Conducting Ethical Histories – A Deakin HDR Workshop

Honours candidate, Lee Gaedtke, provides a brief overview of a recent History HDR Workshop, proving that discussions concerning oral histories and ethics can be entertaining and useful. 


Say the word ‘ethics’ in a room of historians, and it might be met with gasps of fear. Hisses of horror. Groans of derision. This is not because we want to conduct our research unethically, a la’ the Stanford prison experiment. Instead, the study of history raises epistemological and theoretical questions and issues that can make ethical implications difficult to conceptualise and mitigate. The fearless Dr Jon Ritchie and Dr Bart Ziino laughed in the face of such academic unease, however, and sat down with Deakin’s history HDR students on October 10 to discuss what it means to conduct ethical histories.

Somewhat wearily, I joined via the Deakin Cloud. I had submitted my Honours thesis merely days before. Being that all of my research subjects are long dead, I wondered how could changes to chapter 3.1 of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research impact my future studies concerning postcolonial insights on nineteenth-century cemeteries? However, as the session progressed, and I took part in the conversation, I considered how ethics may impact my next step as an HDR student and the implications of conducting historical research on topics within living memory.

Dr Ritchie started the session by discussing his experiences of interviewing colourful characters on an oral history project for the National Library of Australia. Together, students and presenters, puzzled over best practice for collecting oral histories from subjects with diametrically opposing viewpoints to the researcher. We pondered over the dangers of stepping over the line of the removed observer into active participant. Here the example of Anna Funder in Stasiland was excellent food for thought. Dr Ritchie discussed the oral history methodologies he employed for his project ‘War, Independence and Leadership in Papua New Guinea,’ and made the students in the room think about the peculiarities of storing historical records. In a world where personal data is only securely stored for a mere seven or so years, Dr Ritchie got a laugh when asking us to imagine the shock and dismay of certain organisations when presented with some historian’s preference for keeping significant records in perpetuity!

Next, we addressed ‘The Statement.’ Dr Ziino explained the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research was initially drafted for medical research. This information explains why the Statement can be problematic for some qualitative and interpretive disciplines, such as history. Drawing on his experience as a board member of an ethics committee, Dr Ziino also explained the difference between ‘low risk’ and ‘higher than low risk’ applications. This is a conceptual idea that I hope to investigate during my PhD candidature to ensure I completely understand the nuances of the various applications.

The session came to an abrupt end as technology failed me near the conclusion of the session and I lost the VMP connection (sorry Dr Ziino!). However, as I railed against the machine, I considered our discussion in parallel to the ideas and aspirations I have for my PhD and beyond. I’m interested in ghost stories. I’d like to explore Polish War history, and I’m fascinated with the history of mental health in Australia. Whether these projects see the light of day or not, I will inevitably need ethics approval at some point in my career – and this session was both entertaining and useful for all who attended.

– Lee Gaedtke


Author biography. 

headshot of Lee
Image: Lee Gaedtke. Source: the author.


Lee Gaedtke is a Deakin history student who completed her Honours degree in October 2019. Her thesis was titled: ‘Death in the Colonial Garden: British Ideals and Settler Realities.’ Lee is a volunteer and member of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, writing book reviews for the publishing committee. Her research interests lie in the history of death and burial practices, and she is inspired by historians such as Phillipe Aries, Pat Jalland and Joy Damousi. Lee plans to apply for Ph.D candidacy at Deakin in 2020.


Comments (1)

  1. Emma Parker says:
    - Reply

    Thanks for this blog entry Lee – beautifully written. I would have loved to have signed in via the Cloud too but was unable to attend. Perhaps next time. Good luck with your Honors thesis and future PhD!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Australian Policy
 and History

Find out more