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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Measuring Mass Society

Have descriptive statistics derived from social science data changed the way we view ourselves? As we look in the statistical mirror and see images of ourselves, does it change us?:

Measure for Measure, by Scott Stossel, Book Review, NY Times: [Review of] The Averaged American: Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, by Sarah E. Igo.

...On the face of it, the subject matter of “The Averaged American” could hardly sound duller: it’s about social science data — specifically, about the increasing use of surveys, polls and other forms of statistical measurements beginning in the years after World War I. But Igo, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has an ambitious argument to make: that the advent of new techniques of measurement not only helped give birth to the modern social sciences but also changed the way America thinks of itself. Focusing principally on three milestones in the annals of empirical research — the famous study of Muncie, Ind., published as “Middletown” in 1929; the emergence of George Gallup’s and Elmo Roper’s political polling in the 1930s; and the publication of the infamous Kinsey reports in 1948 and 1953 — Igo chronicles the emergence of a “mass society” and the transformation of the American consciousness along statistical lines. ...

Igo’s narrative begins with Robert and Helen Lynd, who met ... in 1919 and bonded over their admiration for Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class.” Social statistics were just beginning to escape their confines in the decennial census, ... and the era of market research had dawned with the creation of the Harvard Bureau of Business Research in 1911. Amid this growing emphasis on “objective” data, the Lynds arrived in Muncie.

Their survey undertook to examine every aspect of life... The Lynds collected information about everything from hours spent on household cleaning to the size of backyards, and harvested a wealth of data about this supposedly representative American town, eventually reporting, in Igo’s summary, “that workers rose earlier in the morning than their employers; that schoolgirls desired silk rather than cotton stockings; ... that the newest homes in town lacked spare rooms and parlors; ... that business associations were growing but trade unions declining; that belief in hell was weakening.”

The Lynds were appalled by what they perceived to be the money-grubbiness of Muncie society. “More and more of the activities of living are coming to be strained through the bars of the dollar sign,” they wrote. True to their Veblenesque spirit, one of the Lynds’ intentions ... was to highlight — and thereby to mitigate — the “pecuniary” nature of modern industrial life. ...

When it was published, “Middletown” became an object of collective American fascination. Everyone, or so it seemed, wanted to know about the “typical” Americans of Middletown. “Nothing is so interesting as ourselves,” as an article in Good Housekeeping put it. According to Igo, in capturing modern life for the first time in an “empirical, detached and, most of all, objective” way, “Middletown” changed how America understood itself, and created a new object for scientific study: “average America.”

If the publication of “Middletown” marked the arrival of a self-conscious national culture, the work of Gallup and Roper would feed that self-consciousness on a weekly basis. Pioneering the use of statistical sampling, they presented the American “average” in a whole new way: instead of looking in a particular geographic place, the pollsters located the average in a disembodied statistical mean. Their ambition was to capture what the national public, or “the mass mind,” was thinking, doing and buying at any given time. Politicians and marketers increasingly turned to Gallup and Roper to find out what “America” was thinking. The pollsters’ ascendance solidifed the notion of a cohesive American public — a useful function, as the cold war began — but at the expense of homogenizing the vast diversity that goes into any statistical mean. ...

For Igo’s purposes, what’s most notable about the Kinsey reports is not their sexual content but the way they used data. (Talk about a one-track mind.) Kinsey wanted to remove the stigma attached to sexual practices ... that were considered deviant by demonstrating how common they were. Where the Lynds found the “normal” in a representative city and the pollsters found it in statistical averages, Kinsey demonstrated there was no such thing. Whatever outlandish sexual act you could imagine, someone somewhere was doing it. ...

Even as we have moved toward ever-finer calibrations of statistical measurement, the knowledge that social science can produce is, in the end, limited. Is the statistical average rendered by pollsters the distillation of America? Or its grinding down into porridge? For all of the hunger Americans have always expressed for cold, hard data about who we are, literary ways of knowing may be profounder than statistical ones. ... Poll-saturated though we may be, our national self-understanding still comes as much from art (think of Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper), literature (think of “The Great Gatsby” or even “The Bonfire of the Vanities”) and impressionistic journalism (think of James Agee and Walker Evans, or Joan Didion) as it does from any survey. I’m sure at least 23 percent of Americans would agree with me.

    Posted by on Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 08:10 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (2)

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