What can we know of our fellow citizens? The question is at root philosophical or epistemological. In the peculiar climate fostered by the Trump regime, however—not to mention the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal—it has also become a political one. Everything from the trustworthiness of social scientific indicators to the facticity of the news media to the techniques by which candidates reach voters is now subject to suspicion. The means by which we know “the public” is, today, a central public debate.
The US election of 2016 pulled the rug out from under a raft of opinion surveyors, political forecasters, social analysts, and media pundits. Political modeling tools, once considered the cutting edge of big data sophistication, were proved impotent. Predictions of a Clinton victory collapsed as the returns came in, elevating a boorish real estate mogul and television personality to the presidency. The culprit, many soon claimed, was a disempowered white working class that had been duped by false populism making its anger known.
Alternatively, Trump’s victory was laid at the door of America’s misogynists (or its racists, or its nativists), who found in the unlikely standard-bearer a platform for only partly buried prejudices. Or perhaps it was the undereducated, the rural folk, the antiestablishment voters, or the nonvoters—or even those who would not admit their true sentiments to pollsters—who were ultimately responsible. The swirl of competing rationales, of course, only made the problem more evident: no one truly knew.
I, too, felt the tug to make definitive sense of the contemporary body politic as I walked into my US history classroom at Vanderbilt University in the days after the election. My students contemplated the many streams that came together to produce the improbable outcome of 2016: the weight of past politics and personalities; the brew of long-simmering racial, sexual, and regional resentments; and the shape of economic distress and its narration—not to mention the specific makeup of the US voting population; the flows of campaign money; the influence of social media and cyber interference; the play of celebrity; and the vagaries of the electoral college. Who indeed might have accurately deciphered this complex array of forces and how they would play out that particular November? Why had we believed that we could?
One has to search long and hard for an upside to the instability of US political culture at the present moment. But perhaps there is a silver lining in its exposure of the limits to our technologies of knowing. In this new and uneasy era, Americans are beginning to grasp the fragmentary, always incomplete understanding of the public world we inhabit.
Although a technology “drenched in democratic affect” and billed as inviting in the ordinary citizen’s views, focus groups often displayed elite contempt for the public.
It was with this hope that I read Liza Featherstone’s recounting of the history and uses of the “focus group,” that routine if much-maligned technique of convening a small collection of people to weigh in on the merits of a product or a candidate. It is, as historian of science Rebecca Lemov has observed, an instrument at once “everywhere and nowhere” in contemporary America, and we have learned to think of it—if at all—as a trivial fixture of the political and economic landscape.1 But in 2018, a focus on the focus group yields important insights—and not simply about the inadequacy of our yardsticks for measuring opinion. What Featherstone calls “the culture of consultation” reveals something, too, about the limitations of democratic life in the modern United States.
In a representative democracy and a capitalist economy, of course, those in power must have some means of discerning the attitudes and needs of the wider public. They need voters to pull a lever for their candidates and consumers to fork over dollars for their products. Divining Desire makes the case that “consultation,” a particular technology for gleaning such information, answered a fundamental problem in the 20th-century United States: the growing gulf between elites and the population at large. The focus group emerged in order to bridge—although never, it was plain, to close—that gap. Indeed, in an increasingly asymmetrical social world, where those with political and corporate clout had less and less actual contact with those they purportedly represented or marketed to, the focus group found its essential purpose. If it became an invaluable tool for elites to access ordinary people’s desires, it was precisely because the two no longer occupied common ground.
The focus group was originally the object of more elevated ambitions, however. The technique was hatched in the early 1940s, a collaboration between two Columbia University sociologists: the Austrian émigré Paul Lazarsfeld and the eminent scholar of social influence Robert Merton. In its earliest incarnation, a dozen or so listeners evaluated a broadcast called This Is War, designed to equip Americans to resist Nazi propaganda and support the US fight. The group pressed buttons to indicate what they liked and disliked about the program. Interviewers then probed in detail their “on the spot” reactions.
By World War II, “the public” had already long been a concern for democratic theorists. Politicians and corporations alike had developed strategies—opinion polling and market research—for monitoring what was typically figured as a singular entity. Measured with the right tools, this public could seemingly be made legible. But the focus group’s arrival on the US home front signaled a fresh scientific and political investment in penetrating the public mood. As Featherstone notes, this early experiment in “consultation” was a creature of the political left and even radical democratic socialist impulses. The men and occasional woman (Herta Herzog, Lazarsfeld’s then wife) credited with developing the focus group believed that democratic participation and rational persuasion were fundamental to intelligent decision-making in public life. They had faith that such means would align the leaders and the led, harmonizing “mass” attitudes and considered opinion.
As Featherstone sees it, in this era, liberal intellectuals and political leaders listened to ordinary citizens in structured groups and focused interviews in the hopes of fortifying social democracy. It was not long before economic elites began listening in this fashion too, inviting a select sample of those not typically represented in corporate board rooms to offer their preferences and views on consumer products and marketing campaigns. If these citizens were not speaking to power, exactly, they were asked for their insights and also paid for their time.
As students of similar techniques have understood, however, this kind of information gathering was not innocent. Intervention always hovered in the wings. Political pollsters, market researchers, and audience raters hoped not only to learn from the data, but also to use it to enact an agenda. Like these other measurers of popular sentiment, focus group conveners divined collective attitudes in order to guide them—to build a better, and often more pliable, public.
The focus group was thus a “technique” in the sense meant by early 20th-century intellectual Randolph Bourne. It was not bound to a particular social vision as much as a technocratic impulse. As becomes clear in the history Featherstone lays out, the focus group was a malleable tool indeed. Much like the parallel case of the opinion poll, it could be employed to inform social policies. Yet it could also be used to discover how to make unpopular policies more palatable. The expressions of focus group participants, indeed their very words, might shape political and marketing campaigns. But they were just as likely—perhaps more likely—to be placed in the service of already-made calculations. First used to enlighten Americans about the Nazi threat, focus groups would eventually be employed in the peddling of unsafe products—from “low-tar” cigarettes to station wagons—and for unsavory opposition research, notably the infamously racist Willie Horton ad created by the George H. W. Bush campaign in 1988.
Listening to the people was never meant to boost their power, Featherstone insists, but rather to predict elections and sales. As corporations and then political strategists moved decisively toward the focus group method by the 1970s, and as the chasm between US power brokers and ordinary citizens widened, the focus group was used less as a tool for giving voice—even as it co-opted that language—than for mimicking democratic participation and economic autonomy. The focus group only performed listening; it promised, but did not deliver, influence. Elites sought input from a carefully crafted panel of “regular” people who in turn dutifully offered up their views. But nothing fundamental in their hierarchical relationship to one another shifted. From this perspective, focus groups begin to look like an index to social inequality and enfeebled democracy—a sign of the profound alienation between those at the apex of economic and political power and everyone else.
In fact, although a technology “drenched in democratic affect” and billed as inviting in the ordinary citizen’s views, focus groups often displayed elite contempt for the public. Urban legends arose around spectacular focus group failures, like Ford’s 1957 rollout of the Edsel automobile and the introduction of New Coke in the mid-1980s, the “most dramatic rejection of a product in the history of mass consumption.” Such episodes do not point to the folly of consultation. Feathersone argues that these products flopped in large part because corporations did not listen to their consumers well enough. Rather, they evince the elite need to disclaim popular opinion. To skewer the focus group was to place the blame for corporate failure on the people themselves.
As the Cambridge Analytica debacle makes clear, even the rather thin sort of consultation that existed in traditional focus groups has largely been abandoned by data miners.
Powerful interests’ supposed solicitousness of the public was matched by disdain for that same public. The “people” were a supremely useful foil for elite decisions and practices. Marketers and politicians could pin their missteps on their own responsiveness to the sovereign consumer or voter, who were increasingly treated as one and the same character, as historian Lizabeth Cohen has shown.2 Political independence, artistic creativity, and marketing genius would all be stacked up against ordinary people’s judgments. Again and again, the people would be found wanting, even by ordinary members of the public themselves. Admit it: if during any recent election cycle you have watched a televised post-debate focus group, can you possibly disagree?
More significant still, Featherstone avers, by offering “the illusion that powerful people were listening,” the act of being asked would itself become a proxy for political participation or consumer empowerment. Whether through in-depth surveys of “Walmart moms” or the “listening tours” that Hillary Clinton made famous during her Senate campaign, the focus group—like the opinion poll—aimed to sidestep other, more collective and overtly political, ways of articulating social views.
But did it actually supplant them? Featherstone largely accepts that the focus group prevailed on its own terms, even though she also notes the distaste for and even mockery of the form as the 20th century advanced. But could a bland conference room—equipped with the requisite moderator, tape recorder, and one-way mirror—really manage the contradictions of class in the modern United States?
In ways both ironic and telling, Divining Desires does not really probe ordinary people’s sentiments about the focus group (although it does include entertaining snippets of the author’s own forays as an ethnographer-participant as well as a chapter on how “professional” focus group respondents game the system). Perhaps this would simply have replicated the dilemmas of consultation that Featherstone set out to investigate, but the choice renders her book more a story of political and commercial elites than of the modern public. It is certainly possible, as she claims, that the rise of the focus group tapped into ordinary Americans’ real craving to be heard, their desire—however cramped and diminished—to participate in the decisions affecting social and public life. But how could one know?
We learn much, however, about the powerful in American society, both their ambivalence about the supposed master they serve, and the real limits to the listening in which they are willing to engage. Here, Featherstone’s ultimate point seems undeniable. Americans today are solicited relentlessly for their preferences. They also readily supply them. Yet in a political system beholden more to lobbyists than to voters and in an increasingly lopsided economy, ordinary citizens’ opinions seem to be of less and less consequence.
Those opinions are more and more often solicited online, and in ways largely invisible to the consulted. As the Cambridge Analytica debacle makes clear, even the rather thin sort of consultation that existed in traditional focus groups has largely been abandoned by data miners. As we are learning, personality mapping and Facebook “likes” allowed a corrupt data broker to direct highly tailored messages and advertisements to specific individuals without asking them a thing. Social media users’ preferences and desires were a commodity to be harvested and then fed back to them in order to nudge them in one direction or another. No one would argue that this is a form of deliberation that takes citizens’ ideas seriously. In this sense, the focus group has been critical to the evolution of “our expressive democracy,” a “society in which the expression of opinion has been dramatically democratized, while the distribution of everything else that matters (political power, money) has only grown more starkly unequal.”
The focus group’s distrust of and dependence on ordinary people, sketched so well in Featherstone’s book, goes some way toward explaining polling’s crisis of 2016, when voters so sharply and puzzlingly confounded the experts. But it also helps to explain the hollowing out of contemporary political discourse. “Consulting,” “sharing,” and “expressing,” it turns out, are not on their own robust enough practices for a working democracy, whether or not they become fodder for big data manipulation. Indeed, routinized ways of knowing our fellow citizens are always ways of not listening, of choosing not to probe more deeply into the divisions that constitute public life.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Rebecca Lemov, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Focus Groups as All-Purpose Devices,” Limn, no. 2 (2012), pp. 32–35. ↩
- Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003). ↩