Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Method and Ethics across Disciplines

Seminar 2: Ethics and Archives, 19 September 2008, University of Essex

Whether novel or mundane, for many the concept of the archive does seem to produce some kind of ‘mal d’archive’, an archive fever, whether following Derrida or Steedman, which merits further attention. We might understand ethics as the ‘mal d’archive’ for sociologists, as the site of sociologists’ anxieties about, resistance to, and general feverishness about the archive. Sociological resistance to archiving partly revolves around questions of the meaning of informed consent when future use of data cannot be anticipated; with the challenges of maintaining confidentiality and the possible limitations to use of data when data has been anonymised, and stripped of identifying names and places.

Yet oral historians have long been grappling with ethics and informed consent with respect to interview material and transcripts. Historians who consult government records are faced with a 30 year rule, and sometimes a 100 year rule, governing access to public documents. So for historians questions of ethics are posited entirely differently. Anthropologists often face the challenge of negotiating consent over long period of fieldwork, or returns to the field over time, and even returns to their own personal archive of fieldnotes, photographs, maps, kinship diagrams and field recollections. Literary theorists frequently grapple with the challenges of bringing the privately written letters and diaries of writers and their correspondents into the public domain. Oral historians insist on history from below, on agentic subjects making history, inserting themselves into the record and on the importance of using the names of ordinary people.

This seminar explored what ethical dilemmas and possible resolutions emerge out of encounters between the vulnerable, at-risk subject of the social scientist, who needs to be protected by the cloaks of informed consent, anonymity and confidentiality, and the robust subject of oral history, insisting on their names and deeds being recorded for posterity, and on the project of inserting him or herself into history. This seminar also examined the relevance of ethics at a time when mal d’archive threatens to become a full blown paralysis in an age of over-information, and when the very personal, private and intimate is to be found everywhere in blogs and various online fora.

Seminar Programme


Registration and refreshments




Introduction and welcome

Introduction to ESDC Qualidata - Libby Bishop

Session 1: Disciplines and Archiving (Chair /Discussant: Bren Neale)

Crossing Boundaries with Secondary Analysis: Implications for Archives Oral History Data

Joanna Bornat (The Open University)

The Ethics of Archiving: An Anthropological Perspective

Pat Caplan (Goldsmiths, University of London)


Lunch- and tour of Qualidata (limited spaces)


Session 2: Anonymity, Consent and Archiving (Chair / Discussant: Susanne Langer)

Gaining Informed Consent for Secondary Analysis: Is it Possible?

Libby Bishop (University of Essex/ University of Leeds)

Security and Anonymity of Qualitative Data in a Digital Age

Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester)

Trust me, I'm a Researcher: Experiences of Archiving Data

Bogusia Temple (University of Central Lancashire)




Session 3: Ethics, Responsibility and Care ( Chair / Discussant: Selina Todd)

Home truths: Shifting Ethical Contours in Family Research

Jacqui Gabb (The Open University)

On Burning, Saving and Stealing Letters

Margaretta Jolly (University of Sussex)


Summary and Close