Abstract: “Scientific” Polling and the Rhetorical Use of Statistical Sampling: boundary- and conflation-work

“Scientific” pollsters (Archibald Crossley, George H. Gallup, and Elmo Roper) emerged onto the American media scene in 1935. Much of what they did in the years that followed was to establish both the political and scientific legitimacy of their enterprise: in short, they worked hard to be recognized as the only legitimate producers of public opinion. In this paper, I show how statistical sampling, even though it was not part of these pollsters’ methodology, was nevertheless used, in the 1930s and ‘40s, as a rhetorical tool to promote the scientific legitimacy of this form of polling. It was used by the “scientific” pollsters first to demarcate themselves from the (non-scientific) straw polls (boundary-work), and second, to derive symbolic benefits through a sort of “halo-effect” of being associated with the science of statistics (conflation-work). These practices are studied by analyzing the utterances, written (articles in newspapers, magazines and journals) and verbal (testimonies, interviews) of the principal protagonists of scientific polling, but Gallup especially.

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