Saturday, December 29, 2012

Education and taste in reading

In the early days of survey research, there weren't nearly as many surveys as there are today, but they were more likely to venture outside the usual range of topics.  For example, in 1948 a Roper/Fortune survey focused on "cultural interests."  One question gave people a card with a list of possible plots for a novel or story and asked "if you were going to spend this evening reading, which would you select--assuming that they all would be well-written?"  It also asked whether there were any that "you'd rather not read about at all?"

The plots were: 
1.  "A stuffy banker is outwitted in an amusing way by a group of farmers"
2.  "A plain girl to whom no one had paid much attention in her home town goes to Washington,  becomes a great social success, and marries a brilliant young Senator."
3.  "An amateur detective solves an unusually puzzling murder."
4. "A soldier returns to find that his wife has been blinded in an air raid."
5. "The adventures of a little-known sea captain who had a great influence on the outcome of the American Revolution."
6.  "The problems of a man who can't make decisions because he always had been tied to his mother's apron strings."
7.  "The wife of a European diplomat runs away with an American businessman."
8.  "Two high school sweethearts drift apart but finally realize they have loved each other all along and are married."

It seemed to me that 4, 6, and 7 were the plots that were most compatible with "literary" fiction, since they didn't involve a clear happy ending or solution.  Therefore, I expected that they would be less popular overall, but that education would increase the taste for them.  The actual rankings by popularity are:

Captain           +5
Banker            +3
Girl              -1
Detective         -4
*Apron            -6
*Blind            -9
Sweethearts       -13
*Affair           -20

Asterisks indicate the ones I regarded as more "literary."  On the average, they were indeed less popular than the others.  The figures are percent who said they they would pick that story minus the percent who said they wouldn't want to read it.  Most of the numbers are negative because people could pick only one as their favorite but could give multiple answers on ones that they wouldn't want to read. 

I regressed each person's ratings of each story on five characteristics, education, economic level (as estimated by the interviewer, age, and dummy variables for black and female:

                Educ    Eclev               Age    Black  Female
Captain       +.083   +.046                +.019   +.006   -.194
Banker        -.029   +.012                +.038   -.018   -.117
Girl          -.032   +.003                +.003   +.126   +.314
Detective     +.014   -.027                -.021   +.003   -.352
Apron         +.021   -.051                +.003   +.099   +.115
Blind         -.054   -.045                -.034   -.034   +.046
Love          -.099   -.058                +.002   +.050   +.249
Affair        -.064   -.014                -.031   +.036   +.079

Contrary to my expectations, education didn't make people more favorable to the "literary" plots. More educated people were a little more favorable to the one about the man who couldn't make decisions, but less favorable to the ones about the soldier returning to find his wife was blind and the affair.  Gender was the strongest influence on all but one (the returning soldier)--in general, education reduced taste for plots that were more popular among women. 

1 comment:

  1. They were focus-grouping Green Acres as early as 1948?