Sarah Igo: On her new book, pushy pollsters, and the self-help industry

Historians in the News

Last week, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a “Portrait of Generation Next,” a wide-ranging collection of survey data from Americans aged 18-25. The report collapsed a generation into a few crisp adjectives. Generation Nexters, it turns out, are tolerant, tech-savvy, idealistic, and liberal-leaning. And alongside all of their catalogued assumptions, one goes unsaid: None of them will find it strange that they and 42 million peers have been distilled into a press release.

As Sarah Igo points out in her new book The Averaged American (Harvard University Press), people haven’t always been so welcoming of large-scale attempts to lump them together. Surveyors, argues Igo, popularized the concept of a mass public as they defined its boundaries. As they framed a snapshot of the nation’s collective psyche, early pollsters were giving often-resistant Americans a new—and often distorted—way of thinking about themselves. In her engaging history of the surveyors and the surveyed, Igo, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that surveys and polls have helped generate the very idea of the archetypical American.

Reason: What does it mean to be part of a mass public?

Sarah Igo: The way people have talked about that in the past was very wrapped up with being a consumer. That people were listening to the same radio shows of watching the same television programs, buying the same kinds of products, and to me that was always kind of unsatisfying. I didn’t think products necessarily made one feel part of anything larger. What I discovered was that statistical information, bastardized and popularized, was a deeper way for people to understand that they belonged to something larger than a family or a particular community. It gave people a way to look at the nation in a very new way. I think that kind of statistical information, where people could find themselves in the numbers, or sometimes not find themselves, was a very powerful technology for understanding this whole, or this mass.

The word mass has an interesting history, but it's often been portrayed very negatively. I think there is something more interesting going on in people's recognition of themselves, or sometimes misrecognition of themselves, in the numbers that surveyors provided.

Reason: How did surveys become a way to define the average rather than the marginal?

Igo: Surveys go centuries back, but in the modern period, in the 19th century, they were really used as a tool of social control, of policing almost—of poor people, marginal people, black migrants, immigrants—by social reformers. And it's really not until the 20th century that you get surveys attempting to query "normal, ordinary" Americans—white, middle class folks. I think there is an expected conflation in the 20s 30s 40s 50s of that character—the normal American—with white middle class subjects. And then there is a movement in the 60s and 70s, both in survey research itself and in the wider social cultural political world, to pay greater attention to people who had been neglected in earlier surveys. It happens in medical studies, in epidemiology, women's health activists for example, where women who had not been medical subjects suddenly asked why there hadn’t been any attention paid to breast cancer....
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