Social Issues

In Search of the Average American

Sarah Igo on her new book, pushy pollsters, and the self-help industry

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Last week, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a "Portrait of Generation Next," a wide-ranging collection of survey data from Americans aged 18-25. The report collapsed a generation into a few crisp adjectives. Generation Nexters, it turns out, are tolerant, tech-savvy, idealistic, and liberal-leaning. And alongside all of their catalogued assumptions, one goes unsaid: None of them will find it strange that they and 42 million peers have been distilled into a press release.

As Sarah Igo points out in her new book The Averaged American (Harvard University Press), people haven't always been so welcoming of large-scale attempts to lump them together. Surveyors, argues Igo, popularized the concept of a mass public as they defined its boundaries. As they framed a snapshot of the nation's collective psyche, early pollsters were giving often-resistant Americans a new—and often distorted—way of thinking about themselves. In her engaging history of the surveyors and the surveyed, Igo, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that surveys and polls have helped generate the very idea of the archetypical American.

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

Sarah Igo: 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 of watching the same television programs, buying the same kinds of products, and to me that was always kind of unsatisfying. I didn't think products necessarily made one feel part of anything larger. 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. It gave people a way to look at the nation in a very new way. I think that kind of statistical information, where people could find themselves in the numbers, or sometimes not find themselves, was a very powerful technology for understanding this whole, or this mass.

The word mass has an interesting history, but it's often been portrayed very negatively. I think there is something more interesting going on in people's recognition of themselves, or sometimes misrecognition of themselves, in the numbers that surveyors provided.

Reason: How did surveys become a way to define the average rather than the marginal?

Igo: Surveys go centuries back, but in the modern period, in the 19th century, they were really used as a tool of social control, of policing almost—of poor people, marginal people, black migrants, immigrants—by social reformers. And it's really not until the 20th century that you get surveys attempting to query "normal, ordinary" Americans—white, middle class folks. I think there is an expected conflation in the 20s 30s 40s 50s of that character—the normal American—with white middle class subjects. And then there is a movement in the 60s and 70s, both in survey research itself and in the wider social cultural political world, to pay greater attention to people who had been neglected in earlier surveys. It happens in medical studies, in epidemiology, women's health activists for example, where women who had not been medical subjects suddenly asked why there hadn't been any attention paid to breast cancer.

Reason: The gay rights movement has used survey numbers to gain legitimacy. Is a surveyed America a more tolerant America?

Igo: I think that may be true now. I don't think that was true in the earlier surveys. The earlier surveys, bound by their own time and place and presuppositions, did elevate a certain kind of profile as typical, or average, or mainstream, often not deliberately. I don't think these surveyors set out with that goal in mind, but their image of who the average American was was tempered by race and class and even geological region. I think that's why Middletown took off the way it did; it played into but also advanced the idea that the real Americans were native whites. There is always a bit of slippage that allows for preconceptions or stereotypes or certain kinds of simplifications to enter into these pictures of who we are. That said, I do think more careful kinds of statistical analyses that take into account minority positions have made for a more tolerant and certainly more diverse picture of "who we are."

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

Igo: 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.

People have talked about cosmopolitanism as a solution—a pluralistic way of thinking and being. I think that may be a more promising ideal than the notion that there was some archtypical American culture that we can get back to.

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

Igo: 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.

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

Igo: One of the most interesting actual uses of statistical data has been the gay rights movement using [Alfred] 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.

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

Igo: 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 quizzes in women's magazines that you can fill out, check a bunch of boxes, to find out what kind of person you are—I think that owes quite a debt to survey techniques. The idea that a set of questions tells you more about yourself than you already knew is part of a 20th century modern movement toward a certain kind of self-consciousness.