Skip to content

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

Chris Wiggins pointed me to this interesting-looking book by Sarah Igo:

Americans today “know” that a majority of the population supports the death penalty, that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that four out of five prefer a particular brand of toothpaste. Through statistics like these, we feel that we understand our fellow citizens. But remarkably, such data–now woven into our social fabric–became common currency only in the last century. Sarah Igo tells the story, for the first time, of how opinion polls, man-in-the-street interviews, sex surveys, community studies, and consumer research transformed the United States public.. . . 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.

As a survey researcher, this looks interesting to me. Parochially, I’m reminded of our own observation that in the 1950s it was more rational to answer a Gallup poll than to vote. Nowadays, most of us are participants as well as consumers of surveys.