The Averaged Historian
A Critique of Sarah E. Igo’s The Averaged American by an Amateur Historian at a Time Near the End of Academia.
Sarah Igo’s triumph in The Averaged American is to bring up the hitherto discreet–I would go so far as to say perniciously discreet–moment of American obsession with polls, surveys, and social data in honest historical conversation. One feels the same palpable sensation of recognition–indeed, relief!–while reading her description of the Middletown study and the curiously pliant public that both enabled it and consumed it as one feels when a friend comments on an odd trend in fashion or hobbies that you had never taken the time to ponder (say, why so many young white people are tattooed or have all of a sudden taken up knitting). “Good heavens, I’ve noticed the same thing myself!” you say, though you did not really know you had noticed it until the thing was named. Suddenly, the thing is everywhere: TIME Magazine, election coverage, editorial columns. Naming something exposes it and roots it out of its anonymity to be considered and wondered about. Igo exposes the American obsession with the “social scientific way of knowing” that has been hiding in plain sight for far too long.
But what if the American obsession with sociology is not just some cultural quirk, but a symptom of a deep cultural illness? It is not very helpful to converse casually with a friend about chest pains. One must seek a diagnosis from a doctor and hopefully, treatment. Though Igo offers some cautions, she does not diagnose or treat what may very well be a distinctly American malady. Most of her book illumines the survey framers’ questionable assumptions and the methodological corners they cut to obtain their supposedly scientific results. The Lynds intentionally excluded minorities in their pursuit of the American middle (Igo, 79-85). Kinsey’s desire to expose sexual irregularities made him prone to collecting bad data, and inadvertently created a “new normal” by which people judged and classified their own sexual histories. (267-74) But in both cases, the trouble comes not because the social scientific way of knowing was illegitimate, but because the Lynds and Kinsey committed academic missteps that could theoretically be corrected by future innovations in data gathering technology or concerted attempts to be “less biased.” These matters distract from what should have been this book’s two main questions: first, what accounts for America’s almost total genuflection to the social scientific way of knowing? (Or to put a finer point on it: why did America accept the Lynds’ and Kinsey’s studies as prophetic and not so much pseudo-scientific quackery?) Second, is the social scientific way of knowing trustworthy?
The first one is a historical question that can be argued by considering whether there was any historical precedent for the sensation surrounding Middletown and the Kinsey reports, and what other roads went untraveled and why. In short: tell us a story. Mine might have have begun with the betrayal of familiar institutions of American identity like religion, family, and local politics in favor of scientism and expertise that left Americans hungry for new communities, preferably ones founded on the unshakeable foundations of science. There would be heroes, (J. Gresham Machen) villains, (John Dewey) and the glowering eye of scientific objectivism atop a black tower of industrial progress.
This may seem sensational, but seminal historical works, such as Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, do not shrink from the interpretive duty of the historian, which is in William Leuchtenburg’s words “thinking about history.”
The second question, that of whether the social scientific way of knowing is tenable, is a philosophical one that can (should!) be investigated in a historical account by summarizing the lives and thoughts of thinkers who have commented on the subject, preferably from people who lived through the period at hand. In 1958, Walker Percy wrote an article in the Catholic journal The New Scholasticism called “Culture: The Antinomy of the Scientific Method” that is, despite being dense, theoretical, and by Percy’s own account “irritating,” one of the profoundest critiques of social science ever made.
His argument hinged on the idea that science cannot investigate assertions, which is a very difficult claim to refute when one thinks the matter through. This is to say that science cannot examine the very claims it makes. Science cannot see itself, much like a camera cannot take a picture of itself. Percy goes on to claim that culture is nothing if not a series of assertive events, people positing things about the universe and confirming or disconfirming them. “Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius” is an assertion. The scientist may take it as given, but the moment he tries to study the assertion itself, he runs into trouble because there is no “claim” in the same way that there is a pail of frozen water and cold air around it. The claim is an immaterial relationship between the two, an assertion, which becomes the explanatory currency of the scientist. An assertion can either be supposed to be nothing more than a material exchange of physical energy (as a rigorous metaphysical materialist would), but at this point it loses its intentionality, and therefore its explanatory power, as no material thing can be “about” anything else. The sentence “water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius” would be no more useful to us than an electric shock applied to our brains.
The social scientists’ attempt to examine culture scientifically breaks down at this quandary of objectivity. Culture, Percy claims, is nothing if not a vast mire of assertive events. The claims “God is love” and “Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius” can be taken as either true, false, or nonsensical, but they are still assertions that occupy the same ontological space. One can quantify the responses to that assertion, but not the nature of the assertion itself. Therefore, the ethnographer, no matter how dialectically, objectively, subjectively, or methodologically progressive she pursues her research, must take culture as a space-time event to make assertions about, not as a set of assertions themselves. Percy pointed out that doing so misses the most interesting thing about the human being: that he can make an assertion at all. A true anthropology would attempt to describe this peculiar ontological quality, not the nature of a culturally encoded being.
I bring this drear metaphysical argumentation to attention as a serious counterfactual that could have been as potent a cultural force as Kinsey’s work. Walker Percy was not arguing for the preternatural inscrutability of the human subject, but rather for a new frontier in exploring human semiotics that could provide real-world explanations and diagnoses for modern psychological problems like malaise, depression, and obsession. Percy’s 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book was his attempt at bringing his theories into pop culture. In it, he presented his philosophy as a satirical self-help book. He attacked Kinsey’s sex research with considerable glee and good humor. The book was engaging, humorous, completely original, profound, and almost universally ignored.
Igo comes close to presenting a clear intellectual alternative when she quotes Lionel Trilling’s comments on the cultural significance of the Kinsey study: that it was a therapeutic dose of identifiable community to an increasingly atomized society. (277-78) Here, Igo could have entered the discussion and built upon Trilling’s opinion or disconfirmed it in favor of a new hypothesis. Instead, social criticism occupies a sidebar space in The Averaged American. It is almost as if Igo does not feel that she is qualified to enter the fray. But who else could be more trustworthy than someone who has made a careful archival study of the material? It could, of course, be the case that she believes herself to be just a lowly researcher, and has no opinion to proffer. But this is clearly not the case. Her crackling prose and revealing anecdotes betray a first-rate mind with deep concern for the case at hand, and one senses the desire to change it even as she shrinks from the opportunity to go for the jugular in her epilogue. “And we will continue to live in a world shaped by, and perceived through, survey data” is a lamentable whimper of a conclusion that ultimately treats the social scientific way of knowing as the inevitable method by which we are fated to answer the age-old questions of “who are we What do we believe? Where do we fit?” (299) It could, I suppose, be argued that the reader should be left to ponder his own conclusions instead of being bludgeoned over the head by the author’s–to provoke thought instead of prescribing it. But the tactic of elucidating truth through subtlety, to show and not tell, resides in the sensual domain of art. The joy, indeed duty, of academia is to speak plainly.
If I appear to chafe at The Averaged American, it was not that I was unimpressed or uninterested. It’s actually one of the most interesting books that I’ve read recently. Instead, I lament a missed opportunity to probe deeper into American history than a catalogue of historical events, taking care to supply “agency” to all involved. While interesting conversations come from naming things, important intellectual dialogue requires venturing beyond the enjoyable first step of naming, and setting out on the difficult journey of deciding where social currents came from, where they are taking us, and whether we like where we are going. The unfortunate parlance of 21st Century academia that comes the closest to speaking to this nearly lost intellectual ideal is to inspire “social change,” that benevolent force so hallowed by the responsible, socially-conscious historian which, he assumes, will always tend toward “ending inequalities.” But even this most generic of noble goals–indeed, the phrasing goes out of its way to be creedless–requires the less comfortable work of either digging up or cooking up some idea of what we might like to change into. Many will object that it is out of bounds of historical scholarship to diagnose a society’s maladies much less prescribe treatment. It is judgmental and preachy, they say. “Observe and report impartially. Do not get involved.” Nonsense! Would it be objective or even scientific for a chemist, in the interest of being unbiased, to only take note of air temperature and rate of water crystallization without stating the relationship between the two? Historians of all people should not fall prey to the specious pretense of statistical objectivity and neglect the greater power of making assertions and presenting reasoned argument for or against assertions. Therein lies the very claim to being intellectuals and even, on Percy’s count to being humans. It is not our “lot” to assert, but our privilege, our power, the raison d’etre of academia, and our admission ticket into it. We must think about history. If historians shrink from doing so on the pretense of being “objective,” it only shows that Middletown and the Kinsey Reports really have penetrated so deeply into American historiography as to sabotage its pursuit of truth.