Vox Populi

Do you remember the story of Greg Packer? In 2003 Ann Coulter suggested that the New York Times had made him up because she found over a hundred posts where he was quoted “as a random member of the public.” Well, it turned out that he is in fact a real person, and that getting quoted by the press is his hobby. NPR’s show On the Media interviewed him this past weekend, and he still seems to be doing the same thing, despite a memo by the Associated Press management telling their reporters to avoid him.

It made me think about ethnographic Greg Packers. Like reporters, anthropologists often end up speaking to those informants who like speaking to us. I know that some of my informants have since ended up meeting other anthropologists working in the area, although I don’t know if they ended up in their dissertations or not. I have also twice had the experience of suddenly recognizing the description of another anthropologist’s informant as a mutual friend. (Taiwan is a small island with lots of anthropologists!)

I have never much cared for the use of vox populi in journalism. Not because I devalue the opinion of the “man [or woman] on the street” – far from it; but because such sound bites are merely a ritual which serves to lend an aura of authenticity to the journalists report. There is no denying that it often functions in much the same way in anthropology. This isn’t to deny the validity of the whole ethnographic enterprise, like good reporting, good ethnography brings you inside a whole community and doesn’t just rely on sound bites. I’m more interested in it as a general phenomena. Because anthropological sources are usually pseudonymous, it isn’t possible to trace our Greg Packers across ethnographies, so we’ll never know how many of them there are.

3 thoughts on “Vox Populi

  1. Interesting. One of the first things that happened during my M.A. fieldwork with the Cree in James Bay was that people recommended I talk to this so-and-so and that so-and-so. And it so happened that these so-and-sos were names that I had heard before! I had heard them, for instance, from another grad student who had been in the same community the year before. According to him, these so-and-sos actually had files where they kept record of all the interviews they had given to anthropologists, sociologists and so forth that had visited their community in the past two decades.

    I reckoned that if I didn’t want the “same old stuff”, I should talk to different people. This coincided with my principle of allowing multiple voices to be heard. So what did I do? I talked to the very people that I was warned not to talk to: “the drunks”. I have a whole chapter in my M.A. thesis that describes my encounters with the drunks (self-proclaimed, by the way) and how, in the end, this allowed me to gain access to social circles to which even my hosts, fairly wealthy and reknown members of their community, had no access. My willingness to converse with drunks and other outcasts of Cree society added a richness to my fieldwork that I am convinced I would not have attained had I only spoken to the above-mentioned so-and-sos.

  2. No doubt it showed the folks that you were real, Nancy. I got to spend a couple of weeks drinking with winos at Standing Rock some years ago before I got rehabbed. I always liked the esteem they held from the community as examples for the young on what not to become and as reminders of the meager prosperity people did have. The cops were always gentle with them when they passed out on a road or got to spooking certain people.When I told the crew I had been boozing with that I was moving on, one of them asked, ” you’re going to leave all of this?” and he pointed to some kids playing nearby.We had gotten drunk and passed out in an abandoned car the night before. I always regret not learning where they spent their days during the cold winters in North Dakota but I would imagine in real cold weather they moved back in with some family members, then did a voluntary exile the next spring.

  3. A simple observation on armchair anthropologists – they may be free of schoolhouse bias by not questioning themselves over their objectivity and editing observations ex post facto

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