Naomi Wolf and A Lesson in Usage and Context

In research, context is the key.

A political hit exists in a context and succinctly answers these three questions:

  • What did the person do?

  • Why are they on the hook for it?

  • Why should anybody care?

But, what does a researcher need to keep in mind about how context is configured and how records impact this configuration?  The simple answer is that records also exist in a context and speak the language and impart the meaning contemporaneous with the time in which they were created.

A good example of misunderstood language leading to a misconfigured context surfaced recently when author Naomi Wolf was alerted to several major errors in her latest book, “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love.”  Wolf’s book presents a historical examination of same-sex relations in the Victorian era.  During an interview, BBC Radio host Matthew Sweet questioned Wolf over her book’s assertion that several dozen men were executed in the Victorian era for having sex with other men.  Wolf based her assertion on a review of case records in which the case outcome was marked as “death recorded.”  Sweet pointed out that Wolf had misunderstood what the term meant and that, beginning in 1823, it actually meant that a judge had abstained from pronouncing a death sentence because the judge determined that the accused was worthy of a pardon.  More on this interaction from The New York Times including a fun link to a Twitter exchange between Sweet and Wolf. 

Bottom line is that rather than land a bombshell about men being executed for having sex with other men in the Victorian era (and thereby recasting the historical understanding of that era), Wolf ended up walking back her work and will now update her book. 

The lesson for researchers:  be very careful about your understanding of terms and always remember that the understanding is contemporary to the usage, not to the present time.