Inventing a `norm': Sociologists, sexologists and pollsters painting America by numbers

Review History

January 28, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public

Sarah E. Igo

Harvard University Press / 398 pages / $35

Boccaccio, the medieval collector of sexual exploits, told much better stories than Alfred Kinsey, claimed a columnist for the Tampa Times. But in 1949, he complained, "unless you have statistics and graphs," no one will pay attention.

Aggregate data have always had a special resonance, relevance and authority in democracies where, at least in theory, the majority rules.

In the 19th century, according to Sarah Igo, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, the subjects of surveys tended to be social deviants. But by the middle of the 20th century, community studies, opinion polls and sex surveys were revealing - and creating - norms against which ordinary Americans could measure themselves. With their "scientific" representation of "typical" communities, Igo suggests, surveys helped shape our self-conscious modern national culture.

In The Averaged American, Igo examines the studies of Middletown (Muncie, Ind.) by Robert and Helen Lynd; the political polling of George Gallup and Elmo Roper; and Kinsey's reports on human sexuality. These surveys generated "the vocabulary of mass society." But, she asserts, as they conflated the white, educated, male populace with "the public," the surveys "were deliberately modeled upon, and compounded, democracy's flaws."

Igo also provides a spirited analysis of responses to surveys. Most Americans, she indicates, accepted membership in statistical, "imagined" communities. But they also experienced in new ways the tensions between being an individual and a number, greeting survey results with a mixture of deference, distrust and defiance.

As they searched for the typical, Igo insists, social scientists failed to capture America's diversity. The Lynds rejected South Bend, Ind., because it was too heterogeneous, choosing Muncie because its population was 88 percent "old stock." Despite their own concerns about class cleavages, consumer culture and conformity, Igo writes, the Lynds looked backward to find contemporary America. Gallup and Roper also presented America as a relatively undifferentiated whole. Among the "unlikely voters" they excluded were many poor people and blacks. Although Kinsey interviewed several hundred blacks, he, too, did not use their responses in his published work.

Igo is a bit too hard on her social scientists. Judged by the standards of the time, their studies were inclusive and multi-variate. To overcome interviewers' reluctance to approach poor people, for example, Gallup and Roper switched to random sampling. Kinsey, Igo acknowledges, correlated sexual practices with gender, age, religion, educational background, occupation, and wealth, virtually exploding "the idea of a national `average.'" After the 1960s, thanks in part to the tools of survey research, simplistic statements about American homogeneity lost credibility.

Most Americans, Igo implies, accepted surveys as accurate descriptions of social and political realities. Some of them begged to be interviewed or polled. But doubts remained. Random "sampling" aroused skepticism. Cynics charged pollsters with manipulating data to create a "bandwagon effect." And many citizens remained convinced that a "true poll" would reveal that a majority agreed with them. When a survey reported that Eleanor Roosevelt was America's most admired woman, one J.M. Mottey dismissed Gallup as "crazy as a bed bug. She is made fun of and despised by 95 percent of the people. Your polls are the biggest fakes I know of."

Since letters to the Lynds, Gallup and Kinsey do not constitute a representative sample, it is impossible to know how many Americans shared these sentiments. Or agreed with "A Group of Enraged Women" that the Kinsey Reports should not have been published, even if they were accurate: "Kinsey called it realism. A sewer is also realism but for obvious reasons we keep it covered."

Igo concludes that Americans remain ambivalent about statistical surveys. In 1985, one-half of respondents expressed doubts about random sampling. Participation rates in telephone surveys and exit polls continue to decline. And Congress refuses to switch from physical tabulation to systematic sampling in the United States Census. At the same time, millions of Americans voice their opinions in unscientific SLOPS (selected listener opinion polls), seem ready to answer questions about anything and everything and devour the latest poll handicapping the presidential sweepstakes or President Bush's job approval.

Statistical surveys satisfy Americans' need for instant information. But, as Edward R. Murrow recognized, they also violate a sense that each individual is sovereign. Americans rejoice when the pollsters are wrong, Murrow wrote, because they want to believe that human motives are contingent, mysterious and "not to be measured by mechanical means." Americans yearn to be released "from the petty tyranny of those who assert that they can tell us what we think, what we believe, what we will do, ... without consulting us - all of us."

It's an eloquent - and inspiring - aspiration. But, as is increasingly clear, the polls aren't often wrong, individuals aren't all that sovereign and civic participation isn't terribly robust. Like it or not, Sarah Igo concludes, Americans "will continue to live in a world shaped by, and perceived through, survey data."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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