This article offers a survey of the past fifty years’ literature on oral history and ethics, arguing that oral historians’ approaches to ethics have emerged from two major fears: the fear of failing as researchers and the fear of failing our narrators and doing harm. These professional and personal fears have evolved through three distinct but overlapping phases: postwar positivism, the subjective turn, and contemporary interdisciplinarity. Confronting them makes it possible to understand the complex questions behind oral historians’ preoccupations. This sheds light on how oral history has evolved and expanded as a field, and what we hope it can and will achieve.

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