilitator of reminiscence groups.

The apprenticeship scheme involves attending, observing and participating in at least six out of 10 weekly group sessions of the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today project in central London. These sessions will be held from March 13, on Monday afternoons from 15.30 to 17.30.

The training and apprenticeship scheme are part of a 10-country partnership, supported by the European Union, with a view to extending and sharing the European Reminiscence Network’s recent two-year project, Remembering Together: Reminiscence Training for people with dementia and their family carers.

The two-day training costs £120, and for those joining the apprenticeship scheme, there will be a further £120 fee. There is a small bursary fund so we can offer some places at a reduced rate.

For more information contact Pam Schweitzer at indicating your interest in the training course or both the training and apprenticeship, enclosing a CV.

Launch meeting of the migration special interest group


Inaugural meeting of the migration special interest group and tour of the Refugee Council Archive

Thursday, February 9: 3pm – 5pm

Refugee Council Archive, University of East London.

Oral historians are invited to come together and discuss the role of the migration special interest group and to make plans for the future.

We would especially welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the group, consider funding opportunities and to seek thoughts and opinions on what our aims and directions should be.

We have an opportunity to apply for research funding and would welcome feedback on what colleagues view as important areas for research within this field.

The meeting will include a tour of the Refugee Council Archive, one of the largest collections of archival materials relating to refugee and forced migration studies .

The meeting will take place on the University of East London Docklands Campus on Thursday February 9 between 3pm and 5pm.  If you know of any colleagues that may be interested in attending this event, please do let us know.

Please contact Paul Dudman on 020 8223 7676 or by email on for further details.