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Igo’s History Scores Above ‘Average’

The Averaged American - By Sarah E. Igo (Harvard) - Out Now

Though the aspirations of Harvard students may make it difficult for us to imagine a time when people desired to be “average,” the social history of public opinion polls tells a different story.

The acceptance of the idea that an individual needs quantitative data in order to understand his or her own community—and sometimes even him- or herself—represented a cultural shift in how Americans in the 20th century understood their society, argues University of Pennsylvania historian Sarah E. Igo in “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public.”

Though the book isn’t beach reading, its look at the development of a mass society that came to understand itself though numbers rather than names and statistics rather than stories is both illuminating and incisive.

Igo covers the public’s response to the 1929 publication of “Middletown”—a best-selling anthropological study of a Midwestern community—the search for the “average American” in the public opinion polls of George Gallup and Elmo Roper in the 1930s and 1940s, and the controversy stirred up by the publication of the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. Her analysis focuses on how the development of surveys and statistics affected the understanding of social science in the mainstream and gave Americans a yardstick to measure themselves with, different from any tool they had known before.

Igo partitions the development of this statistical society into three steps covering a period of at least two decades. Robert and Helen Lynd’s 18-month stay in Muncie, Indiana and their subsequent publication of “Middletown,” fulfilled Americans’ “desire for summations of society, and for expert techniques to analyze it, [which] stemmed from a heightened sense of living in ‘modern times,’” according to Igo. “Middletown” became a best-seller because it was understood to be representative of mainstream America—reviewers of the book even used “Middletown” and “America” interchangeably. For Igo, the Lynds’ work was the beginning of the search for “Average America.”

The development of public opinion polls in the 1930s and 1940s required Americans to adjust to a style of societal research more invasive and less certain than the Lynds’ work in Muncie.

Gallup and Roper trained Americans to answer personal questions about themselves, their preferences, and their ideas, as a means to getting at the “common” man’s thought. As Igo puts it, the pollsters gathered “atomized bits of opinion” and then “[grafted] them together so that they might speak for ‘America.’”

Despite the polling technique of using a sample to represent the whole, pollsters also presented themselves as champions of the people, “serv[ing] as the instrument by which ordinary Americans’ voices could become audible to those in the corridors of power.”

Some Americans believed quite completely in this representation, one going so far as to write a letter to Roper apologizing for changing this mind and voting for Truman after telling a pollster that he was supporting Dewey.

From an anthropological understanding of American society to another that relied on data and statistics, Alfred C. Kinsey’s interview-based work on understanding human sexual behavior represents another development in the process of “averaging” America, according to Igo. Kinsey’s work in the mid-1940s and 1950s seemed to follow the mid-century trend in social investigation, though it also pioneered new surveying practices. Kinsey’s ability to gain private information from individuals even won the admiration of Gallup.

Igo argues that the greatest value the American public gleaned from Kinsey’s reports was an understanding of what was “normal” in an area of their lives otherwise seen as incredibly personal. Despite fears from some that Kinsey’s discovery that 37 percent of American men experienced some kind of “homosexual contact” or that half of the women interviewed were not virgins at the time of their marriage would lead to a majoritarian morality, Igo posits that many Americans found Kinsey’s report reassuring—it provided them with a sexual-behavioral spectrum on which they could situate themselves.

Because Kinsey separated these norms by age, class, religion, and gender, he created “a more finely grained scale along which nearly everyone could at least aspire to be normal.”

The desire to be normal, to understand the average, to know one’s place in a mass society is likely more true of Americans grappling with Cold War conformity than the YouTube and MySpace culture that we live in today. But Igo ends her book with a consideration of the attempts made by contemporary journalists and social scientists to understand segments of our society—the Soccer Moms, Young Literati, and Red and Blue Staters—who we live with as fellow citizens.

Though the era of searching for that “Average American”—representative of the country’s culture, attitudes, and practices—may have passed, our compulsion for understanding where we fit within a larger whole does not. If that were the case, why would we spend hours filling our Facebook profiles and blogs with our interests, activities, and plans? Two generations ago, people were telling the same things to the Lynds, Gallup and Roper, and Kinsey.

—Reviewer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at bmoraski@fas.harvard.edu.

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