2007-12-12

Scholarly insight of the day

A friend directs me to this gem. This is from the (English language) comments section of B92 news, povodom the testimony of the legendary political sociologist Anthony Oberschall in the trial of Vojislav Šešelj before ICTY:
A sociologist is a worthless job. You can find communist-leaning sociologists. Fascist ones. Feminist ones. Chauvinist ones, and so on, and the libraries have whole sections on their theories on society, and so many of them differ in their views. This is the first time I ever heard a sociologist giving evidence in so-called trial. The prosecutors are scraping the bottom of the barrel here because where else can evidence of someones opinion be used to convict someone? What a joke.
Professor Oberschall was engaged as a witness along with Yves Tomić (not a sociologist, but a good fellow all the same), who was identified by the court as "Ives Tomić" and by the accused as "Yves Thomas." Mr Šešelj has his own thoughts on the length of expert reports.

3 comments:

Owen said...

Seselj seems to have identified the hard copy production of the 207,000 pages and his need to have them translated and then to peruse them all as yet another good way of delaying proceedings. Presumably he knows he's never going home so might as well make the most of the time available to him as an unconvicted detainee.

dDJ said...

If I correctly detect in this blog post an assumption that Oberschall was an appropriate witness, I must disagree. When I read about his testimony, I was immediately struck by the fact that he was testifying as an expert on Seselj's nationalist propaganda and rhetoric -- without knowing the language in question.

Bzzzz. Sorry, but thanks for playing. Next witness, please.

It was only by looking at the tribunal transcripts that I learned that the judges themselves found his "expert" designation to be problematic, and indeed seem to have allowed his testimony provisionally, reserving the right to reject its expert status (and that of his written report). (That at least is what I *think* was said just before he testified: http://www.un.org/icty/transe67/071211IT.htm. My difficulty in understanding the transcript is actually a good illustration of the barriers to expertise faced by Oberschall. The judge was speaking French, the accused Serbian; these were simultaneously translated into English and then these translations transcribed; on top of which I'd need better knowledge of, among other things, the rules of evidence at legal proceedings in general and at the ICTFY in particular.)

Note that the accuracy of his testimony and findings are beside the point. Oberschall may well have been bang on target in everything he said, but that doesn't mean that it should hold any legal weight. (For what it's worth, I don't find what I read of his testimony terribly useful or insightful.)

Naturally enough, he defended his qualifications, but it's troubling to read a legendary sociologist dismissing concerns so breezily:

"Now, these texts were extremely straightforward. There's nothing very subtle about nationalist discourse. You know, we're not translating the poetry of Baudelaire or anything like that. And things like 'amputate Croatia' is really what it says. I mean, it's very vivid, it's clear. There's no subtle double meanings to it. So the only thing that Ms. Bela Maric [his translator, a grad student in Slavic languages and linguistics] did is she sometimes told me some details about the -- the context and the history which would explain better the actual -- you know, the actual text and -- and -- and what was referred to. And it went very smoothly. I had no problem whatsoever." [Source: same URL, p. 1967, line 24ff]

His choice of the "amputate Croatia" example is rather unfortunate, because that expression does in fact have a history that’s important to know. More generally: as crude as nationalist discourse can be, understanding its meaning and effects, its intention and reception, most certainly *does* require a subtle understanding of the language and culture. Given your own work, I'd think you'd agree.

Transpose the situation a bit: A sociologist from, say, Latvia, testifying about the hate speech of Bull Connor or David Duke, based on translations provided by an American grad student studying English in Riga, who also supplied him with the cultural and historical context. Oh, he did read some Latvian books and articles about the U.S. and paid a couple of visits, during which he was able to talk with some people who, like him, knew Spanish.

I certainly don't think sociology is worthless. But I don't see why courts should endorse the least tenable presumptions of social "scientists."

Eric Gordy said...

Thanks for the comment. I think I will resist the temptation to put myself in the position of the judges and decide whether his testimony ought to be accepted (there will be a statement on that in the verdict). But I'll just point out a detail that might be interesting: he was not engaged by the prosecution, but by the tribunal itself as a background witness.

And I'll agree that in research, using translations by other people is usually nothing but trouble.