Ethico-Political Dilemmas of a Community Oral History Project: Navigating the Culture of the Corporate University

Article excerpt

Introduction

ETHNOGRAPHERS HAVE LONG RECORDED ETHICAL DILEMMAS ENCOUNTERED "OUT IN the field," once they have reached the data collection phase of their project (Burawoy et al., 1991; Guevarra, 2006; Lareau and Schultz, 1996). In an external funding environment in which partnerships and collaboration have become the norm, if not the imperative, it is increasingly important to consider the potential predicaments when a researcher, as a representative of his or her university, partners with a community organization in the pursuit of "engaged scholarship" (Small and Uttal, 2005). Over the past three decades, the pressure to obtain external funding in higher education has intensified. State legislators have continually decreased their budgetary allocations to institutions of higher education, universities have been increasingly privatized, and higher education tuition and fees multiplied, further burdening students and families (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2001; Currie and Newson, 1998; Giroux, 2002; Levy, 1986; State Higher Education Finance, 2009; Supiano, 2012; Yamada, 2012). Moreover, the onset in 2007 of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s left state economies unable to meet their fiscal responsibilities, with education and social services among the first areas to endure severe budget shortages.

Research practitioners of community oral history projects often rely on community volunteers and goodwill to advance the goals of documenting the stories the community wishes to record (Mercier and Buckendorf, 2007). Most nationally based oral history projects rely heavily on federal funding agencies (such as the National Endowment for the Humanities) and on philanthropic and charitable foundations and organizations to obtain the funding necessary to pursue the most labor-intensive and costly methods in the humanities and social sciences. In keeping with conventional social science methods, reports of ethnographic fieldwork typically begin with the actual entry into "the field" in which the subjects of study are located. How a project is conceived, how it is funded (or not), what competing interests are at stake, and which structural opportunities facilitate a project's emergence, I argue, are part of the larger "field" experience. Broadening the field experience to include the processes by which a project is launched and supported may offer insights into contemporary forces at play in the field of knowledge production. It may also provide analytic insights into the subject matter at hand. Whether one is the "kindly" or "honest" ethnographer (Fine, 1993), all should consider the ethical dilemmas that arise in the early stages of a project's planning and funding.

This article outlines the ethico-political dilemmas encountered in the early funding and planning stages of a community oral history project within the context of the university; it also describes how I navigated the challenges and opportunities that came my way. My definition of "ethico-political" comes from Agamben (1998) and Negri (2005), who argue that an ethical situation is a political one and a political situation an ethical one. Issues such as the multiple interests at stake, the contestation yet appropriation of key values, the drive for profit in its various forms, and the use of unethical tactics illuminate underlying tensions and concerns that speak to the power relations that permeate the academic environment and often imbue the subject under study as well.

Launching an Oral History Project Partnership

I became involved with a community oral history project somewhat serendipitously. During a lunch conversation with a Chicano administrator from one of the Maricopa County community colleges, I happened to mention my attendance at the Oral History Summer Institute at Columbia University. Before I knew it, I was asked to meet with a group of individuals who were attempting to collect the stories of former residents of los campos--a group of labor camps that had once existed in the agricultural lands of the western Salt River Valley, now a part of the larger Phoenix Metropolitan Area. …