When Research Meets Politics: Lessons from Boston College’s Belfast Oral History Project

When Research Meets Politics: Lessons from Boston College’s Belfast Oral History Project
By Dr Birgit Schippers
Senior Lecturer in Politics
St Mary’s University College Belfast
Compromise After Conflict blog
18/6/2014

Much of the recent attention given to Boston College’s Belfast Oral History project has focussed on the question of confidentiality and its legal implications. The researchers on the project, the academic Dr Anthony McIntyre and the journalist Ed Moloney, claim to have put their faith in Boston College’s assurances of confidentiality agreements given to the research participants, specifically that recordings would not be released until after the death of the participants. The subpoena actions initiated by the PSNI and subsequent decisions by US courts have put to rest once and for all the naive belief that confidentiality assurances are iron-clad.

Less attention has been given to another aspect of this long and still ongoing saga: this is the relationship between research and politics. Hardly anyone hankers after the idea, always contested, that ideas move in a value-free vacuum produced by detached scholars who, sitting in their ivory-towers, are immune from the political values and ideas that influence them as knowledge-producers. Does the acknowledgement that academics carry political baggage allow them, though, to undertake their work with little or no consideration to their research participants, to the political contexts in which they work, or to implications their work has on other scholars?

Moloney refers to McIntyre as a ‘lead IRA researcher’, and his blog defends his and McIntyre’s professionalism, integrity and detachment. Yet, looking at the Boston College debacle, it appears that what the project lacks is the very professionalism, integrity and detachment that Moloney claims. What would shed light on Moloney’s claims is openness and honesty about the ethical integrity of the project. What is missing in the public debate around this issue is information on the ethical scrutiny and oversight applied by Boston College. Like any academic institution, surely Boston College must have a procedure for the ethical scrutiny of research, and an ethics committee that scrutinizes the ethical practice underpinning research. Did an ethics review happen in the case of the Boston College project? And what was its outcome?

The project is now treated by academics as a textbook case of ethical malpractice. In addition to the project’s well-rehearsed problems with confidentiality, it also raises concerns regarding the safety of the research participants. I wish to highlight a different issue: is it permissible to engage in research to make a political point? And is it acceptable to undermine good ethical practice in the name of a political cause? Both researchers on this project are well-known critics of Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein strategy pursued under his leadership. This is a legitimate political view to take; it is also legitimate and necessary to submit the actions, ideas and practices of political actors to robust and critical scholarly scrutiny. However, when the political views of researchers permeate the aim and methodology of their research, we enter a grey zone where the lines between scholarly research and propaganda become blurred. From what we know so far, all of the republican research participants seem to espouse the same political stance as McIntyre and Moloney. Such an apparent disavowal of a balanced approach in its choice of research participants, together with Dr McIntyre’s recent insinuation that he used leading questions, challenges the aim, remit and indeed the name of the project. Put differently, was the project designed to produce an oral history archive of the protagonists of the conflict, or is its purpose to advance a one-sided view on the conflict? If the latter is the case, then this project disguises political propaganda as scholarly research.

The conduct of McIntyre and Moloney has shaken the trust of conflict protagonists to participate in oral history research, and it is fair to conclude that this project has had a negative impact on the use of research as an aid to understanding conflict. It has also damaged the prospects of other scholars, especially those interested in oral history and narrative research, to conduct similar projects. One would hope that future projects restore some of the lost confidence in the integrity of research and produce work that is more thoughtful and reflective.