THE AVERAGED AMERICAN
Surveys, Citizens, and the
Making of a Mass Public
By Sarah E. Igo
Harvard University Press; 398pp; $35
The Good A fascinating glimpse at the world of social science research and scientific polling.
The Bad The academic writing style is occasionally a tough slog.
The Bottom Line A rewarding look at the evolution of an information revolution.
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 by University of Pennsylvania historian Sarah E. Igo.
It was a rocky road to social transformation. In the early years of scientific research, Igo writes, it took a lot of work "to persuade business owners...that collecting information about their customers' buying habits was worthwhile." Many did not believe that citizens would answer prying questions about personal habits or political views from strangers knocking on their doors. And a large number of skeptics, she observes, did not "trust the assembled answers as either trustworthy or true."
Igo, a rising star among American historians, presents detailed analyses of three milestones in the emerging field of survey research: Robert and Helen Lynd's best-selling Middletown studies of 1929 and 1937, which dissected the lives of residents of an unnamed, average town in Middle America (Muncie, Ind.); the creation by George Gallup and Elmo Roper of the first public opinion polls in 1935; and Alfred Kinsey's shocking sexual-behavior reports of 1948 and 1953.
The key for the survey-research industry was defining "the average American." That's the everyman (yes, in those days, marketers wanted to appeal to "the man of the house") who will buy your products or vote for your candidate. As Newsweek noted in 1947, "a shadowy figure [is] beginning to emerge...American majority man."
But, as Igo wisely notes, the search for the average American intentionally excluded large swaths of the population. The Lynds' Middletown research excluded African Americans and immigrants, and Kinsey limited his sexual studies to Caucasians. Early polling often undersampled the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, Southerners, and others seen as less likely to purchase consumer goods or vote. "Even if [the portrait] was never particularly accurate or representative," Igo writes, the new typical Americans played "a vital role in consolidating the [concept of a] national public."
The world of surveys spawned businesses that were designed to explain these average Americans and "the public" to those who would buy the data, from politicians to companies. Business Week in 1934 called the Lynds' work "a godsend to marketers." Gallup saw similarities in how people think "from politics to toothpaste." Roper predicted that the science of polling would become "a veritable gold mine if we could learn fast enough how to use it in all of its ramifications."
It did become a gold mine for Roper, as he signed up companies that were eager to sell their products to average Americans. Among the first to embrace the new way of doing business: Ford Motor (F), Standard Oil, the American Meat Institute, the National Broadcasting Co., RCA Victor, and the Spiegel catalog company.
As the polling business became more sophisticated, Gallup and others began to study gender, class, and geographical differences to help clients appeal to groups once "routinely ignored," including housewives, Southerners, and blue-collar workers. With the coming of the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, "pollsters recalibrated their strong majoritarian frame, detecting new significance in how men and women, young and old, Latinos and Asian Americans assessed presidents and purchases differently." Niche markets and microtargeting became buzzwords on Madison Avenue.
At the dawn of the 21st century, survey research is continuing to evolve. Using state-of-the-art technology, pollsters examine brain scans to determine which product pitches or political platforms cause flashes of neural activity. The growth of Internet polling has raised debates over the scientific validity of Web-based survey techniques.
Polling, once considered a scandalous invasion of privacy, is now an accepted practice. More than 20% of Americans were polled at least once in the past year. As Igo aptly concludes, "we will continue to live in a world shaped by, and perceived through, survey data."
By Richard S. Dunham