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Informants Sometimes Lie

Don’t be surprised if informants lie to you. Jeffrey Johnson, a skilled boat builder, worked in an Alaskan boatyard as part of his field study of a fishing community. At one point in his fieldwork, two other ethnographers showed up, both women, to conduct some interviews with the men in the boatyard. ‘‘The two anthropologists had no idea I was one of them,” Johnson reports,

since I was dressed in carpenter’s overalls, with all the official paraphernalia—hammer, tape measure, etc. I was sufficiently close to overhear the interview and, knowing the men being interviewed, recognized quite a few blatant lies. In fact, during the course of one interview, a captain would occasionally wink at me as he told a whopper of a lie. (personal communication)

This is not an isolated incident. A Comox Indian woman spent 2 hours narrating a text for Franz Boas. The text turned out to be nothing but a string of questions and answers. Boas didn’t speak Comox well enough to know that he was being duped, but when he found out he noted it in his diary (Rohner 1969:61). And Margaret Mead’s adolescent informants probably lied to her about their sex lives—more about that in chapter 12.

In 1938, Melville Herskovits published his massive, two-volume work on the ancient West African kingdom of Dahomey (today Benin). According to Herskovits, there was an annual census and the data from these efforts were used in administering the state. The counting involved the delivery of sacks of pebbles from around the kingdom to the palace at Abomey, with each pebble representing a person. Roger Sandall (1999) has shown that the informant who told Herskovits about this elaborate accounting system may have made it all up.

This sort of thing can happen to anyone who does participant observation ethnography, but some cultures are more tolerant of lying than are others. Nachman (1984) found that the most articulate informants among the Nissan of New Guinea were great truth tellers and accomplished liars at the same time. Among the Nissan, says Nachman, people expect big men to give speeches and to ‘‘manipulate others and to create socially accept?able meanings,’’ even if that means telling outright lies (Nachman 1984:552 and see Sala- mone 1977).

 
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