Consumer Engineering and the Rise of Marketing Knowledge, 1920s–1970s

Marketing knowledge—information and analysis concerning markets, consumers, and their behavior—became a crucial asset for businesses and governments during the twentieth century. In 1971, the German-American market researcher Alfred Politz drafted a memoir of his time in marketing research titled “How to Produce Consumers—Methods and Illusions.” Over the course of his career, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Politz had seen the marketing profession become a good deal more methodical. Yet by 1970, this Berlin-trained physicist-turned-consultant of marketing scoffed at the pseudo-scientific veneer that many marketing experts attached to their work. “The word ‘research,'” he wrote, “implies a sort of glamorous intellectual sophistication, and marketing research is a symbol of the modernity of the marketer. Marketing research has become a status symbol, and as such it need not perform; it need only exist.”1

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Knowledge Notes

The Politics of Measurement: Knowledge about Economic Inequality in the United Kingdom and Beyond since 1945

If you had a conversation about the growing gap between rich and poor almost anywhere in today’s world, you would very likely refer to “the top one percent,” a phrase that evokes the skyrocketing wealth of the superrich. A similar conversation in West Germany in the 1970s or 1980s would have revolved around the latest movements in wage earners’ aggregate share of the national income, evoking images of a society divided into employers and employees. In 1980s Britain, you might have talked about income growth among the bottom tenth of the population, as the government tried to steer the discussion away from income relativities and overall inequality.

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Knowledge about Democratic Silence: Political Science and the Rise of Electoral Abstention in Postwar Switzerland (1945–1989)

In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment.1 Yet what exactly can abstention tell us about the state of democracy? My current research project proposes to historicize abstention, not as a political phenomenon per se but rather as an object of contention leading to multiple interpretations and practices in the political sphere. To that aim, I inquire how political actors—politicians and officials, but also journalists and political scientists—have handled abstention through the postwar decades in France, West Germany, and Switzerland. Knowledge played a significant role in the ways abstention was framed in public debate. It was accompanied by the development of various forms of expertise on the topic, ranging from emerging political science to electoral surveys.2 Public discourse on abstention became a matter for experts, journalists, and established politicians—none of whom were prone to abstaining from voting themselves.

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