Drifting Along: Unemployment and Interwar Social Research, from Marienthal to Muncie

Crosspost from Migrant Knowledge

In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1

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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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