Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 423–430

The complexity of ignorance

  • Robert F. Belli
  • Howard Schuman
Research Note

DOI: 10.1007/BF02393279

Cite this article as:
Belli, R.F. & Schuman, H. Qual Sociol (1996) 19: 423. doi:10.1007/BF02393279


We examine the kinds of mistakes that are frequently made when the general public is asked to identify political symbols from the past half century. A particularly striking phenomenon is inversion: the event is recalled backwards, so that Rosa Parks is remembered for having given up her seat on a bus to a white person. A second type of error occurs by linking a name to the wrong person, as when John Dean is identified as a movie actor (James Dean). Still another type of mistake involves a correct substantive categorization but with temporal displacement, for example, the Tet Offensive is said to have occurred during the Korean War. In each of these cases we are able to speculate about the social and psychological processes that have led to the misremembering. However, not every error is lodged in respondents: we initially treated as incorrect all answers that did not fit our own expectations; but we were soon forced to recognize that other frames of reference could be brought to the task and lay equal claim to the truth.

Key words

collective memoryknowledgesurveysmethods

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert F. Belli
  • Howard Schuman
    • 1
  1. 1.Phippsburg