The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public

The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public

by Sarah E. Igo
     
 

Americans today "know" that a majority of the population 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. Sarah Igo tells the story, for the first time, of how opinion

Overview

Americans today "know" that a majority of the population 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. Sarah Igo tells the story, for the first time, of how opinion polls, man-in-the-street interviews, sex surveys, community studies, and consumer research transformed the United States public.

About the Author:
Sarah Igo is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania

Editorial Reviews

Reason

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

University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture Magazine

A fascinating book.
— Andrew Witmer

Choice

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

Journal of American History

This is a significant contribution to the literature on the history of the social survey.
— Margo Anderson

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

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

PsycCritiques

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Theodore M. Porter
The Averaged American turns the history of quantitative social research into a fascinating human story of interviewers probing and cajoling and of citizens who at times were desperate to give information about themselves and who sometimes welcomed, sometimes protested the new statistical characterizations of "normal" American opinions and behavior.
Daniel Horowitz
In her strikingly bold and original The Averaged American, Sarah Igo captures the wonderfully rich and complicated relationships between surveys and those surveyed as she shows how this interaction helped create a mass public. We can see how those surveyed yearned for and understood their roles in the survey process--as well as the creation of expectations of what it meant to live as 'typical' or 'average' respondents/citizens in a mass society.
Jackson Lears
A brilliant and probing inquiry into one of the subtlest but most significant developments of our time: the cultural construction of a mass society. The Averaged American illuminates the ideological uses of quantitative social research with extraordinary verve and acuity.
Alice O'Connor
The Averaged American is an engaging, impressively researched history of the social scientific quest to conjure that ever-elusive "American" public: what "we" think, what "we" believe, how "we" will vote, how "we" behave. Igo shows how, despite their shaky claims to objectivity, inclusiveness, or even accuracy, surveys gradually gained acceptance as a new, more "scientific" way of knowing modern America, with consequences this important and never more relevant book challenges us to confront.
Susan Herbst
Few scholars of twentieth century America have been able to navigate the complexities associated with simultaneous change in multiple institutions--media, social science, the marketing industry, and community life. Igo does so with tremendous imagination and panache: The Averaged American demonstrates how numbers can transform both the texture of everyday life and the very course of a nation.
New York Times Book Review - Scott Stossel
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.
New York Sun - Brendan Boyle
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.
Business Week - Richard S. Dunham
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.
Utne Reader - Danielle Maestretti
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.
Reason - Kerry Howley
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.
University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture Magazine - Andrew Witmer
A fascinating book.
Choice - J.H. Smith
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.
Journal of American History - Margo Anderson
This is a significant contribution to the literature on the history of the social survey.
Political Science Quarterly - Ken Dautrich
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.”
Journal of Social History - John F. Reynolds
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.
PsycCritiques - James H. Capshew
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674023215
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
01/28/2007
Pages:
408
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are saying about this

Few scholars of twentieth century America have been able to navigate the complexities associated with simultaneous change in multiple institutions--media, social science, the marketing industry, and community life. Igo does so with tremendous imagination and panache: The Averaged American demonstrates how numbers can transform both the texture of everyday life and the very course of a nation.
Daniel Horowitz
In her strikingly bold and original The Averaged American, Sarah Igo captures the wonderfully rich and complicated relationships between surveys and those surveyed as she shows how this interaction helped create a mass public. We can see how those surveyed yearned for and understood their roles in the survey process--as well as the creation of expectations of what it meant to live as 'typical' or 'average' respondents/citizens in a mass society. --(Daniel Horowitz, Smith College)
Susan Herbst
Few scholars of twentieth century America have been able to navigate the complexities associated with simultaneous change in multiple institutions--media, social science, the marketing industry, and community life. Igo does so with tremendous imagination and panache: The Averaged American demonstrates how numbers can transform both the texture of everyday life and the very course of a nation. --(Susan Herbst, Provost, The University at Albany, State University of New York)
Jackson Lears
A brilliant and probing inquiry into one of the subtlest but most significant developments of our time: the cultural construction of a mass society. The Averaged American illuminates the ideological uses of quantitative social research with extraordinary verve and acuity. --(Jackson Lears, editor of Raritan and author of Something for Nothing: Luck in America)
Alice O'Connor
The Averaged American is an engaging, impressively researched history of the social scientific quest to conjure that ever-elusive "American" public: what "we" think, what "we" believe, how "we" will vote, how "we" behave. Igo shows how, despite their shaky claims to objectivity, inclusiveness, or even accuracy, surveys gradually gained acceptance as a new, more "scientific" way of knowing modern America, with consequences this important and never more relevant book challenges us to confront.
--(Alice O'Connor, University of California, Santa Barbara)
Theodore M. Porter
The Averaged American turns the history of quantitative social research into a fascinating human story of interviewers probing and cajoling and of citizens who at times were desperate to give information about themselves and who sometimes welcomed, sometimes protested the new statistical characterizations of "normal" American opinions and behavior. --(Theodore M. Porter, author of Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age)

Meet the Author

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

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