The Twitter account @HistOpinion is utterly simple and endlessly fascinating. The brainchild of Case Western history professor Peter Shulman, the account tweets findings from public opinion surveys taken between 1935 and 1946, inserting results from Depression- and WWII-era opinion polls into your feed at the rate of three tweets a day. (You can see larger versions of all the charts in this post by clicking on them.)
US May 24 '37: What city in the United States do you think most interesting? pic.twitter.com/HWaDmrpkq3-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 14, 2014
The volume that supplies source material for the tweets is Public Opinion, 1935-1946, by Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril. Cantril was a pioneer in the field of public opinion research, which took off in the mid-1930s after pollsters George Gallup, Elmo Roper, and Archibald Crossley successfully predicted FDR’s victory using statistical sampling in 1936.
From his perch at Princeton, Cantril adapted these new methods for academic purposes, and advised presidents including FDR and Eisenhower. (Cantril also authored the first study of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds “panic” of 1938.)
Public Opinion compiles data from 23 polling organizations around the world, with results coming from Hungary, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, and Britain, as well as the U.S. Shulman is working his way through the volume, selecting the most surprising, intriguing, or unusual responses to share on the Twitter feed.
US Apr 25 '44: Which of these magazines would best train high-school boys and girls to be better American citizens? pic.twitter.com/JIwzRWX89D-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 9, 2014
Some of the most interesting @HistOpinion tweets have to do with World War II. Contemporary responses to questions about the purposes and direction of the war remind us of the uncertainty people felt while the conflict was ongoing. “No matter how hard I try to remember that people didn’t know the war was going to end in 1945,” Shulman says, “it’s a different thing to see the poll.”
Great Britain Dec '39: How long do you think the war will continue from now? pic.twitter.com/2jNHFbVcsV-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 11, 2014
Some polls expose the underbelly of public opinion: overwhelming support for the sterilization of “habitual criminals and the hopelessly insane,” for instance, or disproportionately harsh feelings toward the Japanese.
US Jan 11 '37: Do you favor sterilization of habitual criminals and the hopelessly insane? pic.twitter.com/aDsXph6KeI-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 5, 2014
US Feb '44: If you had your say, how would we treat the people who live in Japan after this war? Germany? pic.twitter.com/gkoOFmp4DF-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 10, 2014
Some @HistOpinion tweets are intriguing not because of the response data, but because of the questions themselves. Many, like this query about weather forecasting, expose now-vanished assumptions about daily practices.
Canada Jun 5 '46: Can you get a fairly reliable weather forecast by studying the almanac? Animals & trees? The moon? pic.twitter.com/KJOqJZgjZE-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 7, 2014
A few months after starting the feed, Shulman hit upon the idea of creating graphics based on the poll results. The charts make the tweets pop on your timeline, and they also give Shulman a way to pack more information on the source of the poll, and its methods, into a tweet.
US Mar 15 '37: What book are you reading now? pic.twitter.com/5U3FrvnCTH-- Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) January 7, 2014
“My biggest hesitation in [curating this feed] is that you might be suggesting an age of certainty,” Shulman says. Even with the newer, more “scientific” approach to polling, he points out, sampling methods for 1930s and 1940s polls weren’t always representative. For example, “pollsters asking political questions often pulled back from asking African-Americans in the South to answer, because, they argued, black people didn’t vote.”
The Cantril volume is hefty, and fodder for the Twitter feed is practically endless. Shulman also hopes to expand @HistOpinion into a blog or a Tumblr, where he could have space to address questions about the pollsters’ methods, as well as ponder the possible implications of their results.
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