The Averaged American

by Kieran Healy on December 11, 2006

Aha, via Andrew Gelman I see that a book I’ve been waiting for has just been published. Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public is a study of the history of quantitative social research in America, documenting how Americans came to think of themselves as the subjects of social science, and how the categories of survey research got embedded in our culture. From the publisher:

Igo argues that modern surveys, from the Middletown studies to the Gallup Poll and the Kinsey Reports, projected new visions of the nation: authoritative accounts of majorities and minorities, the mainstream and the marginal. They also infiltrated the lives of those who opened their doors to pollsters, or measured their habits and beliefs against statistics culled from strangers. Survey data underwrote categories as abstract as “the average American” and as intimate as the sexual self. With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation. Tracing how ordinary people argued about and adapted to a public awash in aggregate data, she reveals how survey techniques and findings became the vocabulary of mass society—and essential to understanding who we, as modern Americans, think we are.

I knew Sarah in grad school and heard her present parts of the project once or twice. It seemed to me then that she was going to write an absolutely first-class book. Apparently it’s just won the Social Science History Association’s President’s book award, so it looks like I was right.

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Som-effekten | Mothugg
12.12.06 at 6:09 am

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1

calmo 12.11.06 at 11:04 pm

So a big fan is a big fan and why not esp when this is a personal contact (CR will interupt his own thread to support family friend, Sasha Cohen…no doubt a wonderful figure skater and someone kind enough to return this gesture by, say, doing a victory lap with the Calculated Risk banner…maybe not quite.)[Ok, what we learn here is that ice is not a hazard…a disservice for certain old codgers who might be inspired to don some skates, it looking like so much fun.]

This bit:

Tracing how ordinary people argued about and adapted to a public awash in aggregate data, she reveals how survey techniques and findings became the vocabulary of mass society—and essential to understanding who we, as modern Americans, think we are.

does interest me, personal friend or not. I just find this study to be part of social history –not linguistics or some communication/marketing course a bit surprising.
I shall find the book anyhow. I would think the TV, (not the surveys that carry the aggregate data we are all awash in), is the primary beast of burden, the lead camel, here.
Yes, and those characters in the sitcoms, those news anchors, those weathermen…get their vocabulary, scripts, mannerisms, gestures from the aggregate data and findings in the survey techniques, the camel loaders?
Ok, maybe, but I hesitate to say that I’m Pareto Optimal about this.

2

Joel Turnipseed 12.12.06 at 1:12 am

I have no idea whether I’ll ever get to this (sounds fascinating–but then: so much does), but thought I’d add that a surprising amount of fan mail I found in various archives of 20s/30s radio & political personalities was addressed/written self-consciously as “the common man” or “everyman”–and in a way I don’t think anyone would do w/o tremendous self-consciousness today.

Which is to say: does Igo also track the ironization of these responses? For instance: I’m guessing the answers given to, say, sexual activity or drug use surveys must have as much to do with the changes in mass youth culure as it does in mass youth behavior. I seem to remember (ca. late 70s/early 80s) comparing sniggering notes with my pals on the discrepancies between our answers and the facts (while quickly turning our answer sheets over so we could return to thumbing dog-eared copies of “Wifey” and “The Happy Hooker” in 7th or 8th grade social studies).

3

ben alpers 12.12.06 at 1:26 am

Thanks for posting this, Kieran. I, too, knew Sarah in grad school (small world…Tune every heart and every voice,/Bid every care withdraw etc.) and had also been eagerly awaiting her book. I’ll plan to pick up a copy at the AHA. So nice that it’s already won an award!

4

eweininger 12.12.06 at 1:19 pm

We were just selected to fill out the ACS. We are bursting with social scientific pride.

5

Eszter 12.13.06 at 12:52 pm

I’m not exactly unbiased either given that I’m also friends with Sarah. That said, I base my comments on having attended her dissertation defense on this project a while back and then seeing her give a talk on it last year in our program. It’s a fascinating project and it’s great that such a smart person decided to write about it. Congrats to Sarah on the well-deserved book award!

6

kid bitzer 12.14.06 at 4:28 am

wow.
I’m somehow amazed that a couple of sociologists are not more interested in the connection between this:
“it’s just won the Social Science History Association’s President’s book award”,

and this:

“I knew Sarah in grad school” “I’m also friends with Sarah”.

I don’t know this kid or her work, and for all I know she richly deserves any success she is experiencing.

But…social capital, anyone? Network effects, anyone?

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