In one of my first posts on Savage Minds I discussed the convention of using a “man in the street” interview in journalism. Two recent Mark Liberman posts on Language Log raise more general questions about the use of interviews as data. In “Ritual questions, ritual answers,” he argues that
The journalists already know what the stories are. Their questions are not designed to discover any new facts or ideas, but rather to get quotes that will fit in to designated places in the frameworks of logic and rhetoric that they have already erected.
And in “Down with journalists!” he reinforces this argument with a funny example in which a French journalist finds himself the victim of this very practice.
We all know that this happens, just as we know that these quotes often server little more than a ritual function, but what can we do about it?
One option is to make the source data – the interviews themselves – available to download. In fact, such “grey literature” may eventually become available as part of AnthroSource, but it will not be easy. For one thing, there are confidentiality concerns. How do we make our data publicly available while still protecting our sources? It is possible to do – but it would create a huge burden on researchers. In essence, one might be punished for being a good researcher and collecting large amounts of data, because then you would have to carefully censure much more data to make sure it is safe for public consumption.
Making such data available online is not something that is without precedent in the field. Johannes Fabian’s book Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire is very much a collaboration with his informant, the artist Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. The full interviews are available online, as part of the Archives of Popular Swahili website (which, in turn, is part of the Language and Popular Culture in Africa website). Now, this is somewhat different in that Tshibumba Kanda Matulu is an internationally famous artist, who is anything but an anonymous informant, and the book is constructed in such a way that his discourse is allowed to challenge Fabian’s authorial authority.
Such a model may not work for all ethnographies and all situations, but it will be interesting to see what happens as more and more primary anthropological data becomes available online. Will anthropologists creatively re-mix each other’s data? Will informants salvage their message from the grand narratives of the anthropologists? Will computational methodologies and google allow for the work to be analyzed in new ways? Or will anthropologists resist to the bitter end in the name of protecting their informants … even when they might just be protecting their own reputations? Which isn’t to say that confidentiality isn’t a real concern – just that we should think twice before ducking for cover.
NOTE: My thinking on this topic dates back to an e-mail exchange I had with Mark Liberman last year about the topic of posting primary data online.