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Sarah Igo, “Thinking Publics: The History of a Promise and a Problem”

Sarah Igo

Sarah Igo

Saturday, 9.00 – 10.30 a.m.

Can “the public” think rationally—or at all? The question, which has been posed insistently in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, has in fact surfaced periodically in the United States from the early republic onward. But it especially preoccupied intellectuals and theorists in the twentieth century, when hopeful prospects for popular thought and democratic deliberation seemed to clash with the imperatives of an increasingly specialized and ever more fragmented “mass society.” Even as opinion surveyors, behavioral researchers, marketers, and focus group conveners promised to reveal the mysteries of the public mind once and for all, confidence in the people’s collective wisdom and intellectual autonomy plummeted. Indeed, as a host of experts came to believe they knew the public more precisely and scientifically, the less they thought of its capacities. This talk takes a wide-ranging, century-spanning view of what John Dewey termed in 1927 “the public and its problems” not so much in order to explore the purportedly problematic public as the problem of how scholars as well as commentators have envisioned and represented it. Reflecting on our technologies for knowing “the public”—as well as their recurring failures—it will ask how we might better characterize the career of popular thought in the twentieth century, and in our own time.

Sarah E. Igo is an Associate Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Vanderbilt University, with affiliate appointments in law, political science, sociology, and medicine, health and society. She teaches and writes about modern American intellectual and cultural history. Igo is the author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, which was an Editor’s Choice selection of the New York Times, and one of Slate’s Best Books of 2007. Her new book, out from Harvard University Press in 2018, is The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America.