Published: Jan 1952
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In his efforts to understand himself and the complex variable behavior of his species, man has always depended in large measure on data that are available to him only through communication with his fellows. In the course of daily living—as parents, friends, workers, citizens—all of us try to find out what our associates are thinking, how they feel about all shorts of things, what their intentions and expectations are, and what courses of action they are likely to pursue. We find these things out, not only by watching what they do and making inferences from what we see, but also by listening to what they say and by asking questions or using other conversational devices to draw them out. Of course, most of us are not completely gullible. Even the most naive among us has a wholesome skepticism about the dependability of what people say. We know that people are not always candid and that often they are inarticulate, ignorant about themselves, or as guileful in their answers as we are in our questions. But this knowedge does not lead us to abandon our questioning of them, for unless by such means we can get at the hidden, inner aspects of their behavior we do not feel that we have an adequate basis for getting along with them. This dependence on verbally ascertained data in the effort to understand human behavior has increased tremendously in recent times and has tended to become more exclusive. The reason for this is apparent. In the village community of early times nearly all collective action was organized on a local scale and involved people who were continuously and rather closely associated in a face-to-face relationship. Questioning was therefore only one among several means of observing one's fellows, and it was done quite informally and in the main incidentally. Thus the village storekeeper, craftsman, employer, or politician served a clientele that was known to him at first hand. Nowadays, however, very large numbers of people are involved directly or indirectly in most of our everyday actions. As life has come to be organized on a larger scale, all of us have come to be absorbed into vast political, economic, and social systems, the participants in which are mostly unknown to one another. The mass producer or distributor, unlike his village counterpart, is dependent therefore on the needs, wants, capacities, and preferences of masses of individuals who are widely distributed geographically and not under his immediate observation. To get any precise information about them he has to rely mainly on canvasses which he makes of them, or has made for him. He resorts to census taking and other kinds of more or less systematic questioning. The consequence is that in America, as in England, France, and all other industrialized democracies, literally thousands of people are now being queried every day about a wide range of subjects. They are being asked about their nativity, age, education, marital status, family relations, housing, income, race, religion, occupational history, and almost every other conceivable factual characteristic; about their tastes in food, clothing, home decoration, literature, music, art, and sports; about their spending practices and plans; their areas of ignorance, misinformation, belief, and prejudice; their past voting behavior and voting intentions; their opinions about innumerable public and private matters. It has been estimated that more than a million people are interviewed every year in the United States alone in some kind of market or opinion survey. A canvass by the Wall Street Journal in the spring of 1950 revealed that some 250 American commercial firms, specialists in making such surveys, were grossing about $35,000,000 a year. In addition to these specialized agencies, many business firms and governmental departments maintain their own survey facilities.
Hart, Clyde W.
Director, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.