During World War II many social scientists who were drafted into the US Army were assigned to the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of the War Department. It conducted large-scale surveys of personnel in the United States armed forces under the direction of sociologist Samuel A. Stouffer. The result was a significant body of research, much published in a multivolume work called The American Soldier. Many of the original studies and their data are available online.


What Is Obvious?1

Paul F. Lazarsfeld

The limitations of survey methods are obvious. They do not use experimental techniques; they rely primarily on what people say, and rarely include objective observations; they deal with aggregates of individuals rather than with integrated communities; they are restricted to contemporary problems-history can be studied only by the use of documents remaining from earlier periods.

In spite of these limitations survey methods provide one of the foundations upon which social science is being built. The finding of regularities is the beginning of any science, and surveys can make an important contribution in this respect. For it is necessary that we know what people usually do under many and different circumstances if we are to develop theories explaining their behavior. Furthermore, before we can devise an experiment we must know what problems are worthwhile; which should be investigated in greater detail. Here again surveys can be of service.

Finding regularities and determining criteria of significance are concerns the social sciences have in common with the natural sciences. But there are crucial differences between the two fields of inquiry. The world of social events is much less "visible" than the realm of nature. That bodies fall to the ground, that things are hot or cold, that iron becomes rusty, are all immediately obvious. It is much more difficult to realize that ideas of right and wrong vary in different cultures; that customs may serve a different function from the one which the people practising them believe they are serving; that the same person may show marked contrasts in his behavior as a member of a family and as a member of an occupational group. The mere description of human behavior, of its variation from group to group and of its changes in different situations, is a vast and difficult undertaking. It is this task of describing, sifting and ferreting out interrelationships which surveys perform for us. And yet this very function often leads to serious misunderstandings. For it is hard to find a form of human behavior that has not already been observed somewhere. Consequently, if a study reports a prevailing regularity, many readers respond to it by thinking "of course that is the way things are." Thus, from time to time, the argument is advanced that surveys only put into complicated form observations which are already obvious to everyone.

Understanding the origin of this point of view is of importance far beyond the limits of the present discussion. The reader may be helped in recognizing this attitude if he looks over a few statements which are typical of many survey findings and carefully observes his own reaction. A short list of these … will be given here in order to bring into sharper focus probable reactions of many readers.

1. Better educated men showed more psycho-neurotic symptoms than those with less education….
2. Men from rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during their Army life than soldiers from city backgrounds….
3. Southern soldiers were better able to stand the climate in the hot South Sea Islands than Northern soldiers….
4. White privates were more eager to become non-com[missioned officer]s than [Black]s….
5. Southern [Black]s preferred Southern to Northern white officers….
6. As long as the fighting continued, men were more eager to be returned to the States than they were after the German surrender….

We have in these examples a sample list of the simplest type of interrelationships which provide the "bricks" from which our empirical social science is being built. But why, since they are so obvious, is so much money and energy given to establish such findings? Would it not be wiser to take them for granted and proceed directly to a more sophisticated type of analysis?

For each of the findings listed in the article, indicate whether you think it is "obvious" or "non-obvious" and then use your best social science or historical sense to generate a theory or hypothesis that explains the finding.

1. Education Obvious? Non-obvious?


2. Rural backgrounds Obvious? Non-obvious?


3. Southern soldiers and heat Obvious? Non-obvious?


4. Race and promotion aspirations Obvious? Non-obvious?


5. Southern officers Obvious? Non-obvious?


6. Eagerness to return home Obvious? Non-obvious?


Theories. Explanations. Suggestions.

Portfolio Assignment

For your portfolio, write a paragraph describing what your theories were and your thoughts when reflecting back on the exercise at its conclusion.