Respondents’ Understandings Illusory

Anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, knows that respondents (he calls them “informants”) are extremely limited in their ability to tell us what’s really going on.  Informants’ accounts of their society’s institutions, he points out, are rationalizations and reinterpretations and must not be confused with the actual social organization.  Respondents’ understandings of their society may be illusory and not correspond to reality.  Here are a few comments on this point from Chapters VII and VIII of Structural Anthropology:

“description[s] of indigenous institutions given by. . . . native informants. . . . [are] “a transmutation of reality; itself of an entirely different nature. . . . [and] often illusory.”

“Field-workers. . . . are always in danger of confusing the natives’ theories about their social organization . . . with the actual functioning of the society. . . . The sociological representations of the natives are not merely a part or reflection of their social organization.  The natives may, just as in more advanced societies [emphasis added], be unaware of certain elements of it, or contradict it completely.”

Respondents are not a reliable source of information, so if you want to find out what’s really going on, Don’t Ask!–that’s the theme of my book, The Problem with Survey Research.

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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