When an individual's life is the subject of biographical research, it is because the person in question is a figure of public interest or is important from the research angle in terms of what they have achieved or represent. A considerable proportion of such research is published as individual biographies but also in the case of other research goals a wider understanding of individual actors can play a role in the interpretation of a course of action or context of meaning.
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Regardless of the final goal, biographical research involves in-depth scrutiny of the lives and work of individuals that will often uncover aspects that belong to the private sphere, and neither they themselves nor their next of kin would wish these made public. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate to call attention to these aspects if they provide knowledge about the person in focus that is of significance for the research goals. As in other ethical deliberations, respect for privacy must also be weighed against the importance the research will have for the acquisition of knowledge.
Many of the ethical challenges faced by the biographer rest in precisely this balance between respect for the person's standing and posthumous reputation on the one hand and the acquisition of knowledge that is relevant to research and the public interest on the other. These topics are continually debated in connection with how some biographies are received by the public as well as in academic debates on principles. In recent decades the trend has been towards less restraint about private and compromising aspects of the subject's life. This applies in particular to popular biographies that are written with a wider audience in mind.
In recent years, discussions about ethical obligations related to the biography have moved into a grey area between the academic biography and the journalistic type. The question of whether there should also be ethical guidelines for ordinary subject literature has been raised in several contexts, for example in connection with books published in the wake of the terrorist acts in Norway on 22 July 2011. With the growing trend towards a documentary approach in fictional literature, ethical issues have received much greater attention in literary criticism, as in the case of Karl Ove Knausgård's autobiographical series of novels, My Struggle 2009–2011.
On the other hand there is increased tolerance for introducing private affairs into the academic biography genre. This development partly relates to the growing acceptance of private matters that were earlier regarded as shameful, for example disease, or sexuality outside marriage. But it is also related to some extent to a changed view of the historical actor and of the divide between the private and public sphere. In academic biographies, greater significance is also attributed now to private life when it comes to activities in the public sphere.
Norms and deviations, private and public
What is the limit for what a biographer should not write about? How far should the biographer accommodate the requirement of consent from the subject of the biography or their next of kin? An assessment of where the boundaries lie and what considerations should be taken must be weighed against the importance of the knowledge that is acquired. From experience the most sensitive topics in biographical research have been linked to various kinds of breaches of norms related to sexuality, disease and deceit. What is regarded as normal is generally included, even though it is deemed to be private. Often the biographer has a basic understanding that what is private has connotations to compromising, inappropriate and unimportant aspects. The family background and the role of parents are not regarded as overly private. Sport, outdoor activities and friendship are included as a rule. If the subject of the biography is a man, his male friendships and network are regarded as relevant and do not encroach on the boundaries of private life, while family life, sexuality and the female support network are often overlooked and defined as being overly private.
Every biographer must assess where these boundaries are to be drawn. On the one hand there should be solid reasons for revealing private or compromising relationships that may offend or harm a person or their next of kin. Portraying people with whom the biographer has or has had an intimate and confidential relationship is a difficult balance, not least when it comes to those who are not/are no longer capable of giving their own version coherently. Consideration must be paid to the subject's privacy and to their posthumous reputation, and to third parties as in the case of close family members. On the other hand there may be wide societal interest in gaining more knowledge about certain individuals and their role in history. Researchers must assess the importance and relevance of the themes they focus on in light of the damage they may inflict on the subject of the biography and that person's close family.
A key question for the biographer in this respect must be the purpose served by including private life or compromising information. Will focusing on these themes give a wider picture and increased understanding of the subject and their role? Is this relevant to the central theme of the biography and the main narrative? Does it promote understanding of actions or choices that are of importance to the theme?
Should the researcher also assess the public's right to information in this connection? Is there public interest in the subject of the biography? A person with power will as a rule attract more public interest than a person without power and must therefore accept a greater degree of publicity. By the same token it is also a question of what should be judged as interesting in the case of a person with power. Satisfying public curiosity is not a sufficient reason for addressing a topic. Moreover those without power may attract the interest of the researcher, not least because they may represent a counter-narrative to the harmonised accounts of posterity or correct the established canon of knowledge. Artists who were unsuccessful in their own time may be interesting historically precisely for this reason. Thus compromising breaches of the norm may also represent key contributions to understanding.
A particularly challenging issue is the relationship of trust between the biographer and whoever owns the archives that are to be used. When making use of a personal archive, the biographer must show reasonable consideration for the creator of the archive, or if the creator of the archive is deceased, its owner. A public archive is simplest to use because the requirements for the researcher and the conditions for using the archive will be formalised; this will also apply to the conditions formulated by the creator of the archive and their next of kin. Access to archives in private ownership will be more based on the trust created between the biographer and the archive owner. Biographers should consider the conditions they (explicitly or implicitly) can accept when access is granted. It is often better to be explicit and open at the initial phase than to come into conflict with the family later on. At the same time researchers must also assess the limit for the conditions they can accept.
This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jennifer Follestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.
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