What I found most interesting about “The Averaged American” by Sarah Igo is something she rarely addresses head-on in the book. In both the Middletown average-American section and the polling and surveying section, accounts abound of corners cut by the pollsters and researchers. One corner in particular provides a fascinating look at the culture of the times: the underplaying, avoidance and downright omission of racial and ethnic minorities in surveys and studies of the ‘average’ population.
It is not difficult to understand why the surveyors made these choices. Social mores and climate are incredibly powerful, and the institutionalized racism and WASP-centrism of the period are matters of record. Moral or immoral, the social scientists involved would have had more trouble than perhaps their results were worth to include all demographics in their studies. However, the collision of logical science and illogical discrimination must necessarily produce some cognitive dissonance. The polls would not have been a direct agent of social change, but anyone who paid attention to the system would have seen racism (so often swept under the rug) thrown into sharp relief. Voting rights are an excellent example: African-Americans, technically eligible to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, were marginalized and disenfranchised in many states. Any pollster or poll viewer would have been forced to face this fact directly and take steps to ignore it – thus facing their own acceptance of the situation. This forced facing-up-to of social issues is an unavoidable consequence of scientific examination of the populace – for better or worse.