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The truth about us

How polls and surveys created the 'typical' American.

February 11, 2007|Sarah E. Igo | SARAH E. IGO is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public."

IF YOU BLINKED, you might have missed it: the week or two between the 2006 midterm elections and the start of the 2008 presidential season, a brief hiatus when poll data didn't lead the national news.

But it's over now. In the weeks and months ahead, rest assured that pollsters will measure every twist and turn, whether major or minuscule, in the upcoming race. We'll be buffeted by percentages comparing Clinton to Obama, McCain to Giuliani, red states to blue states, "values" voters to the "pocketbook" variety, and so on. And accompanying these polls, of course, will be all manner of survey results purporting to describe the citizenry to itself -- from our collective "consumer confidence" to our views on the so-called war on terror, from our habits of worship to our preferred television programs.

How did we arrive at this strange state of affairs, in which we look first to polling data to figure out who we are and where we stand? In which a flood of quantitative reportage drowns out other kinds of information and analysis? When -- and why -- did we become a survey-obsessed society?

Population surveys, whether for the purpose of levying taxes or raising militaries, date back as far as William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086. Modern nation-states have for centuries collected census data in order to track everything from public health to population growth to economic progress.

In the 19th century, American newspapers began running straw polls of readers during election seasons. Around the same time, early insurance and marketing agencies found profits in statistical tabulations of life spans and buying patterns. Reformers and philanthropists, motivated by the power of empirical data to clarify social problems, canvassed immigrant neighborhoods and factory laborers.

It was not until after World War I, however, that popular polls and surveys began to infiltrate ordinary Americans' lives in earnest. By 1948, a reporter would remark: "This is the great age of confession. We are required now to tell everything.... We tell Dr. Gallup how we are going to vote.... Our psychiatrist delves into our sex dreams and Dr. Kinsey into our actual performance along those lines." Mused another a few years later, "Today, unless you can say 'According to the Poop-A-Doop survey, umpty-ump percent of the people chew gum while they read Hot Shot News!' you fail to make an impression."

A number of developments ushered in this new era. One was the rise of the professional social sciences -- sociology, economics and political science -- which firmly established themselves in the first decades of the 20th century through claims to special expertise and objectivity in investigating social life. Another was the invention and refinement of new statistical techniques, including, most notably, scientific sampling, a mathematical tool that allows researchers to gauge the attitudes of the entire society by querying as few as 1,000 people.

Equally important were the actions of the surveyors themselves, those who perceived a demand, and sometimes a market, for statistics about "ourselves." Unlike their 19th century predecessors -- who had focused on social problems and those they considered degenerates, delinquents and defectives -- 20th century public opinion pollsters, commercial researchers and sex surveyors turned to investigating (and one might argue, creating) new social entities: "average" or "typical" American habits, attitudes and beliefs.

A torrent of social data conveyed through charts, graphs and statistics began to inundate newspaper and broadcasting networks. By 1940, for example, an estimated 8 million people were receiving tri-weekly reports of "What America Thinks," George Gallup's syndicated opinion polls.

The audience for these statistics was ready made. In an era of rapid urbanization and industrialization, and the seeming breakdown of older mores and communities, Americans were eager to know what bound a diverse and contentious population together. Surveyors were happy to oblige, measuring everything from what citizens bought to what they believed to what they did in the privacy of their homes.

One of the earliest surveys to gain national attention was "Middletown," Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd's 1929 investigation of an anonymous "representative community" (Muncie, Ind.). The study tabulated seemingly mundane trends, such as the movie-watching habits, house sizes and religious beliefs of "typical" citizens. The result was the first-ever sociological bestseller, surprising its publisher, booksellers and the surveyors themselves. What was it that fascinated readers in the Lynds' lengthy, empirical study? Many regarded it as a mirror of modern America, the first scientific account to reveal, in one journalist's words, "the truth about ourselves."

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