Measure for Measure … Well, Not Always

An occasional diversion ……

Some of us who actually believe in the adages “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” and “What gets measured, gets done” sometimes don’t get folks who are not all excited about the power of performance measurement. So I read with great interest a review of Sara E. Igo’s book The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Harvard University Press). The mostly positive review, which appeared in the January 21, 2007 New York Times Book Review, was written by Scott Stossel, the managing editor of Atlantic Monthly.

In appreciation of diversity of thought, I quote Stossel’s last paragraph about how we understand ourselves and our work in its entirety –

Even as we have moved toward ever-finer calibrations of statistical measurement,
the knowledge that social science can produce is, in the end, limited. Is the
statistical average rendered by pollsters the distillation of America? Or
is it grinding down porridge? For all the hunger Americans have always expressed
for cold, hard data about who we are, literary ways of knowing may be profounder
than statistical ones. … Poll-saturated though we may be, our national
self-understanding still comes as much from art (think of Norman Rockwell or
Edward Hopper), literature (think of “The Great Gatsby” or even “The Bonfires of
the Vanities”) and impressionistic journalism (think of James Agee and Walker
Evans, or Joan Didion) as it does any survey. I’m sure that 23 percent of
Americans would agree with me.

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