Inescapable burden of 'guilty knowledge'

January 26, 2012

I read with interest Peter Geoghegan's tale of the Boston College-Belfast Project tapes. While the case has been covered extensively in serious newspapers and blogs, readers relying on his account alone will be left ill-informed ("If trust is lost, future promises naught but troubles for research", 19 January). This is not a tale of researchers betrayed by Boston College or hounded by callous lawyers: they are largely responsible for their misfortune.

The original aim in collating the narratives was laudable. The problem arose when Ed Moloney, the project leader, decided to capitalise on them and write Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland (2010), in which anti-Good Friday Agreement Republicans were quoted fingering their erstwhile colleagues now involved in government. It does not take much sense to realise that the police would want the tapes: sense, however, gave way to sensationalism.

Social researchers working on sensitive topics know that the confidentiality of interviewees cannot be guaranteed. This is why informed-consent forms always explain that confidentiality will be maintained only to the full extent provided under the law - and why respondents' attention must be drawn to the risks. In response to a question from The Boston Globe newspaper on whether the Belfast Project researchers did this, Moloney is quoted as saying: "If that had been there, we would have had no interviews at all...If we were saying to them, 'we want you to tell us everything about your life as a gunman and, by the way, if the cops come we are going to hand all this over. Is that OK with you?' It would never have got off the ground."

Those who have carried out narrative research on Northern Ireland and confronted the problem of "guilty knowledge" are not so reckless. Fastidious care is taken when writing up the results. Anthony McIntyre, one of the Belfast Project researchers and a former IRA member, may feel under threat, but spare a thought for the respondents duped by the reported concealment from them of the risks of participating. Think, too, of the impact on other researchers' access, let alone the potential destabilisation of the peace process.

The lessons for social research arising from the Boston tapes are many, but the problem is primarily that the journalists felt themselves under no obligation to act responsibly. Careless Talk might have been a better title for the book. They are not the victims here.

John D. Brewer, Department of sociology, University of Aberdeen

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