Sarah Igo wins Cheiron Book Prize

Sarah IgoSarah Igo has been named the winner of the 2008 Cheiron Book Prize, for her history of scientific polling: The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Alexandra Rutherford, chair of the Book Prize Committee, explained the choice as follows:

Igo’s work stood out for the tightness and layering of its argumentation, the originality and freshness of its analysis, and the verve and energy of its presentation. It should be of great interest to a wide range of scholars in the history of the social and behavioral sciences and beyond.

She poses the provocative question: “In what ways is a society changed by the very tools employed to represent it?” and then answers it by examining the roles of the modern survey and the scientific surveyor in this process, arguing that surveys are “a peculiar sort of social investigation in which the public is simultaneously object, participant, and audience.” Her compelling account of Robert and Helen Lynd‘s Middletown study, the opinion polling of Elmo Roper and George Gallup, and the Kinsey reports in the making of a mass public exploits each of these vantage points, unraveling the complex relationships between social science and its publics in this period.

Dr. Igo will give the 2008 Cheiron Book Prize address at the 40th anniversary meeting of Cheiron at Ryerson University in Toronto, June 26th-29th. [Get the registration form.]

The Averaged American also won the President’s Book Award — which recognizes unpublished manuscripts by new authors — from the Social Science History Association in 2006.

Related works by the author:

  • Igo, S. E. (2006). “A gold mine and a tool for democracy”: George Gallup, Elmo Roper, and the business of scientific polling, 1935-1955. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 42(2), 109-134. “Scientific” public opinion polls arrived on the American scene in 1936. Examining the work of opinion surveyors George Gallup and Elmo Roper, this essay tracks the early career of a new social scientific technology, one that powerfully shaped conceptions of “the public.” Pollsters described their craft as a democratic one that could accurately represent the U.S. populace. Yet, their assumptions about that same public – and the techniques they employed to measure it – undermined such claims, and even risked calling the polling profession into question. To understand why Gallup and Roper fell short of their stated ambitions, one must turn not only to the state of midcentury sampling methods but also to the corporate sponsors and commercial pressures underlying their enterprise.
  • Igo, S. E. (2005). From Main Street to Mainstream: Middletown, Muncie, and “Typical America”. Indiana Magazine of History, 101(3), 239-266. That Middletown—Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s 1929 study of Muncie, Indiana—captured the national limelight should be surprising. Social surveys, one response to the challenges posed by a new industrial order and rapid urbanization, would hardly have been unfamiliar to contemporaries. Similar investigations had been fixtures of the American scene since the late nineteenth century, from Jane Addams’s Hull House Maps and Papers of 1895 and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro of 1899 to the six-volume Pittsburgh Survey of 1909–1914. These ventures, by turns altruistic and anxious, mapped urban poverty, explored the structures of African American and immigrant communities, tracked transformations in rural life, and examined industrial working conditions. By one count, at least 2,775 such surveys on various aspects of American life had been completed by the time of Middletown‘s publication. Yet no other study was instantly pronounced a revelatory investigation into the modern United States, a “mirror held up before us,” telling Americans “how we live and what we think about.” And none would have the impact—or the reach—of the Lynds’ survey.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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