John Conley is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina. John's principal research and teaching interests have been in law and social science, and intellectual property law. After serving as a scuba diver with the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, John received his J.D. in 1977 and a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1980 from Duke University. Most importantly, he is my co-author.
John’s post is below.
I want to respond to Daria’s suggestion “that our method is too limited.” All methods of social science research are limited, in that they can only address certain questions in certain ways. No method gets at all relevant questions, nor does any method have any superior claim to “truth” or “reality” (whatever those words mean). Quantitative analysis, for example, assumes that you know what to count. Surveys depend on knowing what the right questions are.
Our method uses interviews and focuses on narratives. It is frankly interpretive. Daria writes that the board members we interviewed “are in no position to understand the way in which gender might matter or what other things women might bring to the table beyond their gender.” Later, she writes, “However insightful board members might be, they are just in no position to reflect on whether women make a substantive difference.”
Several points: First, I don’t know whether they’re in a position to understand such things. Why wouldn’t they be? It seems wrong to say that “they are just in no position to reflect” on the issue. Everyone has a position from which to reflect. In fact, board members have a unique observational position. It’s not perfect, but no one’s is. Whose perspective would be better? Yes, board members’ perspective is limited, but so is everyone else’s. Daria speaks later of “the benefit of expert insight.” Don’t board members also provide a kind of “expert insight?”
Second, even if they can’t understand such things, it’s not relevant to our purposes. Our question is not whether gender “matters” in some particularly defined sense. Our question, rather, is how board members talk about whether and how gender matters—in other words, what narrative do they provide when asked about that issue? The answer to that question is, in my view, an important piece of cultural data. The fact that the people who elect board members and executives cannot (or choose not to) provide examples of gender making a difference is certainly interesting to me. It says, among many things, that they created or adopted a master narrative about gender difference but have not gotten around to testing it against their experience. Again, that’s really interesting to me. I didn’t expect it.
I’d also like to comment on this statement: “Some of these observations are grounded in real observation, no doubt. But in many of those interviews, I also hear echoes of stereotype.” This misses the point of interviews. If board members’ narratives contain “echoes of stereotype,” then this is, yet again, a very important piece of cultural data. Daria, what is this “real observation” of which you speak? If board members choose to explain their actions by resort to stereotype, isn’t that a significant bit of reality?
My final comments concern Daria’s statement that “survey work is just too crude an instrument for us to be able to get much qualitative insight.” First, ethnographic interviews aren’t “survey work.” They’re apples and oranges. Surveys elicit responses to very specific questions in order to yield a “crude” measure of attitudes and beliefs—as in surveys about the likelihood of confusion in trademark cases. Ethnographic interviews seek to elicit broader cultural themes. We don’t claim to know what people “really think.” Daria’s comments seem to me to reflect (if I can say that now) a kind of positivist envy. I don’t see methods as hierarchical, or as more or less limited. I see them as complementary, all shedding light on problems from different angles. Interview studies don’t need to be apologized for.
The “What’s The Return On Equality?” Mini-Symposium: