Soundbite: In Search of the Average American

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As this interview went to press, 63 percent of Americans disapproved of their president, 14 percent of adults believed in evolution, and 100 percent of politicians claimed to speak for something called "The American People." Americans have grown used to crisp statistics, but as Sarah Igo points out in her new book The Averaged American (Harvard University Press), it wasn't always so easy to create a snapshot of the country's collective psyche. Igo, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, tells the story of how surveys and polls have contributed to a sometimes distorted, always controversial conception of the archetypical American.

 

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

 

A: 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, watching the same television programs. 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. People could find themselves in the numbers, or sometimes not find themselves. It was a very powerful technology for understanding this mass.

 

It's really not until the 20th century that you get surveys attempting to query "normal, ordinary" Americans: white, middle-class folks. There is a conflation in the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s of that character, the normal American, with white middle-class subjects.

 

Q: What do you make of claims that America is losing its common culture?

 

A: There is this nostalgia for some kind of homogenous-and I think idealized and impossible-commonality in a nation this diverse. That's always been a kind of national fantasy. And that fantasy was strongest in the period where surveys really took hold at the national level.

 

People now look back, sometimes using survey data, to the 1950s and say we were a country that was much more unified, much more harmonious. I suspect that's not true. But that's the image that these surveys projected. The earlier surveys, bound by their own time and place and presuppositions, elevated a certain kind of profile as typical, or average, or mainstream.

 

Q: Aren't these anxieties as old as the country itself?

 

A: If you look back at the 19th century, very few people assumed Americans were automatically the same kind of people. There were attempts to Americanize, but there was much more recognition than there is now that there was a vast array of different kinds of people, cultures, traditions, that existed. We somehow think now that there was something shared that has been lost. I've become convinced that that's not true.

 

Q: How have not-so-average Americans used survey data?

 

A: One of the most interesting actual uses of statistical data has been the gay rights movement using Kinsey's figures to proclaim that they are 10 percent of the population. There is a Boston radio station that calls itself 1 in 10 and is designed for the gay and lesbian community there. That suggests to me that a group believes higher numbers lead to a kind of legitimacy in the public sphere, but also something problematic. If you've put your energies into establishing that number as something significant politically, you run into trouble if you discover that number is not actually representative. And that figure has been attacked again and again both by statisticians and from people on the right.

 

Q: What does the self-help industry owe to survey techniques?

 

A: The self-help industry plays to some of the same desires that Americans have: to confess, to answer questions, to know themselves better, and to know how they fit into a statistical distribution. The idea that a set of questions tells you more about yourself than you already knew is part of a modern movement toward a kind of self-consciousness.

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