When Off-the-Record Takes Over: Research Ethics under Authoritarianism

By Çiçek İlengiz

The question of what is and what to do with material that is off-the-record has been occupying social scientists to some extent. The discussion in anthropology has been mainly on developing strategies for protecting interlocutors through anonymization.[1] While in feminist anthropology the positionality of the researcher has been extensively questioned,[2] in oral historical research the silence of researchers’ own engagement with their researched topics and their knowledge production processes  have also been categorized as “off the record” material.[3] This blogpost is an attempt to make sense of the changing features of what falls into the category of “off the record” in my own research journey. It centers around the question of how to produce knowledge in cases where a wide range of information falls into the category of “off the record.”

Since 2013, I have been conducting ethnographic and oral historical research on the politics of emotions, collective memory and heritage in different cities and sites of what is today Turkey. In my previous research (between 2014–2018) on the relationship between radical political imaginations and spiritual cosmologies in Dersim where the Kurdish-Alevi ethno-religious minority of Turkey constitutes the majority of the population, my efforts to anonymize the interview material were widely rejected and in some cases even considered offensive. Members of political organizations, as well as those who choose to be unaffiliated with organized politics, preferred to be mentioned with their real names – despite systematic state violence taking the form of arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and everyday harassment. Refusing anonymization meant in that context to claim one’s labor and place in the political field. In a context where forgetting is sustained through the politics of denial[4] that (also) entails systematic destruction of political opposition as well as archives, owning one’s words publicly is part of the active struggle to sustain what is attempted to be annihilated.

My current research project “Inheriting Anatolia: Representation, Knowledge Production and Imagination” focuses on the ways in which the debates on restitution reshape the field of heritage in contemporary Turkey. One of the case studies I dwell on is that of the ancient site of Pergamon, which was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 2014. The artifacts from Pergamon constitute the highlights of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin – such as the Pergamon Altar, which was acquired by the museum during the excavations conducted by German archeologists in Bergama, which started officially in 1878. Since Turkey is the legal inheritor of the Ottoman Empire and was officially never colonized, the discussions on the legality of ownership posit some peculiarities in comparison to those on formerly colonized countries. To be more concrete, the “discovery” of the archeological artifacts in the ancient site of Pergamon by the German engineers was a “side effect” of the German railroad construction in the area. The excavations and the transportation of the artifacts from Pergamon to Berlin happened during a time period when the Ottoman Empire was widely considered to be “the sick man of Europe.” The caricature that was published in the British satire magazine Punch in 1896 (fig. 1), illustrates the widely circulated image of a disempowered Ottoman Empire, with its survival being dependent on external resources.

Figure 1. Punch: The London Charivari November 28, 1896. [5]

While the official permits for the excavations were given in 1878, the anxieties surrounding the Ottoman law making practices to protect the artifacts against smuggling,[6] puts forward that what was legally owned and what was smuggled in the late Ottoman period was not clear cut. The basis of the discussions over legal ownership became more puzzling following the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s request for the restitution of the Pergamon Altar in 2013. In response to the restitution request, Hermann Parzinger (the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin) declared that cultural heritage “is the last thing they think about, […] they have no idea what they’re doing […], so we’ll take care of them instead for the sake of the common good.”[7] In the same statement, Parzinger also framed the new policy of the Turkish government to refuse loan requests to museums that reject Turkey’s claims for antiquities and to withdraw permits for international archeologists to work on Turkish sites until the Pergamon Museum returns the demanded items as “nearly chauvinistic.” Remembering that the Zeus Altar was severely damaged during World War II in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where it was put to be protected from “ignorance” and “abandonment,” the situation illustrates one of the ironies of the preservation paradigm that is put forward by Parzinger (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Photograph depicting the destroyed Zeus Altar in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, 1949.[8]

The above is just a brief example of the ways in which restitution demands for several artifacts raised by the Turkish government have fueled heated debates on “what belongs to whom and under which conditions,” and have simultaneously opened a new ground to reinscribe civilizational narratives onto the politics of heritage. Against this backdrop, my research aims to answer the following three questions:

1-) How has the notion of ownership been constructed in the legal sphere, when the artifacts were taken from Bergama to Berlin by both Ottoman and German officials?

2-) How is ownership legally defended by the Turkish and German counterparts today? 

3-) What kind of imaginations of inheritance are cultivated by the actors in the field of heritage?

Centered on these three questions, conceptually my project aspires to connect the notions of heritage and inheritance by illustrating the links between what is considered public and private. To say otherwise, I am interested in grasping how what is supposedly belonging to everyone (world heritage) is legally, discursively and materially treated as inheritance. To do so, I look at the legal construction of ownership as well as the ways in which visitors, guides, local and national heritage institutions are becoming part of knowledge production on heritage.

I started my fieldwork by conducting interviews with representatives of cultural institutions, guides, archeologists and producers of teaching materials on world heritage sites in Turkey. What I found striking during the interviews, was the repeated request for off the record remarks. Like many other research projects funded within the European Union, in the ethics guideline that European Research Council projects need to follow, there is a requirement of preparing a consent form that informs interlocutors about the project and their rights. In that consent form we indicated the option of “off the record” conversations and I assured the interlocutors about the option before we started the interview. While the option of “off the record” conversations opened up the possibility to build a trust based encounter, the wide range of information that fell under the “off the record” category has left me with certain questions.

For instance, during an unrecorded conversation with colleagues about the recent policies of the Ministry of Culture an off the record remark popped up. What followed the sentence “by the way, I am saying this off the record,” is that the Turkish Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (Türk Arkeoloji ve Kültürel Miras Enstitüsü) – founded by people from the close circle of the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – publishes prestige books that used to be published by the Ministry of Culture with the support of European Union funding. What does it mean to disclose such a piece of information as “off the record” during an unrecorded conversation? On the official website of the institute, the Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and the Metropolitan Mayor of Gaziantep Fatma Şahin appear on the first line of a long list of founders.[9] The EU funding financing the Institute is mentioned on the official website very clearly with the presence of the EU logo. In this particular case, the request for an off the record remark was meant to direct me as a researcher to examine the money flow structuring the current government’s ambition to build hegemony in the field of culture, which remains the last resort that is not fully under the control of the Turkish government.[10]

My second example picks up on the aggressive strategies of the Anti-Smuggling Bureau that is under the authority of the Directorate General of Foundations (Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü), itself connected to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey. This time I was having an informal and unrecorded conversation with another colleague in preparation for a potential interview about the changing politics of restitution. At some point they said: “By the way, this is off the record: there is a restitution office within the Ministry of Culture, they exclusively focus on the return of looted artifacts and they are proud of their aggressive work style.” What does it mean to share this information off the record – while what is referred to as a “restitution office” is officially called the “Anti-Smuggling and Preservation Bureau” and its work is partially reported on the official website?[11] The aggressive work style is not a secret either; it was reffered to by Parzinger as “nearly chauvanistic” in the German media, when the work permits of German archeologists faced the danger of being revoked in response to the German government’s rejection of the restitution demand for the Zeus Altar.[12]

In the two cases described above, the type of information that was requested to remain off the record is not of a kind that would break a silence by revealing a denied truth. On the contrary, the information is well known not only by those in the field of culture but also by a wider public. I think that the request for off the record in these examples voices the wish for these pieces of information to be part of knowledge production, without being attributable to the individual interlocutors. The requests of remaining unattributable refer to the blurry zone between what is publicly safe to voice and what is not. More significantly, they bring with them a division of labor where the researcher is put in the position to choose between two options: To leave out what is off the record in order not to take the risk that the interlocutors are attempting to avoid – or to be in the position of taking the risk that others do not want to take. Thus, the question that researchers are left with in such a setting is the following: What does it mean for the processes of knowledge production to do research in times of sharpening authoritarianism?

Although authoritarianism structures the modes of contemporary knowledge production significantly, as researchers struggling within authoritarian settings we lack the necessary discussion on possible ways of creating ethical research encounters and ethical practices of knowledge making in the contemporary world. The book Research, Ethics and the Risk in the Authoritarian Field is one of the more recent attempts to expand on the practicalities of conducting fieldwork under authoritarian regimes. The short section of this book that is reserved to discuss off the record material, mainly puts forward as a priority to protect research collaborators and to look for ways to acknowledge the fact that every research encounter (including off the record ones) affects the way the researcher sees their field.[13] The fact that what is heard remains with the researcher independently from being mentioned (whether that be on or off the record) and becomes part of the ways of seeing and analyzing the field, is crucial to acknowledge – especially in times when off the record remarks take over the interview. So far, what I have found practically meaningful for my own research is to ask permission to contact the interlocutors after the interview, in case I attempt to make the off the record remark part of the background information after a prudent process of anonymization. I think it is necessary to check in with the interlocutors about the quality of the anonymization process – since sometimes what seems anonymous from the researcher’s point of view might not be as anonymous for those that are part of the field.

What lies at the heart of the abundance of off the record remarks is firstly an attempt to deal with the risk of living under authoritarian regimes. What is considered to be a risk at what time remains as arbitrary as possible and is a fundemental constitutent of an authoritarian field. Therefore, the effort to secure oneself under authoritarianism needs to be considered as a part of everyday life. Secondly, the taking over of off the record remarks also points out the changing nature of what is considered information. In the social sciences, information has been conceptualized as bound to specific sources. In ethnographic work, it thus creates a rupture when the sources of information are becoming more and more non-attributable. This rupture makes the experiential knowledge of the everyday increasingly inaccessible. For instance, in the framework of this piece, to give an account of the agressive restitution policies enacted by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, I have only been able to use the information that has already been published in newspapers. The everyday experience of these policies needs to be kept off the record due to the arbitrary use/abuse of power under the current regime in Turkey. While anonymization remains the key tool to  establish the ground for ethical encounters in the field, dealing with the possible risks remains a presence with the researcher in different phases (and different shapes) of knowledge production. In the writing process, the researcher is left with the question: “what does it mean to take the risk that the interlocutors either choose to take (by disclosing their criminalized political affiliations, as is the case in my previous research) or to avoid taking (by keeping it off the record)?” In the publishing phase, “risk” becomes more of a market related issue. “What does it mean to take or to not take risk for a researcher who is part of an academic infrastructure that fethisizes risk taking by opening separate tracks for scholars at risk and makes high risk/high gain an important evaluation criterion of big funding schemes?”[14] It seems that the notion of risk requires qualified attention, since its reality has been established in various levels of knowledge production – starting from the earliest research encounter to finding one’s place in the job market.


[1] McGranahan, Carole. 2021. “The Truths of Anonymity: Ethnographic Credibility and the Problem with Pseudonyms.” In “Rethinking Pseudonyms in Ethnography,” edited by Carole McGranahan and Erica Weiss, American Ethnologist website, 13 December 2021, https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/rethinking-pseudonyms-in-ethnography/the-truths-of-anonymity-ethnographic-credibility-and-the-problem-with-pseudonyms (Accessed 9 August 2023)

[2] Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.

[3] Sheftel, Anna, and Stacey Zembrzycki, eds. 2013. Oral history off the record: toward an ethnography of practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] On the spatially ascribed politics of denial in the region see İlengiz, Çiçek. (2022). The aesthetics of open-ended mourning: The statue of a holy-madman in Dersim, Turkey. Journal of Material Culture, 27(4), 396–413. https://doi.org/10.1177/13591835221132494.

[5] The caricature illustrates Sultan Abdul Hamid II looking at a poster that announces the reorganisation of the Ottoman Empire. Russia, France and England are shown as the directors of the Empire’s reorganization that is considered to worth 5 million pounds. The Sultan reacts to the poster as following: “Bismillah, For God’s sake! Make me into a limited company? M’M – AH – I suppose they’ll allow me to join the board after allotment.” Open Source, Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Punch_magazine_-_Turkey_Ltd_-_1896.jpg

[6] Eldem, Edhem. 2011. “From blissful indifference to anguished concern: Ottoman perceptions of antiquities, 1799-1869.”  in Scramble for the past: a story of archaeology in the Ottoman Empire 1753 -1914, eds. Bahrani, Zainab, Zeynep Çelik & Edhem Eldem, Istanbul: SALT, pp 281-329.

[7] Evers, Marco & Knöfel, Ulrike. March 2013. “Ankara Demands Artifacts from Berlin.” Spiegel. Available online:

https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/dispute-heats-up-between-germany-and-turkey-over-contested-artifacts-a-888398.html (Accessed 9 August 2023).

[8] ZA 2.2./08418, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv, Fotosammlung.  Available Online: https://id.smb.museum/object/1750415/blick-auf-den-zerst%C3%B6rten-pergamonaltar-im-pergamonmuseum

[9] The Founders of the Turkish Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage https://turkarkeolojienstitusu.org/en/uye_kategorisi/kurucular-en/.

[10] Bora, Tanıl. “Hafızayı Planlamak ve Heykelleștirmek” in Hafıza ve Sanat Konușmaları 2020 (eds) Ertürk, Eylem & Sevim Sancaktar. Hafiza Merkezi. 77-90. Aavailable Online https://hafizavesanat.hakikatadalethafiza.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Hafiza-ve-Sanat-Konus%CC%A7malari-2020.pdf (Accessed 9 August 2023).

[11] T.C. Kultur ve Turizm Bakanligi, Kaçakçılığın Önlenmesi İle İlgili Faaliyetler, Yurt Dışından İadesi Sağlanan Eserler https://kvmgm.ktb.gov.tr/TR-44470/yurt-disindan-iadesi-saglanan-eserler.html.

[12] Evers, Marco & Knöfel, Ulrike. March 2013. “Ankara Demands Artifacts from Berlin.” Spiegel. Available online: https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/dispute-heats-up-between-germany-and-turkey-over-contested-artifacts-a-888398.html

[13] Glasius, Marlies, Meta de Lange, Jos Bartman, Emanuela Dalmasso, Aofei Lv, Adele Del Sordi, Marcus Michaelsen, and Kris Ruijgrok 2018. Research, ethics and risk in the authoritarian field. Springer Nature, 105-106. Accessible online: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-68966-1

[14] The European Research Council’s evalution criteria are a good example illustrating the significance of “high risk” in sucessful applications. What is called “high risk/high gain” corresponds to the “higher probability of producing breakthrough results.” ERC, 2019. Qualitative Evaluation of Completed Projects funded by the European Research Council, 10. Accessible online. https://erc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/document/file/2020-qualitative-evaluation-projects.pdf (Accessed 9 August 2023).

About the author

Çiçek İlengiz works at the intersection of memory studies, the politics of emotions and critical heritage studies. In January 2023, she joined the research project BEYONDREST as a postdoctoral researcher working on her research project “Inheriting Anatolia: Representation, Knowledge Production and Imagination”. For more information, see her profile.

This article is part of the BEYONDREST blog series Beyond Guidelines: The Question of Ethics in Transregional Research and Knowledge Production. BEYONDREST is a five-year research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 101045661), hosted by the Forum Transregionale Studien (Forum), and related to EUME.

Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

Other Recent Articles in the TRAFO Series ‘Beyond Guidelines’

Birgit Meyer, Doing Research Under Current Ethics Regimes: Some Observations, 8 February 2024

Banu Karaca, Introducing “Beyond Guidelines”: Navigating Mismatched Expectations between Research Ethics and Institutional Ethics Regimes, 18 January 2024

Citation: Çiçek İlengiz, When Off-the-Record Takes Over: Research Ethics under Authoritarianism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.02.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50586

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 29. Februar). When Off-the-Record Takes Over: Research Ethics under Authoritarianism. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50586

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 22. März 2024

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