Seeing people as audiences has a history. Our current ways of seeing people are especially indebted to the conjuncture of Progressive Era reform efforts, the early development of the social sciences, and the transformation of the cinema into a mass medium in the first decades of the twentieth century in the United States. One important convergence of all these historical developments was the Social Survey Movement, which, through its efforts to measure the need for reform, popularized the construction of the modern media audience out of atomized, measurable categorizations of people. The cause of reform at this time was often gendered as feminine for its concerns and its participants, and it was through the gendered labor of the reform movement that “audience” became linked with “data” that could be measured, sorted, and used to produce new forms of knowledge about people.
As Raymond Williams might well have agreed, there are in fact no audiences; there are only ways of seeing people as audiences.1 The modern media audience is a historical convention derived from specific ways of seeing people. It is indebted to the conjuncture, in the first decades of the twentieth century in the United States, of Progressive Era reform efforts, the early development of the social sciences, and the transformation of the cinema into a mass medium. One important site at which all these historical developments converged was in the era's Social Survey Movement, which, through its efforts to measure the need for reform, ultimately began construction of a recognizable idea of the modern media audience. As the Social Survey Movement encountered motion pictures, it utilized and further developed the latest techniques in social science and statistics to survey, measure, count, aggregate, and broadly publicize data about people attending movies. The audience was produced and ultimately recognized through the data generated and publicized about it—this has become our way of seeing people as an audience.
Generating data about people, however, has never been an innocent project. The Social Survey Movement, for example, gathered data to produce the motion picture audience not simply as an objective entity, but as an object in need of measurement, analysis, and ultimately reform. The audience was produced as part of a larger problem to be solved, and data about it circulated in service to the cause of broader social reform. Such reform efforts, advocated and underwritten by audience studies, were rather widely gendered as feminine in their concerns (leisure, morality, safety, charity), their objects (immigrants, workers, children, women), and their sources (women's clubs, settlement houses, church groups), while the labor of generating data was performed, to a significant extent, by women volunteering their time and energies to the causes of charity and reform. The techniques they used to gather data about the audience, meanwhile, unquestioningly reproduced prevalent cultural categories such as age, race, class, and gender as if they were objectively given and essential—indeed, the very objects of reform efforts.
Ultimately the methods, techniques, and social categories developed by the Social Survey Movement would persist, laying the groundwork for the professionalization of the social sciences. Significantly, the production of the media audience as the aggregate of atomized, measurable data about attendees—and as an object of study and a problem to be solved—would also persist, helping to rationalize a rapidly growing and consolidating motion picture industry and soon finding new purchase and even greater application as a commercial broadcast industry began to emerge in the 1920s. Yet while the techniques of measurement and governance persisted, the “amateur” investigators and their causes of charity and public morality, as well as their explicit reform agenda, would be marginalized and de-legitimated as the unprofessional proclivities of women.
In 1905 the magazine of the New York Charity Organizations, Charities, merged with the magazine of the Chicago settlement house movement, The Commons, to form the social work journal Charities and the Commons. Just four years later Charities and the Commons renamed itself Survey. This final change named the social work magazine after a particular methodology, the social survey, and signaled the centrality of enumeration for the reform movement. More specifically, as an editorial in Survey published shortly after the name change made clear, the cause of social reform would be best advanced by literally “measuring the distance between the recognized standards of today and the deplorable failure of the multitudes to attain those standards.”2 This sequence of name changes was quite in step with developments within the Progressive reform movement more generally. As Progressive reformers sought to coordinate, unify, and professionalize their calls for social change—uniting reform with charity—they increasingly relied upon strategies that, as Alice O'Connor explains, placed “social investigations at the heart of a broader process of institutional transformation that aimed to link the disparate strands of charity and reform work through an emphasis on standardization, poverty prevention, and professional expertise.”3 The result was a new form of social scientific knowledge designed to present unbiased facts supporting the cause of public reform. It began a process whereby the supposedly amateur efforts of reform volunteers would ultimately be supplanted by professionalized social science research.
The United States had begun the twentieth century in an unprecedented “demographic panic” about its own population.4 With years of rapid industrialization, historic urbanization, and a massive influx of immigration, combined with Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 announcement at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that the American frontier had closed—all at once, cherished national myths of equality of economic opportunity, ready and eager assimilation, and the promise of the frontier were seemingly imperiled.5 An effort to transparently document this peril emerged early in the era's rise of “muckraking” and “red-blooded” investigative journalism, detailing, as Lincoln Steffens suggested, “the shame of the cities,” and accompanied by photojournalism providing visual indexicality to, as Jacob Riis put it earlier, “the battle with the slum” and just “how the other half lives.”6 For the era's existing, “native” middle class, the very foundations of American exceptionalism appeared to be falling victim to rapid transformations in the nation's population. From this perspective the particularities of different populations appeared primed to overwhelm the basis for a common public. The quantity (sheer numbers) and quality (primarily racial and ethnic background) of the nation's population took on a new significance and became a widely discussed and debated topic, particularly among white, middle-class observers.
These observers soon began to take action, organizing into a social reform movement intent on attending to these growing concerns. The period around and following the turn of the twentieth century in the United States therefore has been dubbed the Progressive Era. Reformers imagined their movement as the modern, rational voice of reason positioned between extremes of Gilded Age excess and (increasingly) organized labor's radical response, blunting both in favor of a recognizable common culture.7 As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the emerging Progressive Era saw efforts organized around reforming a range of issues, from antitrust legislation to minimum-wage laws to the establishment of legislation governing fire safety, workplace safety, education, and more. Some reform concerns were almost immediately gendered as feminine, with child labor, food safety, home economics, birth control, temperance, and suffrage, for example, seemingly reaching out from the Victorian-era domestic sphere into the public sphere of trade, paid labor, and commerce.
Yet while the reform movement certainly presented a historically unprecedented opportunity for women to effect change in the public and political spheres, their efforts were by no means limited to Victorian notions of what should be feminine concerns.8 Lucy Parsons, for example, led demonstrations for a forty-hour workweek. Women and children employed in the often exploitative garment industry in New York and Chicago, meanwhile, were hardly concerned with limiting reform to the arena of the domestic sphere. Florence Kelley worked closely with Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, and Alzina Stevens in the Chicago settlement house movement to produce early statistical studies of child and women's labor, followed by studies of housing conditions, educational initiatives, and mental health services. Their efforts laid the groundwork for an emerging Social Survey Movement that would continue to premise reform efforts on scientifically measured data about populations. They were soon involved in drafting legislation and advocating for legal reforms premised on the data they had collected. In 1909, the same year that Charities merged with The Commons, settlement house pioneer Jane Addams was elected president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, the first woman to hold that post.9 Such opportunities were of a piece with the modern, rational approach to reform the Progressive movement advocated, even if it meant facing critics disparaging of the feminization of the public sphere.
As these efforts furthermore demonstrated, the modern, rational Progressive approach also meant reform by means of the latest techniques of social inquiry. The social and economic problems emerging from the nineteenth century, leading to a crisis in the common culture, they believed, could be solved by the measured deployment of the technologies and sciences that had also developed over the nineteenth century. To characterize the concerns arising from rapid urbanization and industrialization, massive immigration, and mass consumerism as a “demographic panic,” however, is to acknowledge not only the convergence of these historical developments but also the new and emerging means of analyzing them, specifically as they were understood to have developed from changes in the population. As one guide to Progressive social reform recalled in 1916:
The overwhelmingly rapid growth of our cities, the concentration of one-third of the population of the country within less than 0.12 per cent. of the area of this country, the vast influx of foreign populational [sic] elements due to immigration, the steady migration of industrial establishments from the larger to the smaller populational centers, the astoundingly rapid development of industries and the revolutionizing of the processes of production, have so complicated the social and economic issues of this country as to necessitate accurate scientific study and measurement where observation and personal experience were once sufficient.10
In agreement, the American Journal of Sociology was already, in 1911, remembering how “thus arose a demand for comprehensive investigations of great classes of the population by scientifically valid methods, that brought forth a grist of studies of the standard of living; or for a general examination of living and working conditions in significant districts that brought forth the social survey.”11 Yet before the social sciences—statistics, economics, sociology, demography, and psychology—were professionalized and largely institutionalized within the academy, their methodologies were anticipated by mostly amateur social reformers and early efforts within the field of social work (itself in the process of professionalization). The roots of the often masculine-coded professional production of “hard data” about the social are therefore to be found in the feminine-coded charity work of the era's reformers. Progressive reformers increasingly relied on “scientifically” generated numerical measurements of social conditions and social problems to quantify people's needs. As former American president Theodore Roosevelt insisted in 1912, “The real idealist is a pragmatist and an economist. He [sic] demands measurable results…. Only in this way is social progress possible.”12
Seeking sites of common culture (as well as potential radicalization), reformers were especially attentive to the leisure activities of the population (and those of working-class, immigrant populations, the women and children in particular). Motion pictures, as a modern technology, were of special interest therefore because they offered a public (and publicly observable) gathering place and provided mediated communication that could be widely distributed and easily comprehended. In this early period of cinema, prior to synchronized sound or even extensive intertitles, cinema's visuality offered a uniquely modern means of communicating across linguistic competencies and regardless of literacy. It acquired a reputation for “democratic” entertainment, as it provided a gathering place for recent immigrants and the working class—precisely those populations with whom the reform movement was most concerned. As an alternative public sphere and gathering place, the nickelodeon-era cinema offered a new place to observe populations deemed in need of reform. When reformers encountered the cinema, therefore, it was not only what was on the screen that mattered, but also who was watching. These viewers gathered in what appeared to reformers to be unruly groups, within darkened storefronts rife with dangers and improprieties (for instance the unsupervised mixing of genders, ages, classes, and sometimes races in a single, public, darkened space), and therefore were thought by reformers to be lacking governance and in need of a social and cultural policy intent on teaching them the common (read: middle-class) cultural values of “Americanism” and public decorum. Reformers soon came to understand the cinema as a powerful mass medium that needed to be harnessed for education and for cultural and moral “uplift,” rather than left for potentially nefarious influences to monopolize. The cinema became both an object and a tool of reform efforts, both a site and a means of intervention.13
THE SOCIAL SURVEY MOVEMENT
Another emerging nineteenth-century invention provided a means for assessing the motion picture audience: the application of statistics to human populations. Predicated upon the objective gathering of data in numerical form, population statistics were thought by reformers to reveal laws of social and human behavior, allow changes in populations to be measured and compared, and enable predictions about particular interventions.14 Statistics “revealed” the “norms” of social attributes. Populations that could be measured became knowable and subject to intervention and reform. Categories of personhood—gender, race, age, class—could be counted, aggregated, and reproduced as objectively measured data points about groups of people. Statistical data also appeared evidently devoid of the era's already notorious sensationalism and were seemingly unassailable as facts. They provided a scientifically produced set of objectively measured facts to counter criticisms of amateurism, feminization, and overly emotional investment that would otherwise be leveled against reform efforts. Such data were powerful in their ability to convey social attributes and generalize about populations, marking the emergence of a new form of factuality about the social.
To a large extent the production of data about social conditions began with exhaustive municipal surveys in which volunteers blanketed a geographic area (usually an entire town or city) and asked the same questions of every residence. These came to be known as social surveys. Michael Gordon has defined this movement in terms of what the Progressive Era has come to represent, as “a style of community study … which stressed the study of the total community, the use of quantifiable data wherever possible, and a concern with social problems and their reform from a societal rather than an individual basis.”15 A pamphlet published in 1916 by the Russell Sage Foundation, entitled “Community Action through Surveys,” defined the social survey thusly: “It is the application of scientific method to the study and solution of social problems, which have specific geographical limits and bearings, plus such a spreading of its facts and recommendations as will make them, as far as possible, the common knowledge of the community and a force for intelligent co-ordinated action.”16 Another, from 1919, concurred: “Surveys have practically always been made for the sake of gaining a knowledge of community conditions; to reveal that knowledge to the citizens; and to make recommendations for future action.”17 A community's knowledge of itself (and its problems), when presented publicly and with adequate scientific authority, was understood to inspire this same community to enact its own reform in accordance with the standards set out in the scientific data. This was consistent with the Progressive political theory of citizenry action in which “facts” and “publicity” were combined to establish “problems” needing intervention.18 The two key elements were the scientific production of social numbers and the publicizing of the data thus acquired.
The mode of investigation that the Social Survey Movement represents was different from past forms of public social inquiry in its techniques (the survey), its objective (locating the societal roots of social problems), and to a large extent its data (empirical and quantitative, typically presented in combination with muckraking-inspired prose heavily complemented, if at times quite loosely, with charts, graphs, and numbers). The Social Survey Movement occupied a space somewhere between popular sensationalism and rigid professionalism. In a telling and fitting analogy, one guidebook, A Method of Making a Social Survey of a Rural Community, implicitly built upon Jacob Riis's late nineteenth-century photography project for the era of the moving picture: “A social survey is an attempt to photograph, so to speak, the community so as to show every home in all its social connections with all other homes in the community.”19 Both the photograph and the survey relied on nineteenth-century technologies (that is, the camera to produce a photograph and the survey “report card” to produce population statistics) put to modern use, and were understood to objectively (even mechanically) construct portraits of social conditions by which the need for reform could be clearly apprehended. Thus another proponent suggested that the power of the social survey lay not only in “its searching analysis and popular methods of description indicat[ing] that it may be a valuable method of sociological investigation” but more to the point, in its production of “vivid pictures of things previously but dimly known” that in turn operate “as quite a definite regulative agency in the community where it is made.”20 Self-knowledge, in the form of scientifically enumerated problems, as plain and objective as the mechanical reproduction of the photograph, was understood to reveal truths, lead to corrective actions, and encourage self- and community governance.21 In the process the survey—with its “popular methods of description”—also reproduced what was simply assumed to be readily identifiable categories of personhood: age, class, race, gender. These were to be observed and counted, never interrogated or contextualized.
The Social Survey Movement was imported to the United States, initially from England, in the late 1890s. The surveys took on new dimensions upon arrival, as the Progressive reform movement was beginning to crescendo. Following on the heels of Charles Booth's monumental 1886 study of London workers’ “life and labors,” a number of surveys were conducted in both England and the United States. One of the earliest US surveys was carried out under the auspices of Hull House in Chicago, under the guidance of Florence Kelley and Jane Addams, and was published by Richard Ely in his series Library of Economics and Politics as Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895).22 Hull House's survey helped to establish the survey as a site in which (often middle-class) women's labor in the public realm was both accepted and invaluable. Among the few forms of engagement with the public sphere readily open to middle-class women in the Victorian era, reform work in general and survey work in particular marked new means of public engagement for them, but were at times therefore also marked—even denigrated—in gendered terms. From commissioning, guidance, and management of surveys, to door-to-door and on-site surveying, the next decade and a half, at least, would find women's labor a significant and expected component of the Social Survey Movement and thus of the diagnosis of social problems in need of reform.
In addition to the Hull House study, other notable surveys included W. E. B. Du Bois's survey of The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and perhaps most influentially (and most grandly) the Pittsburgh Survey conducted by Paul U. Kellogg (soon to be editor of Survey).23 The latter was under way by 1907, with six volumes published between 1909 and 1914. It received backing from the newly formed Russell Sage Foundation, established in her late husband's name by Margaret Olivia Sage, beginning an era in which institutionalized charity became directly involved in scientific social research. Florence Kelley worked on this survey as well, along with Robert Woods from the settlement house movement and John R. Commons and several of his graduate students from the University of Wisconsin all lending their expertise. The Pittsburgh survey “was different because it emerged from the charity movement, and the belief among significant numbers of social workers that the roots of social problems were to be found in society rather than in the individual.”24 Only by obtaining a picture of the whole of the Pittsburgh situation, this approach conjectured, could the real causes of individual unwellness be ascertained. The approach of the survey was to present information “not in sweeping generalizations but in … ‘piled-up actualities.’”25 This was considered an advancement in specificity and objectivity: people could now begin to be known through atomization and the aggregation of measurable data points (age, gender, class, employment, parentage, et cetera). Two of the six volumes were collections edited by Kellogg; of the other four, one was authored by John Fitch, one by Crystal Eastman, one volume by Margaret Byington was focused on domestic households, and the first volume to press, Women and the Trades, was written by Elizabeth Beardsley Butler and focused on wage-earning women—indeed, treated women's labor as a legitimate and worthy object of scientific social analysis in a book-length study.26
The focus on gendered labor, the working class, immigrant populations, and, in Du Bois's study, the African American middle class brought important new attention to these population groups and made the study and intervention into the economic and social needs of these communities a legitimate object of concern and an ongoing focus of reform efforts. At the same time, however, the very nature of these studies reproduced difference and separation, and represented each of these groups as problem populations, recognizably in need of study, reform, and governance. Following from these initial forays and especially the perceived success, scope, and findings of the Pittsburgh survey, a host of predominantly municipal (in scope) surveys began to flourish across the nation, initiating the Social Survey Movement. In several different ways, as one review of the movement mused in 1919, “A number of significant articles, books and published investigations appeared … which added greatly to the public's interest in itself.”27
MOTION PICTURE SURVEYS
While most surveys remained quite broad in scope, the aim being to literally enumerate the entirety of the social conditions of a municipality, this was not always feasible. Richard Henry Edwards therefore suggested to would-be reformers and surveyors in 1915 that “if a survey is not possible, conduct an investigation into some single phase of the problem, perhaps the one in which the worst evils seem to exist.”28 Following this advice, many surveys focused in part or in their entirety on a population's recreation, in particular commercialized recreation, and quite frequently the motion pictures. Although categorized this way the motion pictures would seem but a side interest, in practice they frequently took on proportionally much greater space and attracted much greater interest than other sections of a final report. After all, the movement was at its height just as the nickelodeon boom was coming to the attention of middle-class reformers.
One early social survey seems to have been particularly influential in establishing the motion pictures as a focal point for a host of Progressive reform interests. This was accomplished not only through the data it produced, but also through the effective publicizing of its results. It was conducted under the auspices of the People's Institute of New York in 1907 as part of a larger investigation into “cheap amusements” that the Women's Municipal League had asked for assistance in studying. The Women's Municipal League financed the study and the People's Institute secretary, Michael M. Davis Jr., was its director. Davis would later claim that the motion picture business was “‘discovered’ by social students” in the conducting of this investigation.29
Of all the cheap, commercialized entertainments investigated by the study, motion pictures drew the most attention. The data were publicized in a series of articles written by John Collier of the People's Institute. These put the urgency of motion pictures in immediate numerical form, reporting that “from three to four hundred thousand people… and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children” attended each day (presumably in New York alone).30 This audience, it was further noted, consisted largely of wage earners and children. The People's Institute quickly dubbed this new, increasingly mass, entertainment the “people's theater.” Such a title embraced the potential for good that the motion pictures represented, with entertainment, education, morals, and Americanization readily available for such a low price (they found, on average, admission to be seven cents), but at the same time expressed a paternalistic urgency to filter out potentially bad influences on the “people.” This was particularly urgent, as the children and (implicitly childlike) workers and immigrants that constituted the majority of the audience in the area studied were deemed especially susceptible to whatever messages were conveyed by this new medium. As reformers understood it, this was precisely the audience that could receive the most benefit from uplifting messages and was most susceptible to—and most likely would cause trouble if exposed to—nefarious messages. Again, this was made understandable in terms of numbers. Collier would conclude from this study, “All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day.”31
The study was interested in the “legal and business aspects” as well as the “educational and sanitary,” which together concluded that cheap amusements in general and motion pictures in particular constituted a potential problem that needed to be addressed by social workers, volunteers, and other activists. In April 1908 Collier published an article entitled “Cheap Amusements” in Charities and the Commons. In this short article he essentially summarized the findings of the study (which was at the time still under way). One of his main points was that the nickelodeon now superseded all other forms of cheap amusement in sheer attendance numbers. To authorize this conclusion—itself intended to draw urgency to the motion picture “problem”—Collier cited some numbers: “New York has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred [nickelodeons]. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children.”32 That same year he also published articles elsewhere, such as “New York's Problem of the Nickelodeon” in the New York Press newspaper.33 Such publicity of the results of social surveys into motion picture attendance had the result of conjuring the motion picture audience as a problem and in terms of numerical data for a broad, popular readership.
The People's Institute and especially Collier's busy efforts at publicizing the results of the survey of commercial entertainments helped trigger increased public attention to and interest in motion pictures. Harper's Weekly magazine quickly published a light appraisal of motion pictures (with reference to the “Peepul's” Institute), labeling the emergence of “nickel madness” and triggering a barrage of further magazine and press coverage.34 New York City police commissioner Theodore Bingham also took an interest, resulting in legal confrontations and the brief but infamous closing of all New York nickelodeons for the week of Christmas 1908, under the orders of mayor George B. McClellan (at Bingham's urging). The People's Institute itself responded with the formation and running of the National Board of Censorship, which, through its centralization and prominent supporters, operated as a national, voluntary site of film censorship for a number of years (the name was later changed to the National Board of Review). The wide publication of numbers demonstrating motion picture attendance resulted in broad agreement that the movies deserved immediate response, even if the nature of that response was less widely agreed upon.35 Where movies were concerned, audience numbers could make a clear impact, demonstrating sheer volume, but also attendance by working class, immigrants, children, and women, all assumed to need special protections from the movies’ (and one another's) potential influences.
With the stakes of the motion picture's popularity thus emerging, the Russell Sage Foundation conducted a new study, which would likewise prove major and influential.36 The object now was not only to continue the attendance measurements of previous surveys, but also to begin to measure, for the purposes of comparison, social groups in attendance and the morality of the cinematic content to which they were presumably exposed. “The Exploitation of Pleasure” agreed with earlier studies, suggesting that the numbers collected were evidence of the motion picture's significance: “Whether judged by the number of places in existence or the number of persons reached, the moving-picture show is by far the dominant type of dramatic representation in New York.”37 Moreover, trained observers were now issued standardized schedules, called “report cards,” with which to objectively and efficiently record their observations. In typical survey schedule fashion, the report cards required that observations be fit into pre-decided categories. There was, for example, a place to note the “Audience S. G. (Social Groups).” A footnote clarified that “the social groups considered were three—working-class, business or clerical class, and leisure-class. Costume and demeanor enabled the observer, after a little experience, to place his [sic] people quite readily.” Similarly, the exhibition at the theater was given one of three “art grades”: high class, mediocre, and crude. This was followed by a much more complex and finely graded “‘social,’ or, as some call it, the ‘moral’ grade of a performance.” The moral grade rated five possible responses, from “positive developmental value” to “vicious, obscene.”38
The increasing segmentation of discretely measurable aspects of the people attending motion picture shows, and the supposed value of the content of those shows, soon began to define the very idea of moviegoing and why it was important to know about. The audience was further categorized by percentage into male, female, boy, girl, children, and children under sixteen (categories also to be rendered in “actual numbers”).39 All of this was important because “artistic quality is relative to the audience witnessing the performance,” even while “moral value is to be taken as relative, not to an audience, but to the best ideals of the social groups chiefly composing that audience.”40 Clearly these observers must have indeed been very well trained! In fact, however, surveys tended to focus on promoting the scientific value of their results even while frequently employing subjective methodologies. As the historian Robert Bruce Fisher has suggested, “Surveys were often conducted merely to prove a point and to be used as ‘factual propaganda.’”41 Indeed, “The Exploitation of Pleasure” ultimately concluded: “In a word, recreation within the modern city has become a matter of public concern; laissez faire, in recreation as in industry, can no longer be the policy of the state.”42 What is significant to the history of seeing people as audiences, however, is the extent to which numerically measurable, statistically compiled, discretely recognized data became the widely accepted means of representing and knowing moving-image audiences.
This can be seen in the very way that the use of survey “schedules” was encouraged for the sake of scientific rigor. Described as a “technology” in 1919 in an effort to defend the social survey against charges of amateurism, the schedule's very utility was its predetermined categories for measuring the social: “An efficient technology operates as a vehicle for retaining as well as obtaining data.”43 The advantage, therefore, is that through the use of such data technology,
the subjective and vague elements are eliminated because the facts all wear the same garb and are retained in the same retainer. A survey schedule, for instance, does not permit the use of varying or various descriptive words. It demands the checking of one of a few descriptive terms or a mathematical statements of facts. Facts gathered by means of a such a tool are by right of this procedure reduced to types or groups, and a much larger body of facts can be assimilated by the community when reduced to and presented in such form. No community, nor even an individual, can assimilate or comprehend a thousand individual facts, but a thousand or even a million facts can be comprehended if reduced to quantitative or graphic form.44
Here the very tendency of measurable data to function through constructed types or groups rather than to address individual idiosyncrasies, that is, the tendency of statistics to regularize, is precisely what is hailed as the historic advancement, as what social surveys offered to studies of the otherwise unruly social. By 1919, even as the social survey was fading as a means of reform by knowledge production, this way of seeing people as types or groups (or audiences) was the very point of “the valuable technology of statistical data.”45 The elimination of the subjective and the vague in the service of constructing types or groups to ease understanding was the strength of numbers as a way of seeing people. Indeterminacy could be regularized through statistical analysis of large numbers.
The Russell Sage Foundation, following the publication of “The Exploitation of Pleasure,” continued to stay involved in the study of motion pictures and in particular their audiences. In addition to producing at least two single-reel “uplifting” educational motion pictures through Thomas Edison's company (A Sane Fourth of July on fireworks safety and Charlie's Reform on the social utility of community centers, both 1912) and an occasionally issued pamphlet (such as “Motion Pictures for Schools, Churches, Clubs and Community Centers,” which advised its readers on “how to secure suitable motion pictures for different groups and occasions”), the foundation continued to pay close attention to motion picture audiences in the multiple social surveys of American cities that it sponsored.46
For example, in 1914 it funded a comprehensive survey of recreation needs and resources in Springfield, Illinois, as part of a larger general survey of that city. The recreation study was published as a separate pamphlet. In a foreword, the authors noted, “It is hoped that the effect of the survey may be to arouse public consciousness with respect to the necessities, possibilities, and responsibilities that Springfield faces in helping its people, young and old, to make the best possible use of their play time.”47 In this regard it was enough of a success to garner the attention of Springfield resident, poet, and prospective film theorist Vachel Lindsay.48
Comprehensive surveys of the recreation needs and resources of other municipalities followed. Regarding the 1911 survey of New Britain, Connecticut, it is worth noting that the Social Survey Movement's gathering of statistics and analyses of motion picture attendance was already so well established and recognizable a genre that even the schoolchildren being questioned were well aware of the standard queries (and presumably the standard replies).49 One observer noted about this survey:
Having exhausted the list of inquiries which she had in mind, the principal asked, “Do you think of any other question I ought to put to you?” And one young hopeful piped up, “Wouldn't you like to know which theater we think is the healthiest, has best ventilation, etc.?” And when the teacher asked that question she got as frank an answer as she had received to her other queries. The lines of thought suggested by these statistics are many, but there is no time to follow them up now.50
And indeed little need, either, if even the children who are the object of investigation can see where the study is leading. Nevertheless, this particular study had legs and its statistics were well publicized. Its findings appeared in the trade journal Moving Picture World at the end of 1910 as well as—without attribution—Harper's Weekly.51 Of course this combination of widespread “publicity” for the numbers with an implicit knowledge of the Progressive agenda regarding motion pictures was exactly the point of such studies. By the 1910s, it is clear, the public recognized that motion picture audience types and groups aggregated from measurable quantities.
A 1914 survey of Ipswich, Massachusetts, entitled “Play and Recreation in a Town of 6000” presented its data not only numerically but also in the form of charts and graphs. So not only did it offer the serial The Perils of Pauline as an example of a motion-picture “thriller” demonstrating that “audiences like the unusual and unexpected, excitement and sensation,” but showed readers that 69 percent of an impressively presented pie chart was shaded ominously black to indicate boys’ preference for such “thrillers.”52 The other genres noted in the chart included comic (17 percent), miscellaneous (5 percent), educational (5 percent), and no preference (4 percent). The girls’ measurements broke down similarly, but with slightly different numbers: thrillers at 52 percent, comic at 27 percent, miscellaneous at 11 percent, no preference at 7 percent, and lowly educational at 3 percent. While these findings were presented as potentially perilous, it is of course precisely such measurements that Hollywood continues to seek from its audiences to this day.
For the author of this study, however, it was the silent films’ combination of silence and visuality wherein the threat was to be found: “The motion picture must tell its story to the eye alone. The loss of the spoken word must be balanced by stimulating the imagination. Frequently the suggestions are not of a wholesome character and are open to different interpretations by different people. Here lies the real danger in motion pictures.”53 This suggestion of an unruly audience, able to find unsavory meaning in even well-intentioned motion pictures, would increase as the century progressed. It is a direct outcome of the way in which the audience was constructed. The data demonstrated that children and (again, implicitly childlike) immigrants, workers, and women were watching, with their unknowable imaginations, and drawing potentially different interpretations. As William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson have noted, “drawing explicitly upon the melodramatic construction of innocent and defenseless women and children, [such studies] portrayed certain segments of the audience as vulnerable to the evil influences of both the films and the exhibition venues.”54 As a contrasting example to this characterization of women and children in and as the audience, the author of this study in Ipswich interviewed a few “respectable” local residents: “‘This town has the ten-cent habit.’ ‘It won't spend a quarter for a real play.’ ‘It is impossible to make good music or a lecture course pay expenses.’” He concluded, grimly, that “such remarks from sane and conservative men are significant.”55
By 1915 books summarizing the findings of multiple studies were appearing. One such reported on surveys—focused on motion pictures—from Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco. The preface noted: “The service which this series of studies would render is to aid in spreading knowledge of facts, and to increase acquaintance with proposed solutions.”56 Facts, presented as scientifically gathered numeric measurements, are already in need of solutions; they are already equivalent to problems. Employing a finite set of observable metrics and new methods of broad publicity, Progressive reform efforts had made it possible to see all the different people going to the movies, necessarily sharing nothing more in common than an encounter with the motion pictures, as a distinct, categorical grouping. In the process, the cinema's early audience was constructed and publicized from the start to be a “problem population,” recognizably in need of surveillance, analysis, and ultimately reform.
FROM CHARITY AND REFORM TO SOCIAL SCIENCE
The links between explicit reform measures and social scientific data, however, proved tenuous. As early as 1908, John Koren warned in the pages of Charities and the Commons that “the attitude of the public toward statistical work is for the most part unthinking and uncritical; it is ready to accept any one's say so. In short, the standards are not what they should be, and it is only by inspiring criticism that higher levels and a solid body of information can be reached.”57 The warning was given credence by Koren's background and stature as a former agent for the federal Bureau of the Census as well as chair of the committee on statistics of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. He had been called upon by the Russell Sage Foundation in its early years to advise on schedules of studies under way and offer criticism of statistical material presented in reports.58
As such Koren had an interest in maintaining the legitimacy of statistical approaches to social issues. This legitimacy, he feared, was being eroded. The source of this erosion he had implicated clearly in the previous pages of the same report: “The woods are full of amateur investigators who rush at any problem, no matter how large, and apply their little statistical measurement or analysis; and the knowledge of the world is not often enriched by their efforts. Rather the science of statistics and research is being brought into discredit.” Koren was warning these amateur investigators “against a loose and ill considered application of the statistical method to social problems.”59
Yet in tracking the Social Survey Movement's progress a few years later, in 1915, the Quarterly Publications of the American Statistical Association reported encouragingly that “statistics of some sort the world has had for a long time; statistics concerning the things about which we are gathering information today, however, until recently have been very few if not entirely lacking.”60 During the 1910s, therefore, the social survey was still considered kindred to the increasingly professionalized and institutionalized social sciences. Even so, the Quarterly Publications cautioned for the need of “an improvement in the standards and units of measurement used” in social surveys so that “the technique of the survey [may] be further perfected.”61 The social survey was at this point treated with interest by academic and professional social scientists, if also with growing caution. Citing an article published in 1910 in the pages of the Proceedings of the American Sociological Society, Michael Gordon suggests that in fact the Social Survey Movement held the interest of sociologists at the time in two ways: as a form of social science and as an example of “social forces” in action.62 In other words, it was of interest as both a method and an object of social inquiry.
As the 1910s progressed, this balance began to shift and the Social Survey Movement became increasingly merely the object of inquiry by the social sciences and thus increasingly subject to criticism. Social surveys were accused of amateurism, their workers of “following a mere fad,” and their efforts as not answerable to “scientific men.”63 Surveys, after all (as the editors of a recent volume entitled The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, tell us), “were carried out by private individuals (many of them, in the later nineteenth century, women of some social position), certain professions (associated with, in particular, medicine), members of voluntary associations concerned with social welfare, a few journalists and … one or two academic scholars.”64 These were the constituents, indeed the very heart, of the rapidly developing Progressive reform movement, not the emerging social science professionals. By the first decades of the twentieth century, Alice O'Connor has explained, “the social survey had become thoroughly absorbed into the wider world of Progressive reform and social investigation, as any number of local tenement, public health, and child welfare studies can attest. The survey had also proved itself as a form of middle-class, especially female, activism.”65 It was not simply that scientific methods were deployed by amateurs as part of a reform strategy, but also that the purpose, and those particular amateurs, threatened the credibility of professionally produced social scientific research.
The professionalism, objectivity, efficiency, and rationality that the professionalized social sciences claimed to offer in contradistinction to the Social Survey Movement's association with reform, benevolence, sympathy, subjective sentiment, and emotion were also clearly coded in terms of gender. A prevailing argument against reform-based efforts implicitly—and often explicitly—invoked the “women of some social position” as the true threat to the professional credibility of social scientific research. Thus social investigators and social workers were encouraged, for example, to eliminate “the ‘sob sisters,’ the Ladies Bountiful, the poseurs,” from association with their work. The professional social sciences were positioned as more than merely “an interesting diversion for spare time, but a profession, a ‘man's job.’”66 The movement that facilitated women's activism in the public sphere and even placed women in positions of influence (board members, survey directors, authors of studies) now found its association with middle-class gendered labor to be a point of criticism and a sure sign of amateurism in the most pejorative sense. This development was echoed frequently across many different sites of early twentieth-century cultural production, in which once-devalued labor performed in significant measure by women became professionalized, with increased pay, leading to greater social status, and a masculinization of that labor took place, effectively prohibiting further significant contributions from women. Mark Garrett Cooper has documented a remarkable instance of this process in filmmaking.67 Kristen Hatch has noted a similar process in film editing.68 Nathan Ensmenger has detailed the process in the history of computation.69
Historians of social science tend to demarcate the Social Survey Movement moment as one of several discontinuities in the development of the professionalized social science disciplines. They note its lack of sampling theory (remaining municipal, or even neighborhood focused, these surveys instead strove to be comprehensive) or advanced statistical analysis. The cleaving of the Social Survey Movement from the social sciences has been largely interpreted as a positive development in the history of the social sciences, demonstrating the success of the rise of professionalized social science as an objective and disinterested undertaking focused only on the production of objective knowledge. It was a move that shed the social sciences’ last ties with partisan reform entanglements and finally unbound it from any conflation of research and reform. Thus Steven R. Cohen has called the Social Survey Movement “a sociological road not taken.”70 David C. Hammack agrees, noting that such endeavors lacked in professional accreditation.71
Yet such a move came at the expense of discrediting the women and amateur investigators who had whet the public appetite for knowledge about itself and developed the very methodological foundations upon which the social sciences would thrive. During its rise and amid its widespread popularity, the Social Survey Movement had taken poverty seriously. It documented the working and living conditions of immigrants, laborers, African Americans, and women, denoting these population categories as legitimate objects of investigation and analysis. The motivations, as Bulmer et al. suggest, were complicated: “These inquiries signified increasing upper- and middle-class interest in the condition of the working classes as well as a desire to intervene—a desire both to remedy want and disease through voluntary or state action and to achieve a greater degree of social control through the pursuit of scientific expertise.”72 In the end, nonetheless, the Social Survey Movement popularized a historically new way of seeing people—as objects of measurement, aggregation, regularization, and ultimately intervention.
By the 1920s the Progressive reform movement's very notion of citizenry action was being displaced—in government agencies and research foundations alike—by a model of social science in which expertise “would continue to be organized around objective understanding of economic and social processes, but it would remain detached from particular reform causes or even proposals. It would also be targeted at a more select, enclosed audience of administrators, legislators, elite citizens, and, of course, professional social scientists who were in a position to influence policy decisions directly.”73 Such a select group in a position to influence policy decisions did not include very many women. To be sure, the social sciences have followed an approach inherited from reform efforts and continue to consider class, ethnicity, race, age, and gender central to research effecting social well-being as well as social control. When applied to the era's new media of the motion pictures, the social survey produced the first widely accepted new category of personhood of the twentieth century—the modern media audience—which continues to be at the center of efforts to understand not only the workings of new media that have developed since, but indeed the very way in which populations communicate.
LEGACY OF AUDIENCE SURVEY DATA
Numbers produced by surveys of the cinema's early audiences were initially used to establish the necessity and urgency of reform. Were such numbers accurate? Did they represent the reality of the situation? In the history of seeing people as audiences, it is perhaps more important to note that regardless of the veracity of any given social survey during the Progressive Era, what is of lasting significance is that the channels of public discourse and representation were crowded with results and summaries in a new form. By providing a stable and widely reproduced mode of representation, social surveyors helped to establish the specific reality of motion picture audiences. The motion picture audience became imaginable in ways that could not be separated from its enumeration. Eventually the methods used by the Social Survey Movement to establish the need for reform, and the proliferation of data they used to represent the cinema's audience as an important site of reform, had the effect of normalizing the representation of a new category of personhood. Ultimately, by providing stable and widely reproduced methods for observation and representation, the Social Survey Movement helped to invent a historically new category of analysis, measurement, intervention, and even being: the media audience.
Moreover, by constructing and publicizing the audience as a “problem population” in need of analysis and reform, a lasting legacy of these surveys remains: the media audience has ever since been understood as a problem to be solved. Seeing people as an audience relies on the aggregation of data collected through discretely measurable metrics and presented as knowledge about a population. It continues to be imagined as essentially divided by difference—an aggregate of ultimately incompatible but presumably essential categories of gender, age, language, and race. Yet before the audience became so important and so lucrative, before it became the object of professional and academically accredited techniques of measurement and research, it was the concern—in certain ways even the invention—of a movement associated with charity, reform, assimilation, and the work of concerned women.