Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has produced some fascinating commentary and analysis surrounding the Jonah Lehrer affair, and the role played by fake quotes (i.e., language use) in his downfall. Liberman raises issues of representation, integrity, and judgment by others, and how all that plays into how we assess writerly intent and whether “quotes” from informants are close enough to “the truth.” He points out how other writers have gotten away with the same sort of misrepresentation and fabrication as Jonah Lehrer, yet still remain on the staff of The New Yorker (Janet Malcolm) or never had their writing repudiated (Jared Diamond, yes, that Jared Diamond) in the same way.
I bring attention to these posts because they raise a common issue that inevitably appears in ethnography, in writing about a specific place and time. When we use direct quotes from people in the field, are they really “direct quotes”? And how much does it matter if “direct quotes” aren’t actually a verbatim representation? Is “substantive content” enough, as the law suit discussed by Liberman indicates?
The two posts are:
As Liberman points out, the experience of not getting quoted right by journalists is pretty typical. So, how much is that a problem?
In the first essay, Liberman highlights judgments of “substantive content” rather than literal representation as key to what US law has determined in cases like these. Here are some relevant pieces from the US Court of Appeals in the Malcolm/Masson case:
Malcolm quoted Masson as stating that he changed his middle name from Lloyd to Moussaieff because “it sounded better.” This statement does not appear in tape-recorded interviews. On the tape recordings, Masson states that he changed his middle name to Moussaieff because, inter alia, he “just liked it”…
We agree with the district court’s observation. We cannot perceive any substantive difference between the phrases “it sounded better” and “[I] just liked it.” Thus, although Malcolm did not quote Masson verbatum, the words attributed to him did not alter the substantive content of his statement…
We believe that the district court accurately assessed Malcolm’s interpretation of Masson’s characterization of the views of Eissler and Anna Freud. While it may be true that Masson did not use the words “intellectual gigolo,” Malcolm’s interpretation did not alter the substantive content of Masson’s description of himself as a “private asset but a public liability” to Eissler and Anna Freud.
Thus, the ruling in this case appears to give considerable leeway in how we interpret other people’s language, as long as we aim for “the substantive content.” For ethnography, often written years after, drawing many times on informal interaction, do writers get the same leeway? My sense is that yes, many anthropologists do the same.
In discussing Jared Diamond and the lawsuit brought against him and The New Yorker for how he portrayed people in Papua New Guinea, the issues do take on considerable urgency. Diamond is quoting informants and presenting ethnographic materials to drive an argument forward. Many anthropologists might not like it, but certainly he is engaging in a basic trait of the field – reasoning from ethnographic material, and trying to answer questions that emerge during fieldwork.
In the piece on Diamond, Liberman examines how different “academic language” is from natural language. I think the same point can be made about most any writing that involves dialogue – we smooth out what was really said, we cut extraneous sounds and phrases, we massage the grammar, we choose to start or end with dramatic quotes to fit our own narrative, and so forth. When does this become a problem?
Liberman draws on Douglas Biber’s comparison of direct quotes from Diamond’s informant and what is known statistically from analysis of recordings of real-life conversations. Liberman quotes Biber:
Quantitative analyses of the New Yorker quotes and the Daniel Wemp (DW) transcripts were carried out, to identify grammatical features that were frequent or rare.
Then, those quantitative findings were compared to previous large-scale corpus analyses of conversation and academic writing, to determine whether the New Yorker quotes were typical of the language normally used in conversation. The results were surprising: in many respects, the New Yorker quotes are much more similar to the language typically used in academic writing than to normal conversation.
How big a deal is this? How big a deal is it that academics write like academics, even when we are representing what other people said? What leeway do we get as writers to try for “substantive content” over literal representation?
I found Liberman’s whole discussion fascinating as I write now on my own life as a young man and then an academic, on my research in Colombia and my training in graduate school. I often find myself considering this question, did someone really say that? The words might sound like what I remember, and aim for “substantive content” that matches with what I know of that person. But is it really “the truth”? And how much does that matter?
Liberman gets at these conflicting dimensions in his ending on the Lehrer affair:
My conclusion? When you see a passage in quotation marks in a New Yorker article, you should not expect it to be a truthful representation of anything that the alleged speaker ever actually said. Rather, you should take it as the author’s expression of what they want you to believe that the speaker meant.
In some cases, these unquotations are “poetically true”, that is, they give an insightful impression of the speaker’s feelings and attitudes, although the writer knows that the words are not original. In other cases, the unquotations are an honest misrepresentation, in the sense that they’re genuinely what the author understood (or at least, remembers) the speaker to have meant to say. And sometimes, the unquotations are completely fictional, in the sense that the author doesn’t care at all what the alleged speaker either said or meant, but puts words in their mouth in order to advance the narrative.
So, what are your conclusions and thoughts about how writers, ethnographers included, tackle the words of others in their own writing?