INTRODUCTION

Numbers have become, over the last two centuries, a central feature of public discourse and a privileged means of founding knowledge and trust in many walks of life. GNP, the unemployment rate, the consumer price index, life expectancy, crime rates, estimates of risk, concentration ratios, IQ and a host of other statistical devices are now part of our informational environment – one might say of the very fabric of our daily existence. There are few problems we would now consider examining, discussing and tackling without making use of numerical knowledge and without, therefore, resorting to the rhetoric of numbers. This continuous expansion of statistical artefacts can be described as a momentous epistemic transformation that has to a large degree displaced earlier authoritative forms of persuasion based on local and singular types of knowledge, often couched in literary form, with information of a more general and standardized character, generally presented in a numerical guise. But this transformation has also been political and institutional, in the sense that it has been made possible because of the ongoing increase in information-gathering activities carried on by governments and their agents from the early nineteenth century on. The harmonization of weights and measures, the cadastral survey of the national territory, the advent of periodical censuses, the setting up of standardized procedures to record the basic vital events of each individual’s birth and death, all partake to this multi-faceted enterprise, under the conjoined and yet distinct legitimacies of modern science and of the modern state. ‘Evidence-based policy’ may be of recent coinage – and it may very imperfectly describe the actual practice of governments – but the standard it sets coincides rather well with the pleas and arguments put forward, at various junctures, by those who pushed for such an approach to the understanding and management of social and political issues and for institutions accordingly conceived to be set up. In this book, we examine a number of specific, often not well known, and telling episodes of how this intellectual and political change occurred. Even though it covers a period that may be defined as going from the creation of the first bureaus dedicated to the collection and processing of statistical information (c. 1800) to the considerable extension of their information-gathering capacities

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that came with the advent of probabilistic sampling methods and the establishment of national accounting (c. 1945), the story it tells is not continuous and it is in no way limited to the institutional development of statistics. This has to do, partly at least, with the state of the field we are engaged in. The intellectual, social and political history of statistics has been, over the last two or three decades, a burgeoning field of research. Contributions have come from students of various disciplinary origins – historians and philosophers of science, economists, sociologists, political scientists and professional statisticians themselves – and they have covered issues as diverse as classification systems of occupations or ethnic origins, the introduction of statistical thinking and devices in previously ‘soft’ and ‘qualitative’ disciplines such as economics or psychology, or the protracted genesis of largely disseminated constructs such as the human sex-ratio at birth.1 Trying to sketch the development of this field – also designated sometimes as the ‘sociology of quantification’ or, simply, as the ‘history of statistics’ – in a fair and reasonably exhaustive manner is out of place in this introduction, but it may be useful to reassess briefly its main trends in order to locate the nature of our contribution. As a scholarly undertaking, the line of inquiry taken up by students in this field may be distinguished from two other intellectual pursuits. A first one consists in what we may call the more purely ‘internal’ history of statistics, which is concerned with the development of probability calculus and of the various mathematical tools devised for the description of numerical distributions (and often done by academic statisticians themselves).2 The other one is made up by the official accounts of their own history national bureaus of statistics have traditionally provided on the occasion of significant anniversaries (and that are often written by ‘house’ historians who belong or are closely connected to these bureaus). To be sure, scholars in our field have amply used such work as reference and source material, as is the case of the present authors. But one of the characteristics of the intellectual, social and political history of statistics as we understand it has been precisely the critical distance it has taken with regard to both these genres. To the somewhat backward-written narratives of the history of statistics and statistical devices that envision their development as basically driven by logical constraints and progressively unfolding (‘all the past being supposedly summarized in the next-to-last step of science and in the leap that allowed passing to the last state’),3 it has opposed, in line with the more sociologically informed ‘science studies’ that have developed more or less during the same period, a view that grants more importance to the social or political context, as for instance with Donald A. Mackenzie’s insistence on the role played by eugenics in the development of correlation and other statistical devices by British statisticians at the turn of the twentieth century.4 Nor did it endorse unquestioningly the ‘Weberian’ self-description official statisticians tend to give of their work as an

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essential component of the rationalization and modernization of government. And a number of students have indeed approached the growth of the state’s information-gathering activities and the success met by statisticians from a more critical stance, for instance through the Foucault-inspired lens of statistics as a form of ‘surveillance’ or ‘control’ and as a technique of ‘governing at a distance’, or with the aid of Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘field’ and ‘habitus’.5 It has in fact been a characteristic of many of these contributions to try to combine more closely the two meanings of the word ‘statistics’, that is statistics as a set of formal and technical tools (from averages and various indexes to probability calculus) and statistics as series of numbers produced and made public in a given social and political framework (drawn, for instance, from vital statistics or the census) and showing, as a result, that social and political concerns have played a decisive part in shaping and informing the nature and character of what are ordinarily portrayed as basically scientific or technical devices, and that, at the same time, institutions and, more generally, the state have themselves been partly reshaped according to the constraints and perspectives that such instruments embodied. The activity of statisticians (those who evolve mainly within the relatively insulated sphere of the academy as well as those who are involved in the more murky world of government and public administration) cannot be interpreted in (their own) technical terms of error reduction and ever closer approximation of a pre-existing ‘reality’, but it cannot either be described plainly in terms of operations designed to conceal or ‘manufacture’ that reality. Statistics must rather be envisioned as a political–cognitive space within which political issues, problems or demands are the object of some form and degree of technical conversion or translation – in the linguistic, administrative as well as geometrical meaning of this last word – and thus take on a new consistence that allows for other, more narrowly defined ways of discussing them and, in many cases, of managing them. As representative of the fruitfulness of this approach, we may mention Alain Desrosières’s concept of ‘quantification’, which, by contrast with the natural science-based notion of measurement, enhances the importance of ‘convention’ (as in ‘social conventions’, but also as understanding, agreement or covenant) among concerned parties when they choose to resort to the language of numbers.6 But equally seminal have been Ian Hacking’s notion of ‘making up people’, as exemplified by the ‘poverty line’ and the very concrete effects this construct has had on the fate of the ‘poor’,7 or Theodore Porter’s work on the rise of ‘mechanical objectivity’ and the use certain professional groups made of it in order to consolidate their position in the social division of labour.8 The hybrid character of statistics that comes for the intertwinement between the state, as capacity to mobilize the means and impose compliance, and science, as supplier of devices and techniques to format, process and interpret the information extracted, testifies to the simultaneously political and cognitive

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character that defines a major operation like the decennial census, the construction of taxonomies for the purpose of sorting bits of information, the general configuration of a national statistical system, or statistical devices themselves. On a conceptual or theoretical level, the present book thus rests on a ‘large’ acceptation of the word statistics, which allows us, in line with the approach described above, to bring together aspects that are often thought of or examined separately. Statistics will thus refer here to the scientific discipline in-the-making and its repertoire of analytical devices, there to the public institutions, activities and practices that are designated through the same word, and there again as the output of these institutions and the use made of them in public debate. In other words, statistics as a logic of inquiry, statistics as a practice of government and statistics as a rhetorical mode. An overview of the book’s content may illustrate how all this holds together. Chapter 1 explores the paths through which percentages – an arithmetic tool deemed so elementary that it had not hitherto attracted much scholarly attention – became a familiar feature of public discourse. Used at first for the purpose of computing interest rates, moving timidly to the field of mortality study in the work of John Graunt and late seventeenth-century political arithmeticians, percentages then sprang up in early nineteenth-century writings about Britain and the population growth of its colonies, thanks to the recent availability of census data, and became in the process the flexible tool for comparison across space and time we are now familiar with. (Incidentally, this investigation brings us back well before our official starting date, but this results precisely from the unexpected discovery that, by the early 1800s, the use of percentages was a novelty that needed to be accounted for.) At the other end of our time frame, Chapter 8, which deals with the protracted discussion about the idea and practice of representative sampling and with the reception given to probabilistic methods by government statisticians during the first half of the twentieth century, similarly examines the encounter between different, yet connected, understandings of statistics, themselves embodied by different types, yet again not completely unconnected, of statisticians. Chapter 3, which is centred around the character of Adolphe Quetelet, that polymath of nineteenth-century statistics, Chapter 4, which tries to reconstruct a century of debates around the optimal organizational design of a national statistical office, and Chapter 6, which is dedicated to the aborted attempt at creating a British imperial statistical bureau, all focus on the institutional and practical dimensions of statistics and, by ricochet, on the properly statistical dimension of the modern state. One obvious conclusion that emerges from this examination is that models of organizing the ‘observation’ and ‘numberization’ of societies and populations vary according to the requirements that are put up to the state, but are also deeply enmeshed with full-fledged visions of the state’s functions. Chapters 2, 5 and 7 present historical instances

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where statistics have been used as a rhetorical resource to redefine and, may we say, ‘statisticize’ highly contentious political issues. Chapter 2 offers a very early example of this kind of move: with the statistical account he proposed for Upper Canada, a largely uncharted and sparsely peopled province where the grasp of government over land and people remained thin and open to challenge, Robert Gourlay provides a rare case of ‘bottom-up’ statistics, of the numbers used as a tool for checking those on top rather than the other way around. Chapter 5 examines how, in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America, statistics were used to articulate the public discussions (and the fears) about immigration and its alleged effect on population growth. An interesting feature of this debate, launched by foremost statistician of the United States at the time, Francis Amasa Walker, lies in the building tension between, on the one hand, a numerically couched exoteric discourse open to political recycling and, on the other, an increasingly esoteric set of devices and practices, growing over time and intent on drawing a clear demarcation between disciplinary–professional norms and militant or activist stances. Chapter 7 deals with the work of prominent Italian statisticians during the social and political upheaval their country underwent in the aftermath of the First World War and shows, on a less optimistic key, that scientific credentials and methodological ingenuity can also be completely mingled with sharply predefined political positions and that the promotion of professional and disciplinary interests can go hand in hand with support for an authoritarian brand of politics. Another notable feature of the literature devoted to the intellectual, social and political history of statistics is the wealth of national case studies (to which, as Canadians, the present authors have themselves contributed). Given what we have written above about the central role of the state in the development of numerically couched information, this ‘methodological nationalism’ seems quite understandable. Yet, one of the rhetorical underpinnings of statistics as a discipline and a practical activity on behalf of the state is precisely the universality that is characteristic of numbers as a language. And the history of statistics as a scientific-cum-institutional undertaking is in significant part an international or transnational venture, with the International Statistical Congress (ISC) meetings from 1853 to 1876, the continuing existence of its successor body, the International Statistical Institute (ISI), from 1885 on, and, nowadays, the activities of the United Nations Statistics Division and other global statistical agencies. A not insignificant amount of secondary literature has been devoted to these international gatherings, but the question remains open as to the exact role of international statistical cooperation and to the real influence it may have had upon the development of statistics as an activity of the state.9 In this book, and this may be in part because Canada was a minor player in the field of statistics throughout the period we cover and, as such, upon the receiving end of influences, we indeed insist, in

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contrast with the methodological nationalism evoked above, upon the necessity of taking into account the larger transnational networks through which the ideas, models and devices that shaped the development of statistics in many countries were conveyed. Even though we do not dedicate a specific chapter to the ISC or the ISI, both these structures are recurrent throughout the book, notably when we examine the legacy of Quetelet (Chapter 3), debates regarding the organization of government statistical activity (Chapter 4) or the advent of probabilistic sampling methods in the work of statistical bureaus (Chapter 8). But, as will be made clear in the three initial chapters of the book, transnational migration of statistical ideas and models well pre-dates the setting up of structures dedicated to that purpose, through the physical transplantation of individuals (Gourlay) or the more traditional means of quotation and correspondence. Cultural and linguistic proximity as allowed by a common belonging to a supranational entity (the British Empire: Chapters 1, 2 and 6) or geographical contiguity (between Canada and the United States: Chapter 5) were also privileged channels for such intellectual exchange to take place. Chapter 7 is more self-contained to the case of Italy, but it reflects how, in spite of the ongoing process of replication of ideas, models and devices across countries, the national dimension clearly trumps the universal or internationalist pleas of statisticians, and this is especially true on the aftermath of the First World War. Comparable outcomes can be observed with regard to the fate of the proposed British imperial bureau of statistics in the early 1920s (Chapter 6) and the reaction of authoritarian regimes to the novelty of probabilistic sampling in the 1930s (Chapter 8). The recurrence of patronyms from one chapter to the next and as we move from one generation of statisticians to another illustrates the fundamental commonality of issues examined. These names can in fact be read as traces of the ongoing transnational debates and tags representing particular stances or views. But they are also the embodiment of various types of statisticians, from early nineteenth-century ‘gentlemen-statisticians’ such as Sir John Sinclair, Robert Gourlay or Joseph Bouchette, to state statisticians such as Robert H. Coats or George H. Knibbs, ‘scientific’ or academic statisticians such as Arthur L. Bowley or Jerzy Neyman, or polymaths who combine bureaucratic as well as scientific positions and credentials such as Adolphe Quetelet or Corrado Gini. To sum up, through the various ‘stories’ or case studies that compose this book, our intent is to show that, in the history of statistics as a theoretical-cumpractical pursuit, scientific, administrative and political aspects are often very closely linked, and that uncovering these relationships provides a wider and better understanding of an activity that has progressively become a central feature of modern government. Indeed, the production of numerically couched knowledge was from the beginning promoted as a means to structure public debate, but also as a process for redefining and eventually resolving political issues – in

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other words: as a way to shift debates from the world of politics and values to that of technique and facts. It is also clear that, even though they have a logic of their own and can sometimes act as norms or constraints upon the uses one can make of data, conceptual and methodological choices cannot be isolated from broader concerns. At the same time, it is equally obvious that what statisticians were calling for – periodical nationwide censuses, standardized registration procedures and more numerous and more frequent surveys – required considerable resources and the setting up of large organizations that only an active and growing state was in a position to support. A social, political and intellectual history of statistics as we propose here does not attempt at any exhaustive or continuous account; but it seeks to provide a coherent yet diverse series of sketches over one of the central developments of modern societies.

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