Igo, Sarah Elizabeth 1967–

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Igo, Sarah Elizabeth 1967–

(Sarah Igo, Sarah E. Igo)


Born 1967. Education: Harvard University, A.B. (magna cum laude), 1992; Princeton University, M.A., 1997, Ph.D., 2001.


Home—Philadelphia, PA. Office—Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 2302 Spruce St., No. 2, College Hall 208, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer, historian, and educator. Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, instructor in history, 1992-95; Princeton University, Forbes College, Provincetown, NJ, member of staff and supervisor of upper-class residential and minority affairs, 1997-99; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, assistant professor of history, 2001—. Member of advisory board, College Women's Connection mentoring program, Princeton University, 1995-2000; member of executive committee, Council of the Princeton University Community, 1999-2000; Member of history department graduate committee and admissions committee, University of Pennsylvania, 2001—.


Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Scholars Award, 1990-91; John Harvard Award for Academic Achievement of Highest Distinction, 1990-91; Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, 1995-96; Davis Merit Prize, Princeton University Department of History, 1995-97; Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1998-2000; University Center for Human Values Graduate Prize Fellowship, 1999-2000; Whiting Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities, 1999-2000; Princeton Society of Fellows of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, 1999-2001.


The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2007.

Lighthouse Magazine, founder and member of editorial board.


Author, historian, and educator Sarah Elizabeth Igo is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her academic interests include modern American culture and intellectual history as well as the history of human sciences. A prolific teacher and developer of curricula and course materials, Igo has contributed significantly to the academic foundations of the institutions where she has worked. She has also contributed to the quality of student life on various campuses while serving in roles such as admissions interviewer, athletics coach, minority affairs advisor, supervisor of residential affairs, and faculty advisor.

In The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, Igo examines in depth the social and cultural changes that have occurred in America in the wake of the rise to prominence of the survey. Igo notes that much of Americans' ideas of their own identities, of ‘what we want, and what we believe are all shaped by and perceived through survey data,’ observed Theresa Kintz in Library Journal. Within the book, Igo looks at the early history of the developing interest in the assembling of diverse facts about human habits, preferences, and characteristics. At the turn of the twentieth century, social scientists, academic planners, bureaucrats, and government policymakers began to realize the usefulness of social scientific data. In the interests of collecting this increasingly important information, famous pollsters and researchers emerged in public, private, and government institutions. George Gallup and Elmo Roper became well known for the eponymous Gallup Poll, created in 1935, which sampled general public opinion; sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, scandalous in his time, developed the notorious but highly regarded Kinsey Reports on male and female sexual behavior in 1948 and 1953. The development of scientifically based polling techniques and analysis methods ‘forever altered the way Americans see themselves, sell products, and operate election campaigns,’ commented Richard S. Dunham in Business Week.

In her book, Igo analyzes the development and effects of Gallup's polls and Kinsey's reports, as well as a third landmark study of the ‘average American,’ the 1929 and 1937 Middletown studies conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd. The Lynds conducted their research on an unnamed, average town in Middle America (later revealed to be Muncie, IN), and through their careful exploration of the residents' attitudes, opinions, and behaviors, derived the characteristics of what would become known as the ‘average American,’ the statistical everyman who represented the good, bad, and indifferent of the American citizenry.

However, ‘as Igo wisely notes, the search for the average American intentionally excluded large swaths of the population,’ reported Dunham. African Americans and immigrants were excluded from the Lynds' Middletown research, and Kinsey focused his work only on Caucasians, Dunham noted. In early polling intended to gauge consumer attitudes, certain sections of the populations considered less likely to purchase goods or to vote were excluded, including minorities, immigrants, the poor, and even Southerners. Though the data were skewed, either deliberately or by accident, the data derived from such polls and studies did much to congeal the image of an average American and to foster the concept of a national public. ‘Social science was coming of age at the same time as Americans' sense of themselves as a mass public, and Sarah Igo argues that the new statistics helped shape this national identity,’ noted Wilson Quarterly reviewer Michael Kammen.

As the sophistication of the polling data increased, the value of the information also skyrocketed. Businesses and marketers were keenly interested in the buying habits and consumer attitudes of the American public. Politicians became heavily invested in public opinion as derived through polls and surveys. Greater accuracy in the statistical techniques allowed businesses access to markets that were previously poorly understood or badly serviced. Polling became a lucrative business, particularly for pollster Roper, who reaped considerable financial benefit from selling his data to eager businesses such as the Ford Motor Company, Standard Oil, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Victor, and the Spiegel mail-order catalogue company.

Igo's work brings ‘perspective and a critical eye to surveys and the creation of the notion of a mass public,’ commented Vanessa Bush, writing in Booklist.



Booklist, December 1, 2006, Vanessa Bush, review of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, p. 6.

Business Week, March 5, 2007, Richard S. Dunham, ‘In Search of Joe Sixpack,’ review of The Averaged American, p. 88.

Columbia Journalism Review, May-June, 2007, Rick Perlstein, ‘The Flaw of Averages: How Polls Obscure America's Many Social Patchworks,’ review of The Averaged American, p. 63.

Library Journal, December 1, 2006, Theresa Kintz, review of The Averaged American, p. 144.

Political Science Quarterly, fall, 2007, Ken Dautrich, review of The Averaged American, p. 502.

Reason, February, 2007, Kerry Howley, ‘In Search of the Average American,’ interview with Sarah E. Igo, p. 11.

Science, March 30, 2007, Tom W. Smith, ‘What Flowed from ‘Surveys Say … ’,’ p. 1793.

Utne: A Different Read on Life, March-April, 2007, Danielle Maestretti, review of The Averaged American, p. 36.

Wilson Quarterly, spring, 2007, Michael Kammen, ‘National Inquirers,’ review of The Averaged American, p. 88.


Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government Web site,http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/ (November 18, 2007), curriculum vitae of Sarah E. Igo.