Mon Dec 11, 2006

The Averaged American

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.