Questions & Debates in the History of Statistics, Counting, and Quantification


A few questions on the history of statistics and quantification from my Qualifying Exams list on History of Knowledge Systems.

Examiner: Cathryn Carson

Second Field: History of Knowledge Systems

  1. History of Information, Enlightenment Institutions, ‘Information Ages’
  2. History of Information, Documentation, Catalogs, Libraries/Archives
  3. History of Statistics, Quantification, and Counting
  4. History of Data Science

Agar, Jon. The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer. History of Computing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.

Bouk, Daniel B. How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Desrosières, Alain. The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Gigerenzer, Gerd, ed. The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life. Ideas in Context. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. Ideas in Context. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Porter, Theodore, M. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

—. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Scott, James C. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale Agrarian Studies. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1998. +

Scott, James C., John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias. “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 4–44.


Key Questions

Q. What are the political and social contexts that give rise to quantification and statistics?

Requirement and interwoven relationship between APPLICATION (Porter and measurement as social technology, institutions, machines, bureaus, administration as technology) and PHILOSOPHY
  1. INSTITUTIONS AND TECHNOLOGY OF MEASUREMENT “avalanche of numbers”: (Hacking) importance of official and unofficial bureaus, amateur bureaucratic collection of information, enumeration of people, citizens, “making up people”, state investment, statistical institutions and systems
    1. technology of recording: (Agar) computing machines and card catalogs, organizational bodies (British Civil Service)
    2. Porter Trust in Numbers social technology of measurement allows for the management of society, project power over large, diverse territory: post French revolution and First Republic in 19th c
      • measurement also gave meaning to scientific practice as a way of demonsstrating validity and standards of protocol
      • power of numbers, recognitizing the authority of statistical and behavioral norms, through an oppressive language of normality an abnormality
  2. PHILOSOPHY OF EXPLANATION OF UNCERTAINTY, evidence, probability, reason, and objectivity: Daston & Hacking, Porter
    1. Porter: objectivity and trust in indirect relation: trust in short supply, thus must perform objectivity through standardization of rules of measurement
    2. Daston: from the Enlightenment (18th c) model of rational decision and action under conditions of uncertainty and by 19th c concept of quantification of good sense and study of society as coherent units (moral sciences, science des meours)
    3. Hacking: disciplining and taming of ‘chance’ into natural and social laws, determinism eroded into autonomous laws of society (new kinds of ‘objective’ knowledge and ways of gaining information about the world by 19th c)
    4. Desrosieres: debates regarding part representing the whole, partial statistics, or monographic deep reading methods to understand individual cases
Porter Trust in Numbers
  • 19th c bureaucratization:local knowledge had become inadequate, personal face to face contact impossible—> bureatization increased need for quantitative literacy and standardizing practices
  • general cases: British and French, and early twentieth century America
    • accountants civil servants, statisticians, actuaries within insurance offices
    • widespread push to reduct judgment (subjectivity) to rules of calculation (objectivity)
  • case: Ecole Polytechnique in post-Revoluion France and French state engineers- mathetmatic, science, modern engineer …technocracy- bureaucratic uses of accounting, benefits for public good balanced against monetary costs (assigning value to objects, services, relationshisps)
    • pursuit of quantitiatve objectivy became more widespreadin france after WWII
    • discourse of objectivity and standardization for the service of the state/public, assessing public utility…but French Administration and Corps des Ponts generally closed, aristocratic/hierarchical withheld information from public in contrastto U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • case: 1920-1960, American impersonal objectivty – U.S. army Corps of engineers and experts in building projects of railroads and canals in 1920-1960s, reliance on techniques of economic rationality (cost-benefit analysis) into bureaucratic negotiations (opponents to engineer corps pressure to standardize)
    • —>demonstrates the relatively weak, divided administrative apparatus and thus rising importance of cost-benefit analysis strategies to choose projects, structure relations within bureaucracies and helped define form of interactions with clients and competitors (cost benefit analysis would be used as a universal standard of rationality and was an attempt to apply mechanical objectivity to offset the bureaucratic conflict and public distrust)
    • in US government, need for objectivity higher since suspicious of arbitrariness and behind doors discretion (attempts to make public projects neutral to partisan influence)
    • other systemtic uses of IQ tests to classify students, opinion polls to quantify public mood, statistical methods for licensing drugs…
  • note: rigorous objectivity and professional autonomy opposed to each other
  • Porter’s main argument: Science is made by weak communities
    • Porter argues that the tendency towards quantitative and standardized measures in modern society is due to response of weak professional groups and scientific communities to external socio-political pressures demanding accountability.
    • mechanical objectivity and trust in indirect relation: trust in short supply, thus must perform objectivity through standardization of rules of measurement
    • in other words derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply
Jon Agar
  • professionalization/disciplinization of statistics characterized from the shift from enumeration to analysis (development of a science)
  • important role of ‘expert movement/epistemic communities (academics, civil servants, engineers, statisticians) e.g. Treasury in the British Civil Service in 20th cwho promote a certain technocratic view of bureaucracy, governance, and objective statistical facts)
  • civil service organized by generalists (top) and mechanical (below, low paid, lower classes, female)
  • statistics movement flourished from 1830s in Britain (tradition back to 17th c political arithmetic) : a shift from enumeration to analysis and thus the professionalization (movement into other sciences such as physical, mathematical, social sciences)

Q. What is the relationship between the state and quantification/classification? What is legibility?

  • essential state functions: taxation, conscription, prevention of rebellion
  • problem of legibility in modern statecraft – simplifications, abdiging, flattening
Jean Baptiste Colbert- great cenrralizer of absolutism, national cadastral survey of France
“Society must be remade beforee it can be the object of quantification. Categories of people and things must be defined, measures must be interchangeable; land and commodoties must be conceived as rpresented by an equvalent in money. Tehre is mucho f what Weber called rationalization in this, and also a good deal of centralization. – Theodore Porte r”Ojectivity as Standardization”
  • important case study of growth of British Civil Service in 20th century- comprehensive knowledge on British individuals, and the integration of different information surveys (census, national registry, electoral information)
Jon Agar on Foucault and governmentality:   A different explanation for government as producers of knowledge, inspired
by Michel Foucault, is given by the governmentality school. Their objective—
to provide an “analysis of political reason, of the mentalities of politics that
have shaped our present, the devices invented to give effect to rule, and the
ways in which these have impacted upon those who have been the subjects of
these practices of government,” pursued via a mixture of “a history of political
ideas and a sociology of technologies of government”—is clearly close in
spirit to my own.19
James Scott
  • state naming = state making; statistics reinforces authority of the state
  • legibility : the process of making human and physical landscape legible for the state (taxation ,military conscription, prevention of rebellion)
    • state proces built over local practices, prefernce for standardization, synoptic semantic order
    • modern nation states need to local and identify individuals and aggregate standardized information for property, income, health, demography, productivity
Jacob Soll The Information Master: Jean Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System
  • translation of information into power: case of integration of royal libraries and state archive to be deployed to exert political power – compete over land legal rights, push out competition on basis of corruption
    • Jean Baptiste Colbert as informant/minister/advisor to Louis XIV, report booklets on finances, information about kingdom

Q. What is objectivity?

Porter Trust in Numbers
  • refers to truth to nature, but also ideas of impersonality, fairness, universality, immunity to local distorting factors like language, nationality, personal interest
  • Types of objectivity
    • disciplinary objectivity- reach consensus within disciplinary community
    • mechanical objectivity- personal restaraitn and following rules, preventing subjectivity, related to ideas of fairness
  • morality: a sacrifice of self-interest and personal subjectivity (cult of impersonal)
    • case of insurance mathematics and accounting for the state, objectivity performed subjectivity made suspect
    • positivism and taming of human subjectivity in order to simplify and systematize measuring for governments, public, industries
    • objectivity associated with political democracy (since arbitrariness and bias heavily criticized) and produces a certain superficiality/performance of transparency of numbers
  • objectivity in accounting refers to rules and entities
    • rules: rigid, arbitrarity, inflexible,—> stable, replication, standards
    • for accountants, objectivity a mechanism to exclude judgment
    • objectivity: a technology of distance- geographical, intellectual, social (forms of organization that didn’t rely on face to face negotiation)

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