The power of opinion polling

Sarah Igo Assistant professor of history Sarah Igo says people have always been somewhat skeptical of opinion polls. That skepticism, however, hasn’t made the polls any less popular.. Photo courtesy of Sarah Igo

These days, political polls, person-on-the-street interviews and product surveys are woven into our culture. It’s nearly impossible to imagine an election cycle without opinion polls or a product campaign without market research.

But these social surveys are a fairly recent phenomenon, says Assistant Professor of History Sarah Igo. In the early 20th century, social scientists and marketers began to use surveying techniques typically reserved for marginalized populations (prostitutes and black migrant workers) on those considered to be “average” Americans—white, middle-class people. These early surveyors sought to document the opinions, thoughts, political attitudes and sexual habits of average citizens in order to understand the population as a whole.

Igo, who is at Yale this year on a fellowship, explores the history of modern polls and surveys and how they relate to ideas of self and identity in her new book, “The Averaged American,” for which she won the President’s Book Award from the Social Science History Association.
“I got very interested in the rhetoric of social surveys in the 20th century and what they thought they were doing that they thought was so novel,” says Igo. “I was surprised by how novel these techniques seemed to people in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. We are so accustomed to being asked these kinds of questions.”

The famous Middletown study of 1929, in which researchers Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd studied the education, religious and social life of a typical American city, reflected a sense at that time that many problems would be solved and questions answered by surveys, polls and behavioral interviews, says Igo.

Opinion polling, which emerged in 1936, was immediately syndicated by newspapers and gobbled up by the general public. At the same time, the public was skeptical of the methodology that allowed pollsters to ask questions of a small number of residents in order to create a picture of the national public.

While polls have certainly improved since the 1930s and 40s, Igo notes some of the same skepticism still exists today. “Opinion polls are a technique that has remained very controversial from the beginning to the present moment,” she says. “The debate about the influence of polls—their inaccuracy, their flaws, their susceptibility to political influence—was there from the inception.”

Initially, these surveys were stuck in a self-referencing feedback loop, says Igo. A prime example is the Middletown study, in which the Lynds did not study African-Americans, Jews or Catholics. This same technique, used in other studies, resulted in a picture of America that is much more homogeneous than what really existed. “In the earlier part of the 20th century, the people doing the surveying were not nearly as attentive to diversity in the population as they are now,” she says. This changed in the 1960s.

“Kinsey [showed] how diverse people were in their sexual behavior at a time where many people had a kind of limited imagination of what was normal and mainstream,” says Igo, referring to the biologist who became famous for publishing reports on human sexuality.

The impact of all of the early surveys on the general public—and on those who were themselves surveyed—was profound, however. People were fascinated by the techniques of the surveys, and seemed to glean an understanding of where they “fit” in society. The surveys also changed Americans’ feelings about privacy. “One of the most dramatic changes [from] 1920 to 1950 is the kind of questions that surveyors felt that they could legitimately ask people—and they willingly answered,” says Igo, who adds that some of the roots of our “confessional culture” were planted during this time. “These surveys have had a deep and powerful effect.”

Originally published on January 18, 2007.

Originally published on December 7, 2006