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CITATION: Freeman, Linton C., A. Kimball Romney, and Sue C. Freeman. 1987. "Cognitive Structure and Informant Accuracy." American Anthropologist 89: 310-325.

AUTHOR_1: Linton C. Freeman
AUTHOR_2: A. Kimball Romney
AUTHOR_3: Sue C. Freeman
YEAR: 1987
TITLE: Cognitive Structure and Informant Accuracy
SOURCE: Journal
SOURCE_TITLE: American Anthropologist

SUMMARY: The authors of this article conducted a number of memory experiments. They then applied five theories about memory from the cognitive sciences to their results and came up with five hypotheses to support their data collection. Finally, the authors surveyed the most productive informants, in what they referred to as a top-down approach. The results indicated that informants’ memory of others is strongly inaccurate; however, over the long term, the patterns indicated by their recollections are more accurate.

This article is a further response to the debate in the literature begun with the publishing of the results of the first of the “BKS” studies, which showed a very poor correspondence between actual behavior (the of various individuals at an event) and respondents’ subsequent reports of who was in attendance. In both the BKS studies and the present study, respondents are consistently found to make both errors of omission (forgetting others who were in attendance) and commission (falsely remembering others who were not in attendance). Far from suggesting that these finding call into question the basic usage of self-reports, the authors here suggest that perfect recall of events should not necessarily be the target of sociological investigations. Rather, an emphasis on the identification of long-term trends and patterns of behavior (stable social structures) offers a more favorable evaluation of existing methods. In order to support this alternative view, the authors integrate five principles of information organization and recall based in cognitive psychology into a coherent theory of respondent recall, and deduce a number of empirical predictions from this theory. All predictions are supported by subsequent data. Specifically, members of the “in-group” falsely recalled far more participants than the “out-group,” but the latter forgot more participants who were actually in attendance. Those who attended less regularly were less likely to be recalled, but also less likely to be falsely recalled. The authors note that the “best” informants and the “worst” informants actually provide two different, but complementary sorts of useful data: The first, owing to their organized cognitive structures built by experience, are the best reporters of stable patterns of social structure, even when they are not asked to report on them. The second, owing to their lack of such a cognitive structure, are more likely to provide accurate data for specific, one-time events, though individually they may also suffer from forgetting.

REVIEWED BY: kad jrh [elaboration]

LABELS_FULL: 1987, kad, jrh, reviewed, journal, cognitive social structures, informant accuracy, data collection,  data quality, BKS studies, recall bias, empirical study, methodology, cognitive psychology

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