Top Young Historians: 44 – Sarah E. Igo


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

44: Sarah E. Igo, 2-19-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania, 2001-present.
Area of Research: Modern American cultural, intellectual, and political history
Education: Ph.D. in History, Princeton University, November 2001.
Major Publications: Igo is author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, January 2007),
Sarah E. Igo JPGwhich has received press attention in venues such as the New York Times, National Public Radio, C-SPAN’s Book TV, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, New York Sun, Atlantic Monthly, Democracy Journal, and Reason Magazine. Igo is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled The Known Citizen, charting the recent cultural history of privacy, examined through legal debates, technological innovations, professional codes, and recastings of familial and domestic life.
Awards: Igo is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
President’s Book Award, Social Science History Association, for an “especially meritorious” first book, 2006;
Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, Visiting Fellow, 2006-2007;
Thornbrough Award, for the best article of the year in the Indiana Magazine of History, 2005;
John C. Burnham Early Career Award, jointly awarded by the Forum for the History of Human Science and the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 2004;
Institute for Advanced Study (School of Social Science), Member, 2004-2005;
American Council of Learned Societies, Andrew W. Mellon Junior Faculty Fellowship, 2004-2005;
Trustee’s Council of Penn Women, Summer Faculty Research Fellowship, 2004;
Dissertation Prize, Forum for the History of Human Science, 2004;
Richard S. Dunn Award for Distinguished Teaching, University of Pennsylvania, 2003;
National Young Faculty Leaders Forum, Invited Member, Harvard University, 2002-present;
Princeton Society of Fellows of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Dissertation Fellowship, 1999-2001;
Whiting Foundation in the Humanities, Dissertation Fellowship, 1999-2000;
University Center for Human Values, Graduate Prize Fellowship, 1999-2000;
Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Summer Grant, 1998, 1999, 2000;
Davis Merit Prize, Princeton University Department of History, 1995-1997;
Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities, Graduate Fellowship, 1995-1996;
Class Marshal, Harvard College, 1991;
John Harvard Award, Academic Achievement of Highest Distinction, Harvard College, 1990-1991.

Additional Info:
Formerly Instructor in History and Social Science, Phillips Academy, Andover, 1992-1995.
Igo has also worked as a Historical Consultant for “U.S. Politics, 1980-2000,” for CBS News/Schlessinger Media, 2001, and “The First Measured Century: One Hundred Years of Social Science,” Public Broadcasting Service, 2000.

Personal Anecdote

In graduate school I often envied my fellow students, who spent years at a stretch in Berlin, Shanghai, or Mombasa, soaking up other cultures, cuisines, and landscapes alongside their work in the archives. As an Americanist, I had no such luck. In fact, my research wound up taking me to what some might consider the most mundane of locations: the U.S. Midwest.

During my travels in America’s “heartland,” however, I had some of my most wonderful experiences as an historian. In Bloomington, Indiana, where I was reading Alfred Kinsey’s correspondence (in an adults-only archive where most researchers were flipping not through dusty letters but 1920s German porn magazines and the like!), an archivist took the time to take me on a tour of the college town’s used book stores, and to share her stories about working in an institute named for one of the more controversial scientists of the twentieth century. In Muncie, Indiana—a community better known as “Middletown” via Helen and Robert Lynd’s social surveys of 1929 and 1937—I got to stroll the streets of a city that most Americans know only through a classic sociological text, and to see firsthand how that survey still colored locals’ sense of their history seventy years later. I’ll never forget the generosity of one of the archivists there, who not only tracked down all kinds of sources for me, but tracked me down, the night before I left town, at the house where I was staying, in order to hand over one last sheaf of materials.

The charm of the seemingly mundane has turned out to be a theme of my career thus far. How certain ideas, conventions, categories, languages, and ways of knowing became matter-of-fact aspects of American culture has been, for me, a persistent source of fascination. Trained as an intellectual and cultural historian, I’ve been most fascinated by what “ordinary,” anonymous people believe: how they come to their frameworks for understanding the social world, and why those frameworks change. Indeed, this led me in my first book to examine the political and epistemological authority of the “average,” “typical,” and “normal” in the mid-twentieth-century United States. In this case, by looking at citizens’ arguments over statistical information about “ourselves” in the public sphere, I hoped to get as close as possible to everyday styles of thinking that were undergoing challenge from social scientific modes of inquiry.

Such broad shifts in imagination and perception, or what I sometimes call popular intellectual history, also animate my current book project on modern privacy, in which I aim to track the changing status of “what’s public” and “what’s private” from the perspective not of legal authorities or the state, but (dare I say it) of “average” citizens. As I tell my students at Penn (some of whom are at first skeptical about the value of cultural history), ideas that are widely shared—and assumed or believed without being articulated directly—are extremely powerful. They form the structures of conviction that underlie the “harder stuff” of history: actions, laws, and events. In other words, the mundane carries a deep significance for those who choose to look at it.


By Sarah E. Igo

  • “Surveyors’ aggregating technologies, by their very nature, placed new cultural emphasis on the center point, the scientifically derived mean and median. They helped shift the ground under the concept of normality, so that its meaning more and more lined up with quantified averages—although not without a fight from those who feared
    The Averaged American JPGthis would upend religious, ethical, or cultural values. This was a tendency perhaps inherent to statistical techniques, evident as early as the 1830s in the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet’s famous search for “the average man,” that “fictitious being, for whom every thing proceeds conformably to the medium results obtained for society in general.” The drive to determine the average was part empirical quest, part cultural preoccupation. Its calculators did not always take care, as did Quetelet, to highlight its fictional qualities. In 1947, for example, Newsweek could announce that there was a “shadowy figure beginning to emerge” from the day’s public opinion polls, which it promptly labeled the “American Majority Man.” Such composite types, placeholders for the nation itself, flowed easily from social scientific tables and graphs. And they took root in places far afield from statisticians’ counting machines. Especially during decades of economic crisis and war, social scientific findings about “typical Americans” and the search for a coherent Americanism in the culture at large were symbiotic. Even if it was never particularly accurate or representative, invoking a “mass subject” to stand in for the whole could play a vital role in consolidating the national public. — Sarah E. Igo in “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007)

About Sarah E. Igo

  • “Briskly written, forcefully argued and broad in scope, The Averaged American falls into a category occupied by works like Paul Starr’s Social Transformation of American Medicine and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale, Pulitzer Prize-winning books by academics whose reach extended beyond the ivory tower… Igo does for social statistics what Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club did for American pragmatism, providing a narrative intellectual history of the field.” — Scott Stossel, New York Times Book Review reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “The Averaged American turns the history of quantitative social research into a fascinating human story of interviewers probing and cajoling and of citizens who at times were desperate to give information about themselves and who sometimes welcomed, sometimes protested the new statistical characterizations of “normal” American opinions and behavior.” — Theodore M. Porter, author of “Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age” reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “In her strikingly bold and original The Averaged American, Sarah Igo captures the wonderfully rich and complicated relationships between surveys and those surveyed as she shows how this interaction helped create a mass public. We can see how those surveyed yearned for and understood their roles in the survey process–as well as the creation of expectations of what it meant to live as ‘typical’ or ‘average’ respondents/citizens in a mass society.” — Daniel Horowitz, Smith College reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “A brilliant and probing inquiry into one of the subtlest but most significant developments of our time: the cultural construction of a mass society. The Averaged American illuminates the ideological uses of quantitative social research with extraordinary verve and acuity.” — Jackson Lears, editor of Raritan and author of “Something for Nothing: Luck in America” reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “The Averaged American is an engaging, impressively researched history of the social scientific quest to conjure that ever-elusive “American” public: what “we” think, what “we” believe, how “we” will vote, how “we” behave. Igo shows how, despite their shaky claims to objectivity, inclusiveness, or even accuracy, surveys gradually gained acceptance as a new, more “scientific” way of knowing modern America, with consequences this important and never more relevant book challenges us to confront.” — Alice O’Connor, University of California, Santa Barbara reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “Few scholars of twentieth century America have been able to navigate the complexities associated with simultaneous change in multiple institutions–media, social science, the marketing industry, and community life. Igo does so with tremendous imagination and panache: The Averaged American demonstrates how numbers can transform both the texture of everyday life and the very course of a nation.” — Susan Herbst, Provost, The University at Albany, State University of New York reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “[Igo] investigates how, in our poll-saturated culture, with its insatiable appetite for social facts, our ideas about who we are, what we want, and what we believe are all shaped by and perceived through survey data…Her reflections on the origins, trajectory, and subsequent social impacts of demographic research and its characterization of what constitutes the ‘median, average, typical, and normal’ are insightful. An important contribution to the early history of the information society and politics of knowledge.” — Theresa Kintz, Library Journal reviewing “The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public”
  • “Prof. Igo is one of the most brilliant people you will ever meet. She brings a wealth of knowledge, a clear and engaging teaching style, a unique critique and analysis as well as dynamism.”…. “Prof. Igo is my favorite history professor! She is engaging, lucid, interesting and excellent at synthesizing our comments.” …”Dr. Igo is brilliant, and uses her intelligence to make the class seem smarter than we are.”… “The instructor considers our ideas seriously. She runs a class where there is constant interchange of ideas and we feel comfortable posing new ideas. Most impressive is that the instructor participates alongside us rather than standing outside the seminar.” …”Prof. Igo is the best teacher I have had at Penn for any subject. She … really knows and cares about all her students.”… “Dr. Igo is incredible. She is one of those rare people who understands the importance of her job. She seems to take joy in learning and helping people to the best of her ability.”… “This is the kind of education that is at the Ivy-league level. This course was VERY intellectually stimulating.”… “You can tell she really likes to teach.”… “Prof Igo knows how to work a crowd.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, February 18, 2007 at 7:56 PM

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