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Created: January 22, 2001
Latest Update: January 22, 2001
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Problems of Interpretation with Personal Experience

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, January 2001. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Discussion of some of the traps that lie in interpreting shared personal experience. We tend to forget that our own reading of that experience alters the conclusions we draw. This essay draws on the advice shared over the Internet with a young woman who said she had just taken a self defense course. She shared the pointers made by her instructor on information said to be gleaned when "he and the others in this group interviewed a bunch of rapists and date rapists in prison on what they look for,."

What I would like you to notice in that sharing is that people, ordinary people, are sharing their experiences on the Internet. I don't know about your reaction, but I shuddred last weekend every time I saw a young woman in overalls that could have been easily cut off. That means I listened to the advice. But it also means I am reacting to it at an affective level. I was just told that rapists look for easily cut off overalls. But I was also told that rapists look for long hair. I didn't shudder everytime I saw a young woman with long hair. Why?

Overalls are, for me, a new fashion item. Alerted to their potential for easy removal, I became increasingly conscious of them. I didn't have time to look for reliable data on victim's clothing. I'm not even sure there is any. We once considered anything provocative, like shorts or a halter top "attractive" to the rapist looking for a victim, and counseled young women not to look provocative. But I'm used to long hair. It didn't stand out in my mind as something I had just learned about. So I didn't notice the emphasis I was placing on clothing. This is what's wrong with personal experience data. We tend to accept it at an out-of-awareness level and not to realize that we are distorting it's significance.

Awareness is good. But to exaggerate the importance of one factor over another, without any broad overview data to substantiate the relative importance of the factors, is to lie with statistics, even though we weren't aware of even using statistics, and even thoug it is to ourselves that we are lying. It is perhaps the worst kind of lying with statistics, because it's our own conclusions, based on "experience," and we know we aren't intentionally distorting the data. We forget that our own individualized perception interacts with the data to produce the final reading we give those data. Were I a young woman, for whom overalls were a normative part of the fashion regime, would I have noticed the overalls at all? Or would they have been like the long hair? What we most often forget with lived experience is that we are processing that information as data, and that we forget the part of our interpretation that stems from our own personal orientation and experience.

Cite John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture on Barthe's secondary signification, at pp. 82 ff.