I am perpetually behind on reading journals, so just finished reading Contexts from Winter 2009. It contains, among other things, a thoughtful review by the eminent sociologist Claude Fischer of Sarah Igo‘s book, The Averaged American. (I wrote a while ago about Andrew Kohut‘s review of the same book as well.)
Both Kohut and Fischer detect in the book a strain I did not find: what Kohut calls “poll bashing,” and Fischer refers to more modestly as “fault[ing]…scholars” for “falling short in precisely what they boasted of, accurately representing Americans.” But this critique rests on two pillars, neither of which strikes me as legitimate:
– First, it rests on the idea that transparent representation of “Americans” is a possibility, approached, if asymptotically, by ever-improving technical means. If we read the three cases in Igo’s book as three historically-situated, semiperformative moments–a reading for which there is ample ammunition in the book–the compromises involved in each of them are not faults but rather observational techniques.
– Second, and related, it rests on an overly naturalistic ontology (see this recent article for a pretty good discussion of this problem) in which citizens’ beliefs, ideas, and preferences are both (a) presocial; and (b) stable across settings. In other words, these are properties of individuals, not of times, contexts, spaces, and settings. Hence the pull-out quote in Fischer’s review: “Surveys well done allow us to clamber up the walls around us and get a view of the larger terrain, the multifaceted variety of people’s habits and views.” This is an aesthetic claim, a paean to a representational ontology that is (I suspect, knowing Claude, somewhat willfully) naïve.
In the cases both of Kohut and Fischer, the book seems to have prompted something of an ontological crisis: if research methods create, while representing, subjects, what is a serious social researcher to do? It is precisely this crisis that allows Fischer to end his review thus: “For confirmation–and here is the final irony–we may need representative surveys of Americans’ thoughts and feelings.” What would such a survey look like? The statement refers to Igo’s claim that “…modern survey methods…shaped the selves who would inhabit it [a mass public], influencing everything from beliefs about morality and individuality to visions of democracy and the nation.” Honestly, I am not hostile to standard public opinion research–I field a survey twice a year myself–but I just don’t see how a survey could be designed to answer that question.