Book Reviews

The Meaning of the Mean

How probing for public opinion has dampened the public's voice.

By Ellen Fitzpatrick

Tagged politicsPolling

The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public By Sarah E. Igo • Harvard University Press • 2007 • 408 pages • $35

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison expressed his belief that “the larger the society ” the more duly capable it will be of self-government.” The principle would hold particularly firm, he believed, in the United States, where “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” Who would have guessed that more than 200 years later, in a more diverse society than Madison ever could have imagined, so much energy would be devoted to flattening those differences? Fueled by incessant political polling, mountains of survey data, and increasingly refined efforts to take the pulse of the “average” citizen, American political life increasingly resembles a matrix dominated by a single axis–the normative value. Indeed, much of contemporary politics is premised on the belief that by locating and then claiming title to “the center,” politicians can trump the disparate “interests and classes” Madison saw as the very lifeblood of a vigorous democratic society.

The rise of social survey data in twentieth-century America has done much to speed our arrival at this state of affairs, according to Sarah E. Igo’s book, The Averaged American. Igo, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, forcefully argues that the tail of polling, data collection, and social investigation has come to wag the dog of modern American society, and she makes her case by examining three critical twentieth-century American research endeavors: Robert and Helen Lynd’s social investigations of “Middletown” in the 1920s and 1930s, the rise in the late 1930s and 1940s of Gallup and Roper’s polling empires, and the Kinsey reports on male and female sexual behavior in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All three accelerated a trend in twentieth-century life that privileged the place of “typical” Americans in efforts to define the public.

Igo details how social surveyors managed to conflate their methods, goals, and audience with the nation’s prevailing political values. Studies that sought to take the temperature of a feverish body politic wound up invading the organism to such a degree that eventually the cure became indistinguishable from the disease. Rather than simply elucidating Americans’ opinions, survey data wound up defining a new reality: We believe what we are told we already believe. The political consequences of this turn of events are momentous, for they cut to the fundamental premises that underlie democratic values. If what is “democratic” in American society today is what survey data demonstrate most Americans believe, what agency do individuals have? If their views diverge from, or for that matter echo, the perceived mainstream, why bother voting?

The passivity encouraged by the hegemony of averaging stands at odds with the historical roots of early social surveys and social investigation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American survey research pointed in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, Igo dispatches the prologue to her story by characterizing early social investigation as a Victorian endeavor, rooted in a “feminized social work tradition” geared to the “amelioration” of problems posed by society’s marginal members. It was much more than that. Progressive Era–social investigation proved an essential ingredient–indeed, it was often the engine–of much liberal activism.

Progressives viewed their prolific studies as an instrument of social change–one that might simultaneously expose social problems, uncover workable solutions, and mobilize public support for social welfare legislation. Jane Addams’s Hull House Maps and Papers (1895) surveyed Chicago’s immigrant, working-class 19th Ward, in part to make the case for the evils of child labor and the necessity of factory reform. Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) stunned middle-class readers because it revealed that one could exist comfortably in New York and never know the degrading conditions endured by the poorest and most desperate in the city. What was lost, then, in the drift of social surveys toward the average was not only the preoccupation with the most destitute and needy groups in American society, but also the political energy that animated it.

Igo’s focus is on the period after World War I, when reform-oriented inquiry gave way to social research reflecting the values and techniques promoted by increasingly professionalized academic social science disciplines. The new breed of social researchers, inside and outside the academy, emphasized their adherence to strict objectivity, rigorous empirical and increasingly quantitative methodology, and alleged political neutrality. Igo pays little attention to the fact that the transforming goals of social survey research occurred at the same time that the enthusiasm for progressive reform began to be eclipsed. For her, the change is driven not by the political climate but by the research itself and the growing hegemony of the putative average. Yet given its Progressive roots, it is striking to see how the proliferation of a new social knowledge devoted to “aggregating” Americans in the period from the 1920s to 1960s unfolded despite the vagaries of the Great Depression, New Deal reform, the two world wars, and their aftermath. The turmoil of American politics and society and the persistent poverty at the “margins” remained even as social survey research relentlessly searched for the great American average. In time, subject and object merged as Americans not only accepted mass survey research, but also came to rely on “the representations” of the public they produced as a way of understanding “their society and themselves.” “National polls and surveys,” Igo asserts, “were as much responsible for creating a mass public as they were reacting to its arrival.”

Naturally, the biases of the surveys, the limitations of the data–undercounted or absent women, poor people, ethnic groups, and African Americans, for example–resulted in a stilted definition of the nation. And in each of her case studies, Igo devotes considerable attention to the push back from public critics to the surveyors’ methods and findings. One reader, for instance, wrote to Kinsey to offer his own data set: “I have lived with one woman for 46 years and I do not agree with your findings … when you show as one magazine reports that 62% of adult women practice masturbation–you’re nuts.” Another Kinsey correspondent declaimed, “In all my life; [sic] and I have been around some, I never, to my knowledge met a homosexual.”

Nevertheless, Igo concludes, even many who pointed out their shortcomings accepted the idea that polling and survey data might capture the normative truth about American society–such was the power of the scientifically derived “average” by mid-century. Some just wanted a more prominent place for themselves, as well as their own favored values and beliefs, in the definitions of the “average American” that the surveys charted. The Kinsey reports, most notably, offered reassurance to many Americans by widening the spectrum of commonplace sexual behavior in ways that “nearly everyone could aspire to be normal.” Kinsey was flooded with letters from readers who told their stories, sought advice, and offered detailed histories of the most intimate experiences of their lives. Statistics, in this instance, “encouraged a new understanding of what it meant to be normal” even as they paradoxically “exploded the idea of a national ‘average.’ ”

Igo’s emphasis on the intellectual and cultural transformation the surveys wrought is less successful, however, in illuminating their political underpinnings and consequences. The Averaged American is impressive in its painstaking exploration of the rise of social survey research and its incursions into American life. It is deeply researched, and it is sophisticated in constructing a broad interpretation of American culture based on detailed case analyses. But, ironically, this study of the data-driven imperatives of modern American society measures outcomes by pointing to vague changes in cultural transformation, consciousness, and representation.

Igo’s approach works best in the case study least tied to formal political behavior–that of the Kinsey research. And in fact, the story of Kinsey, in many respects, shows that defining the normal could result in liberating Americans from confining notions of self and society that produced in the pre-Kinsey days considerable personal and psychological suffering. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that something far more concrete was lost in the case of polling data. When the architects and purveyors of social surveys and election polling managed to capture such a prominent place for themselves and their data in defining political and social reality, we lost more than we gained by knowing a putative average.

In other words, the question raised, but not fully answered, by Igo is how did we come to care so much about the “middle,” the “normal,” and the “average” in a democratic society where economic abundance, military prowess, and broad-based constitutionally guaranteed rights might have emboldened an ongoing commitment to
assisting those on the margins? As the twentieth century wore on, what happened to the much-vaunted qualities of fierce independence and
courageous individualism that the Founders believed would make the United States an exemplary republic, governed by and for an engaged citizenry? A deep reservoir of virtue and moral courage was understood by the Revolutionary generation as a critical means of safeguarding democratic values. Was this fierce independence of mind and flinty individualism somehow a casualty of the nation’s maturation as a mass industrial and then post-industrial society? The Averaged American does not engage these questions, focused as it is on the determinative power of the empirical social research empire. Surely the roots of these changes go far beyond the growing authority of survey data that charted the average.

Igo sees the Lynds’ Middletown, their landmark study of Muncie, Indiana, as the ball that got the larger quest for averaging rolling. It is an important departure point, for the political passions that originally informed the rage for social investigation profoundly shaped this early community study, while it in turn set the trend for future survey research. Yet these energies are not as visible as they might be in Igo’s account. She depicts Robert Lynd–who possessed a divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and his wife, Helen, who had an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia–asna‘ve “social scientific amateurs” whose appointment as directors of the Institute for Social and Religious Research’s “Small City Study” brought unlikely leadership to the project.

Igo emphasizes how the Lynds’ study of Middletown
diverged from the problem-oriented focus of liberal reform social
researchers of the Progressive Era. However, their central insight, one rooted in
their liberal progressive ideas and values, was that social problems
could not be illuminated by the “common habit of piecemeal attack upon
them.” Modern society, they felt, needed to be understood through a
broader understanding of how communities functioned, which they hoped
to facilitate by examining the multiple facets of human society within
specific institutional and historical realities. The Lynds’ was a
historical study that sought to trace change over time, driven by a
belief that class was a critical variable in understanding social
reality. Igo downplays the role that history and class played in the
Lynds’ analysis of Middletown, but it was absolutely central.

For Igo, the Lynds’ study represents not an evolution of the past but a sharp break from it. She reinforces that point by focusing on the couple’s funding source, “Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr.” It is, she writes, “the great puzzle of Middletown’s history” that a powerful capitalist like Rockefeller would have acceded to the Lynds’ direction of their research endeavor, especially given Robert Lynd’s outspoken criticism of the oil baron. But it was Rockefeller, Sr. who was the “Standard Oil magnate.” His son, who assumed so much responsibility in shaping the philanthropies his father’s wealth made possible, had by the 1920s long been involved in sponsoring social research projects. Igo speculates that in the swirling debate that framed the Middletown project, “The most important conflict of all may have been a fundamental divide between the Lynds’ faith in social science as a consciousness-raising tool and Rockefeller Jr.’s wager on social science as a guarantor of industrial order.” But such origins typified, in truth, a brand of activist-oriented social science that deeply inflected Middletown and its findings and marked its ties to a longer tradition of social investigation. An insistence on the ways in which the study represents a rupture with previous social research obscures some of thesemoorings.

Likewise, Igo depicts the Lynds as “stumbling upon an anthropological perspective” as a useful prism through which to understand the dynamics of life in a modern industrial city. But she misses the fact that many interwar intellectuals purposely expropriated the idea of culture, elaborated and injected into the common lexicon by Franz Boas and other early-twentieth-century anthropologists, as a way of enriching class analysis. Culture, for the Lynds, provided a means for understanding how class flowed beyond economics and the workplace to permeate all aspects of community life. The entire Middletown study was based, ultimately, on the Lynds’ binary division of the city’s residents into “business” and “working class”; this was, in fact, oneof the most innovative and striking features of their book. Igo finds more decisive “what was left out” of the Lynds’ investigation. In selecting a homogenous city, and then focusing on the white, native-born population that inhabited much of it, the investigators defined the nation’s “middle” in ways that erased ethnic minorities and
African Americans from the public.

The Lynds’ focus on the “typical” had “the effect of almost complete excising nonwhite, non-native, non-Protestant Americans from the study’s pages.” Igo makes much of the Lynds’ decision not to tabulate the responses from African Americans (5.6 percent of the city’s population and growing) in their quantitative data. It is an omission that no creditable social scientist would think to justify today, and one which Igo castigates them for making. Igo asserts the Lynds didn’t recognize African Americans and immigrants as “constitutive components of the community.” They held a “peculiar vision of the normal”–one that “looked backward to find the modern United States.” The “lines of race and religion,” she argues, “were peripheral to their analysis.” And she charges the researchers with being “fixed on group solidarity rather than strife.” Surely no one will confuse the Lynds’ values, methods, or preoccupations with that of contemporary social scientists. Yet, in her urge to see the Lynds as the first of the modern-day statistical levelers, Igo ignores the fact that their intentions were driven not by a desire for a smoother average, but rather for a clearer picture of Middletown’s class fissures. The Lynds claimed their findings about the stresses and strains imposed by modern industrial life would be best illustrated by factoring out variables of race and ethnicity. If native-born whites, in other words, were revealed to have lives deeply changed by the dynamics of modern industrial society, few could take issue with their findings. Igo, in other words, misses the way in which class functioned as an overarching frame of reference in the way that race, gender,religion, and a host of other variables similarly inform the worldview of many of today’s social scientists.

Nevertheless, whatever intentions the Lynds brought to their study, Igo is surely correct that Middletown had consequences they could not have foreseen, nor desired. It spurred a rage to examine ordinary Americans, one that over the next few decades reached its apotheosis in widespread public opinion polling. Igo brilliantly traces the commercial and market origins of much early polling, and she persuasively shows how it became a nearly daily element of current social and political reality. But with what consequences? This is the question that persists after reading The Averaged American.

Pollsters did much to define who the public was within a mass, urban, industrial society; indeed, they imagined their social scientific research as an “important tool for democracy.” In fact, the pollsters claimed their “new technology ” was even more representative and inclusive than elections, the bedrock of American political life. Polls, after all, ascertained the views of those who never made it to the voting booth.” Gallup and Roper went so far as to “equate voicing opinions . . . with democracy itself.” Responding to survey questions, they suggested, “constituted active participation in national affairs.”

The truth was, of course, that early polling was riddled with errors in sampling techniques and a host of other qualitative and quantitative problems. The notion of surveys as conveying the “populist message” stood at odds with the ways in which the views of countless groups were undercounted, overlooked, or ignored altogether. Igo does an excellent job of detailing these weaknesses, especially in her depiction of gender and race biases in public opinion–gathering.

In examining polling’s consequences, Igo relies heavily on letters of protest written to Gallup, Roper, and other opinion researchers. And she demonstrates that there was considerable resistance to the methods and claims of the early polling experts. “One New Yorker,” she notes, suggested, “Roper’s weekly column, Where the People Stand, ought properly be titled ‘Where the People Questioned Stand.’ ” Igo observes, “A technology of representation was, in the eyes of its critics, an instrument of voicelessness.” Indeed, the assumption of a “white, male, educated populace” left the pollsters with egg on their faces in 1948 when workers, low-income women, and African Americans turned out to vote for Harry Truman in record numbers.

Ironically, of course, the effort to take the pulse of the masses only deepened the feelings of anonymity and facelessness among those who did not recognize their views in the averages. Igo notes that “the power of impersonal statistics claiming to represent the thinking of the American public was always most evident to those who disagreed with them.” And many did. But what happened to their opposition? No satisfactory answers to this question emerge from The Averaged American. Igo asserts the ferocity of the challenge reflected acceptance that the polls were effacing the local and replacing smaller communities of opinion with the tyranny of a national, expert-defined majority. Some Americans faced “the startling discovery that one was attached to a minority cause.” But there was little to be done about that for as Igo argues, persuasively I think, “opinion polls were a genie out of the bottle.”

In a brief epilogue, Igo charts the persistence of her story into our own time. Pointing to the “inherently flattening tendencies of survey formats and terminology,” she observes that suchsocial knowledge has created simple fictions out of great complexity, yielding categories like “soccer moms” and “security moms,” as well as “red states” and “blue states” and a variety of other tendentious shortcuts to critical understanding. One cannot help but wonder whether the triumph of the averages has helped to drain American political lifeof energy and drama for the diverse citizenry that makes up our Republic. In a world defined for us by experts, where lies the wellspring of political energy and passion? And how can it be tapped in a way that will obliterate the lethargy and surrendering to the status quo that has, perhaps, come with the averaging? These questions and their elusive answers remain tantalizingly out of reach in this study, as in our society–lying someplace just beyond the aggregate.

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Ellen Fitzpatrick is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. Her latest book is The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.

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