supports the death penalty, that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that four out of five prefer a particular brand of toothpaste. But remarkably, such data--now woven into our social fabric--became common currency only in the last century. With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Sarah Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans' sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation.
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supports the death penalty, that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that four out of five prefer a particular brand of toothpaste. But remarkably, such data--now woven into our social fabric--became common currency only in the last century. With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Sarah Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans' sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation.
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Editorial Reviews

Americans have grown used to crisp statistics, but as Sarah Igo points out in her new book The Averaged American, it wasn't always so easy to create a snapshot of the country's collective psyche. Igo tells the story of how surveys and polls have contributed to a sometimes distorted, always controversial conception of the archetypical American.
— Kerry Howley
Business Week
With all of the data now available on consumers' wants and needs, it's hard to imagine that less than a century ago market research consisted of little more than knowing the number of widgets your business sold in Muncie. Then, in the years after World War I, commerce was revolutionized by the dawning of modern social science research and scientific polling techniques. A fascinating glimpse of the upheaval that forever altered the way Americans see themselves, sell products, and operate election campaigns may be found in The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.
— Richard S. Dunham
The 20th century, marked by the ascendance of the social sciences in academia, brought to the US the movement to socially engineer society by surveying, measuring, statistically analyzing, polling, and categorizing Americans. Standardized IQ and behavior tests produced quantified measurements of what was average and what was normal. Polls replaced literary traditions in defining the “American mind”...”Normality” increasingly lined up with quantified averages. “Mass public” and “average American” became synonymous with the search for a coherent US culture. The character of the “aggregated Americans” emerges in Igo’s chapters on Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929), George Gallup and Elmo Roper’s public polling, and Alfred Kinsey’s revelations of the behavior of statistically normal Americans. The movement magnified the issues involved in weighing the significance of statistical minorities. Igo’s well-written study is an excellent introduction to the problems involved in aggregating and disaggregating the US...[H]er book provocatively proposes the seeming inevitability that Americans need to understand that they will live in a world shaped and perceived through survey data.
— J.H. Smith
Financial Times
A richly detailed account of the arrival of social science data in the middle of the 20th century and its lasting effects on the U.S.
New York Times Book Review
Briskly written, forcefully argued and broad in scope, The Averaged American falls into a category occupied by works like Paul Starr's Social Transformation of American Medicine and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Midwife's Tale, Pulitzer Prize-winning books by academics whose reach extended beyond the ivory tower...Igo does for social statistics what Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club did for American pragmatism, providing a narrative intellectual history of the field.
— Scott Stossel
Utne Reader
Most people don't bat an eye at the myriad statistics and studies cited by the media, the government, and the dinner guest. In The Averaged American, Sarah E. Igo documents the 'movement of social data into everyday life,' a fascinating shift rarely mentioned in discussions of the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Igo's well-written, well-organized book focuses on three iconic moments: the Middletown studies of the 'supposedly typical American community,' the emergence of the Gallup and Roper opinion polls, and the controversial Kinsey reports on sexual behavior. Though some people disputed the methods or results of these studies, most accepted their newfound importance as the 'inevitable product of a modern mass society.' But, as Igo compellingly argues, the studies themselves were every bit as responsible for creating and maintaining that mass society.
— Danielle Maestretti
Journal of American History
This is a significant contribution to the literature on the history of the social survey.
— Margo Anderson
Journal of Social History
Cultural historians of the modern era and social scientists of many stripes will find much to admire in this insightful volume. Igo reminds us how deeply steeped social scientific inquiries are in contemporary social conventions and attitudes. She also outlines the overlooked role social scientists have played in shaping today’s imagined communities, picking up where the census takers, map makers and newspaper publishers had left off during the century previous.
— John F. Reynolds
Political Science Quarterly
Social scientists, pollsters, and market researchers now regularly apply the techniques of scientific sampling and measurement to their work. Indeed, survey research has become the dominant methodology used to produce social science scholarship, public and political polling, and consumer research. Sarah Igo puts into historical context the way in which these now-commonplace research techniques have transformed American society over the past century. Igo’s historical examination of survey research in America provides a compelling argument that the statistical data generated and disseminated by surveys have given America a new way to view itself—as a “mass public.”
— Ken Dautrich
New York Sun
Sharp and surprisingly lively...Ms. Igo patiently documents how surveys came to exercise [its] grip on the American imagination...This is an excellent, thoroughly readable book.
— Brendan Boyle
The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public presents a fascinating history of the coevolution of scientific techniques and public consciousness through the use of polls, interviews, and surveys of the opinions and behavior of U.S. citizens...Historian Sarah Igo has delved deeply into various documentary sources, ranging from newspapers and popular magazines to specialized social scientific treatises, to provide the analytic backbone to this history. Finding fresh ways to deploy her copious source materials, the author loses no time before plunging immediately into her compelling narrative about the maelstrom of mass opinion, dissecting the who, what, when, where, how, and why of this broad sociocultural movement. Focused on the middle third of the 20th century, the story has an inherent dynamism that Igo enhances with remarkable literary verve.
— James H. Capshew
University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture Magazine
A fascinating book.
— Andrew Witmer
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674038943
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 921,874
  • File size: 835 KB

Meet the Author

Sarah Igo is Associate Professor of History, Political Science, and Sociology at Vanderbilt University

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Table of Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Introduction: America in Aggregate
  • 1. Canvassing a “Typical” Community
  • 2. Middletown Becomes Everytown
  • 3. Polling the Average Populace
  • 4. The Majority Talks Back
  • 5. Surveying Normal Selves
  • 6. The Private Lives of the Public
  • Epilogue: Statistical Citizens
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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