On Oct. 28, 1967, a white police officer pulled over a black man in Oakland, Calif. Both men got shot, and the policeman died. Who pulled a gun first? And what happened after the shooting?
The answers depend, says Christian Davenport, a professor of peace studies, political science, and sociology, on which news source you consult—the radical black newspaper (the black man was Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panthers), the moderate black newspaper, the radical white newspaper, the conservative Bay Area newspaper, or The New York Times.
Fascinated by the wildly different accounts of police-Panther interactions, Davenport spent more than a year scouring newspaper archives and cataloging and analyzing the events, supported in his research by funding from the National Science Foundation.
His new book with Cambridge University Press, Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party, explores the “Rashomon effect”—the tendency for events to be perceived and reported in different ways, depending on who is telling the story and to whom—and its implications for violence, protest, repression, and peace. The phenomenon is named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 mystery film Rashomon, in which the attack of a 16th-century samurai and his wife is recalled in four contradictory ways.
“One of the reasons we have violent conflict is that people perceive events in different ways,” Davenport says. “We disagree on the facts, and we act on the basis of those perceptions. In Ireland during ‘the troubles,’ for example, Loyalists (generally associated with Protestants) and Republicans (generally associated with Catholics) had very different ideas about what had happened before and during the conflict, as did the British.”
In his book, Davenport demonstrates the use of “event cataloging,” an emerging research methodology for comparing and contrasting diverse sources of information.
“As scholars seeking an accurate picture of events, we need to consider as many sources as possible and to explain how the accounts differ and how they are the same,” he says. “As peacebuilders, we need to know why different sources tell the story the way they do and to find some common ground in how they perceive the world.”
“Scholars with an interest in social movements, repression, and/or the Black Panthers have been eagerly awaiting this book for the better part of a decade,” wrote Stanford University’s Doug McAdam, the recipient of the 2010 McCarthy Award from Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements. “It was worth the wait. The methodological implications of the work—as encoded in Davenport’s already well-known ‘Rashomon effect’—are reason enough to already regard the book as a classic.”
Davenport is the author, editor, or co-editor of three other books: State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace, Paths to State Repression: Human Rights Violations and Contentious Politics, and Repression and Mobilization. Having accepted a joint appointment in Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Department of Political Science in 2008, he officially joined the sociology faculty this spring.
“Christian’s national reputation as a prolific scholar already has drawn attention to our department from sociologists as well as political scientists,” says Professor Rory McVeigh, the Department of Sociology’s chair. “I have been especially impressed by the way he has worked with our graduate students. He sets high standards while offering extensive feedback on their ongoing research projects.”
* Story contributed by Joan Fallon of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
Originally published by sociology.nd.edu on December 11, 2009.at