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.