The complexity of ignorance

Robert E. Belli, Howard Schuman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-430
Number of pages8
JournalQualitative Sociology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Collective memory
  • Knowledge
  • Methods
  • Surveys

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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