In 1913, the moral reformer Madeline Doty, under the alias “Maggie Martin,” entered Auburn Correctional Facility in New York to investigate its conditions. The “friendship” she struck up there with a woman named Minerva Jones subsequently became the basis of her book Society’s Misfits (1916). Written in an age before the ethics of ethnographic research had been codified, the book raises ethical questions for the historian writing about the feelings of a person who has not consented to be written about—indeed, who actively sought to retain her anonymity.
This paper will interweave that historical case with my own recent experience of creating an oral history of friendships in a community of women who later came to regret their participation and requested that their interviews be retracted. How do historians of emotion, who work with some of our most intimate and exposing stories, and endlessly risk forms of projection and over-interpretation, manage ethical boundaries?
Tiffany Watt Smith is Reader in Cultural History at Queen Mary, University of London. She studied philosophy and English at the University of Cambridge. She worked as a theatre director for ten years, before returning to the University of Cambridge to take an MPhil in Criticism and Culture, and then moving to Queen Mary UL for her Ph.D. research jointly supervised by Prof. Thomas Dixon. In 2015 she joined the School of English and Drama as a lecturer. Between 2020-2022, she was director of the Centre for the History of Emotions, before taking a period of leave to work on her forthcoming book Bad Friends (due to be published 2025; UK Faber; US Macmillan). Her research focuses on the histories of emotions and gestures, particularly overlooked and marginal affects such as flinching, laughter, boredom, and Schadenfreude, as well changing beliefs about emotional contagion. She has an interest in the cultural history of sleep, for which she was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2019. Recent books: Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune (2018); The Book of Human Emotions (2014); and On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock (2014).