Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 423–430

The complexity of ignorance

  • Robert F. Belli
  • Howard Schuman
Research Note

Abstract

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 memory knowledge surveys methods 

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References

  1. Bartlett, F. C. 1932.Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Belli, Robert F., Howard Schuman, Steven Blixt, & Benita Jackson. “The Misremembering of Important Past Events.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, May, 1995.Google Scholar
  3. Halbwachs, Maurice. [1950] 1980.The Collective Memory. New York: Harper.Google Scholar
  4. Schuman, Howard, Robert F. Belli, & Katherine Bischoping. (forthcoming) “The Generational Basis of Knowledge.” In J. W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, & B. Rime.Collective Memories of Political Events: Social Psychological Perspectives. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  5. Schuman, Howard, and Jacqueline Scott. 1989. “Generations and Collective Memories.”American Sociological Review. 54: 359–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc 1996

Authors and Affiliations

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

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