Over the course of the last century, few areas of life, from salad dressing to health care legislation to our favorite TV shows, were left untouched by the focus group. Journalist Liza Featherstone, author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation (O/R Books/Counterpoint Books, 2018), the first-ever popular survey of this rich topic, will discuss some of her research with the colloquium, including the surprising roots of the focus group in early-twentieth century European socialism, its subsequent use by the midcentury “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue, and its widespread impact on our lives today. As elites have become increasingly detached from the general public, they rely ever more on focus groups, whether to win votes or to sell products. And, in a society where many feel increasingly powerless, the focus group has offered at least the illusion that ordinary people will be listened to and that their opinions count. Yet, it seems the more we are consulted, the less power we have. That paradox is particularly stark today, when everyone can post an opinion on social media—our 24 hour “focus group”—yet only plutocrats can shape policy.
Liza Featherstone is the author of Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation (O/R Books, 2018). She is the first-ever advice columnist for The Nation, where she is a longtime contributing editor. Featherstone is editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verson, 2016) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic Books, 2004), and a co-author of Students Against Sweatshops (Verso, 2002). A journalist, essayist and critic, Featherstone has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ms., The American Prospect, Columbia Journalism Review, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Dissent, The Guardian, In These Times and many other publications. She currently teaches journalism in the Literary Reportage program at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute as well as at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs.