Having interviewed Germans who emigrated to Israel and, in most cases, converted to Judaism, I experienced a paralyzing sense of ethical conflict when I began analyzing the first order discourse my participants and I had co-constructed to transform it into the second-order discourse of research publications. So, I set out to rethink the ethics of life-history interview research. My quest into our ethical responsibilities began with rule-based deontological and consequentialist ethics and the guidelines in the social sciences they inform. It led me to reconsider such core notions as informed consent, privacy, and risk-benefit analysis. I came to realize that rule-based ethics are inherently inadequate for addressing the situation-specific and thus unpredictable ethical questions that arise in conducting and analyzing life-history interviews. Next, I turned to the notion of ethical conflict as arising from obligations to trust and truth and rethought it as responsibilities toward participants and audiences. I realized that our responsibilities extend beyond our interview partners, who entrusted us with their life stories, to the audiences, who engage with our analyses. I furthermore reevaluated using research to advocate for disenfranchised participants and argued for transparency and reflexivity regarding how our subject positions impact knowledge construction.


rule-based ethics, life-history interviews, privacy, informed consent, truth and trust

Author Bio(s)

I am an Associate Professor of German at Wayne State University. The ideas for the submitted article manuscript emerged in the context of conducting and analyzing the qualitative interviews for my second book project tentatively titled Being German in Israel: Life Histories Between Interethnic Migration, Religious Conversion, and Holocaust Memory as I sought to solve a wide range of ethical dilemmas, most importantly my sense of betraying the trust of my interviewees by critically analyzing the interviews. Please direct correspondence to rothe@wayne.edu.


I would like to thank the editor and reviewers, especially Dan Wulff, for allowing me to share my ideas. Though interdisciplinarity is widely advocated, publishing across disciplinary boundaries requires open minds who look for rather than bar ideas that don’t fit the mold. Dan, your insightful and genuinely constructive comments allowed me to rethink my original ideas and make this a much better article. Thank you!

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