February 16, 2018

Social scientist and historian of survey research Jean Converse dies at 90

Jean ConverseJean McDonnell Converse, a social scientist, historian of survey research, and expert in interview techniques, died on January 25, 2018, in Park Ridge, Ill.

Converse’s work served two very important roles in the field of survey research, according to research professor Michael Traugott of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) and professor emeritus of Communication Studies. “She was a historian, and she wrote the definitive book on survey history in the United States during its formative years, as well as her notable work in questionnaire design. And at the Institute of Social Research, she ran the Detroit Area Study for several years, which was a training mechanism for two generations of social science graduate students where they learned how to conduct surveys in the field, how to interview subjects and analyze data. We’re certainly going to miss her.”

Converse’s extensive recording of the history of survey research in the United States, and what is often referred to as the ultimate text on the subject, “Survey Research in the United States: Roots and Emergence 1890-1960,” was published in 1987. In an ISR interview in 1997, Converse said, “I was concerned that some of the people that I knew in the senior staff were getting along in years and that we didn’t have any archives in the Institute that recorded their perception of the development of the Institute.” She began a scholarly search into the history of ISR, as well as other leading survey research institutions that pioneered the field, including the Bureau of Applied Social Research and the National Opinion Research Center. “Her book is an excellent and comprehensive scholarly treatment of the origin and development of the social science survey,” says Howard Schuman, professor emeritus of sociology and research scientist emeritus at ISR. “It is the best such work I know of, and might well have met the requirements for a doctoral dissertation, with the additional virtue of being extremely well-written.”

Her full obituary is on the ISR website.