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.