THE AVERAGED AMERICAN

THE AVERAGED AMERICAN

SARAH E. IGO
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Harvard University Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0m29
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    THE AVERAGED AMERICAN
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03894-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: America in Aggregate
    (pp. 1-22)

    The 1947 James Stewart filmMagic Towntells the story of Grandview, an American community so perfectly average that the views of its citizens mirror those of the national population. Stewart’s character, Rip Smith, is a struggling opinion pollster who discovers this statistical shortcut and hopes to profit from it. Posing as an insurance agent, he arrives in Grandview determined to keep its typicality a secret, its ways just as they are. Naturally, however, the secret gets out, and the townspeople become too self-conscious about their own opinions to make them representative. Further undermining Grandview’s ordinariness is the fact that...

  5. 1 Canvassing a “Typical” Community
    (pp. 23-67)

    “No one who wishes a full understanding of American life today can afford to neglect this impartial, sincerely scientific effort to place it under the microscope slide,” announced a writer for theNew York World. A reviewer for theNew Republicagreed, calling it “a fascinating and valuable book, one that will give the reader more insight into the social processes of this country than any other I know.” Even the characteristically cynical H. L. Mencken proclaimed: “I commend [it] to all persons who have any genuine interest in the life of the American people … It reveals, in cold-blooded,...

  6. 2 Middletown Becomes Everytown
    (pp. 68-102)

    To some in 1929, the most striking aspect ofMiddletownwas neither its anthropological approach nor its empirical portrait of United States culture. Rather, it was how many non–social scientists—and how many readers far from Muncie—were talking about it. Helen Lynd recalled, “Nobody was as surprised as we when it came out with front page reviews in theTimesandHerald Tribune.” A reviewer noted with astonishment thatMiddletowncould “be found in the show window of nearly every city bookstore.” He reflected, “Not many years ago it would have seemed incredible that any social survey could...

  7. 3 Polling the Average Populace
    (pp. 103-149)

    “What is the common man thinking?” asked George Gallup, along with his collaborator Saul Forbes Rae, in 1940. Offering “a modern answer,” they announced the birth of “a new instrument—the public opinion poll,” which could “provide a continuous chart of the opinions of the man in the street.” Gallup and fellow “scientific pollsters” Archibald Crossley and Elmo Roper made a dramatic entrance onto the national stage in 1936. Each publicly challenged the famousLiterary Digeststraw poll, an established survey of ten million Americans, which had correctly projected the outcome of the past five presidential elections. All three surveyors...

  8. 4 The Majority Talks Back
    (pp. 150-190)

    Unlike the Middletown studies, the Gallup Poll and Fortune Survey were not discrete social scientific events. Opinion polling was instead a continuous technique for monitoring shifts in Americans’ attitudes and beliefs—an ongoing constitution of “the public” through anonymously expressed views. The sheer frequency of opinion polls made their methods more visible than their specific incarnations, their content ephemeral except in the case of a few well-publicized election forecasts. More significant as a practice than as a solid body of fact, polling techniques would become part of the social landscape, an increasingly familiar way of knowing the public in the...

  9. 5 Surveying Normal Selves
    (pp. 191-233)

    “The recent spectacular failure of polls to reflect truth has taught thoughtful people to take even long established and accredited poll-methods with a grain of salt,” editorialized the magazineLife Today, pointedly referring to George Gallup’s and Elmo Roper’s electoral debacle of 1948. “How much salt, then, must be taken with a poll which judges and condemns 60,000,000 white males on the basis of only 5,300 interviews?” The “poll” the writer hoped thus to undermine was another social scientific production of 1948—Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin’sSexual Behavior in the Human Male. Many others wondered along...

  10. 6 The Private Lives of the Public
    (pp. 234-280)

    By the late 1940s, Americans had been probed, queried, and surveyed for several decades. In the postwar era, they for the most part regarded as unremarkable their status as potential research subjects. Alfred Kinsey’s inflammatory research would change all that, at least temporarily. It would be too simple to say that the controversy over the Kinsey Reports had only to do with their subject, sexual behavior. Reactions to the surveys concerned the broader issue of social scientific cataloguing and explanation applied to a new domain. Sexual behavior had been dragged out into the light before by Progressive Era purity campaigns...

  11. EPILOGUE: Statistical Citizens
    (pp. 281-300)

    A society saturated by facts about its members—“knowable” through the aggregated answers to surveys—was a curious one, and one first imaginable in the twentieth century. Modern surveys were built out of private information told to a stranger. Yet they permitted citizens to know what their metaphorical, if not their actual, neighbors were thinking and doing. More oddly still, they permitted some individuals a flicker of recognition or communion with statistics displayed in charts and graphs—even when they themselves had been excluded from the making of those numbers. The kind of public created by the dissemination of such...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 301-378)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 379-385)
  14. Index
    (pp. 386-398)