Making the Social World Objective. Theoretical, Practical, and Visual Forms of Social and Economic Knowledge, 1850–2000

Making the Social World Objective. Theoretical, Practical, and Visual Forms of Social and Economic Knowledge, 1850–2000

Claire-Lise Debluë, University of Zurich; Alix Heiniger, University of Fribourg, Laure Piguet, University of Geneva
Vom - Bis
10.11.2021 - 11.11.2021
Joanna Haupt, Forschungsstelle für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Universität Zürich

This conference developed an inter- and transnational approach to social and economic knowledge by comparing various national frameworks, analyzing the role of international figures and institutions and paying attention to knowledge transfers. The speakers stressed the importance of contradictory views in the historical production of knowledge. They also revealed how the tools used to make the world objective result from administrative, ideological and methodological contexts, which they shape in turn. Finally, this conference highlighted the diversity of the actors involved, underlining the importance of moving away from state-centrism and the importance of intellectual biographies for the history of statistics.

CHRISTIAN TOPALOV (Paris) opened the conference by presenting two books published at the beginning of the 20th century: one by the French economist and sociologist, Max Lazard, the second by Arthur Bowley, an English statistician well known for his pioneering work in the field of econometrics. Both aimed to grasp unemployment but advocated opposite methodological tools to achieve their goal. According to Topalov, the difference between the methods that the scientists advocated can only be understood if one takes into account the purpose for which the two indicators were produced. Lazard advocates the calculation of unemployment rates by sector, and Bowley defends the use of mathematical statistics to calculate business cycles of unemployment. This difference can be explained by Lazard’s involvement in the design of sectoral unemployment insurance and Bowley’s work on job creation in the context of economic recession. Topalov argued for understanding the history of social statistics in light of the history of social administration.

If social statistics result from given administrative contexts, TANJA RIETMANN (Bern) gave an example of how they can affect the administration in turn. She showed how a six-page questionnaire, which the canton of Bern issued at the turn of the 1990s, led to an improvement in the long-term monitoring and supervision of the foster-care system. Not only did the questionnaire’s results reveal the system’s shortcomings, but the implementation of the questionnaire itself led to an improvement in the general training of field workers. Rietmann emphasized the importance of gender in understanding why this survey has remained a one-off to this day. Indeed, a deep reform of the foster-care system is of no interest for state actors because it relies mainly on mothers’ free care work.

GUUS WIEMAN (Fiesole) gave a presentation about the history of Dutch household budget surveys. Originally conceived to curb poverty by social reformers, then seen as a tool to teach the workers how to control their budgets, the surveys were later considered a means to observe household consumption. In addition to tracing the evolution of these surveys’ purpose, Wieman discussed controversies about their methods. In particular, he showed how the Central Statistical Commission put an end to a controversy the director of the Amsterdam Statistical Office had initiated by relying on a very biased questionnaire sent to other national offices.

MORGANE LABBÉ (Paris) discussed another emblematic social statistical tool: the Consumer Price Index. Labbé suggested broadening the euro-centric historiography by studying the history of the Polish price index. In 1919, the Polish state had just set up a statistical office when global inflation plunged the country into a period of strikes and protests. The price index became the focus of intense methodological controversy between public and private statistical institutions. Stressing the importance of international institutions in the history of statistics, Labbé discussed the International Labour Office’s role in this controversy. Rather than only comparing national frameworks and practices (of France, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Poland), Labbé’s contribution opened the door to an international approach to statistical inquiry.

CONSTANTIN BRISSAUD (Paris) further explored the potential of varying the scales with a presentation on the history of the OECD’s “social indicators”. The intellectual biography of one of the main creators of the indicators, Bernard Caze, reveals the nature of the social indicators as a response to the distraught French and international administrative elite after May ‘68. In line with the historical sociology of the quantification school (Desrosières), this presentation showed that statistical indicators mostly emerged in the wake of crises. But above all, it revealed that the idea of managing society by means of statistical indicators was usually more of a fantasy than a viable project.

ALESSANDRO STANZIANI (Paris) moved from an international framework of analysis to a transnational perspective when he asked the question: how does knowledge from Western social sciences apply to non-Western spaces? To show the issues this question raised, Stanziani focused on a case study of demographic, economic and social statistics of the Russian Empire between 1860 and 1914. Due to the lack of a general census, statisticians worked with local surveys. However, how could they select representative villages and samples in such a vast territory? And once the villages were selected, how could the statisticians work with statistical categories conceptualized for completely different contexts?

CĂLIN COTOI (Bucharest) was also interested in the conditions under which institutions were built in Western Europe, such as the concepts of nation, public administration, and social sciences, and how they could be implemented in other national frameworks. Yet he introduced a completely different context: in the midst of the cholera epidemic in Romania, 1892/93. Cotoi discussed the failure of a public health project called “health for all” and showed the crucial role played in this fiasco by the theoretical controversy between doctors Iacob Felix and Victor Babeș.

The use of social sciences to govern a very heterogeneous territory was also the focus of ZEYNEP YEŞIM GÖKÇE (Bonn) who showed how the Turkish government used anthropology to reinforce its legitimacy after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). To counter the threat culturally heterogeneous populations posed to the new Turkish state, anthropologists were asked to define the alleged racial specificities of Turkish citizens. Transnational knowledge networks were mobilized to achieve this goal. The Turkish Institute of Anthropology, founded in 1925 and directed by Westernized elites trained in France and Switzerland, was at the core of this presentation.

AYKIZ DOGAN (Paris) also discussed Turkey and the transnational history of knowledge. Dogan is working on the biography of the Belgian Camille Jacquart. A demographer, sociologist and statistician, Jacquart was also involved in an international Catholic network. As such, he used his reputation as a scientist in the service of social reform and in support of Belgian imperialism. He also played a prominent role in the International Statistical Commission and became involved in the internationalization of Turkish statistics. In Turkey, he was in charge of an administrative reform, as a result of which the districts were reorganized and the names of roads and places were changed. In this case study, the transnational transfer of knowledge therefore consists of a strict application of what a European expert could consider to be the archetype of a “modern” administration.

The biographical approach is also central in the research of MÁTYÁS ERDÉLYI (Prague) who traced the activity of the director of the Statistical Office in Pest between 1869 and 1906, József Kőrösy. For Erdélyi, the statistician can be considered an expert “on the margins”, who suffered throughout his career from a lack of legitimacy among his peers, as the controversies that plagued his career show. One of them took place in Hungary and was related to the use of philosophical logic in statistics. According to Erdélyi, the fact that Kőrösy was Jewish and not of noble origin played a fundamental role in the emergence of this debate. Erdélyi showed that the social, confessional and professional backgrounds of those who produce statistics should not be overlooked when considered from a historical perspective, especially over the 19th century, in the course of which certain actors played a pivotal role in this discipline’s institutionalization and professionalization.

Also interested in statistical controversies, AGNÈS HIRSCH (Paris) tackled the issue of statistics French trade unions produced at the beginning of the 20th century in response to official statistics. Building on the archived material of thirteen unions, Agnès Hirsch showed that these statistics had several functions for the workers’ organizations. On one hand, they were used as a tool to legitimize the union’s claims. On the other hand, the statistical work reinforced their internal coordination. Hirsch also brought out a statistical expert from the margins: the “worker statistician” Casimir Bartuel. A miner, trade unionist and activist, he was one of the main critical voices of official statistics in France at the beginning of the century.

CHRISTA KAMLEITHNER (Brandenburg) brought the last missing piece to the conference, one of the dimensions announced by its title and not yet mentioned: the visualization of the social. Kamleithner analyzes urban density maps from the 19th century, some of which appear to the untrained eye at first glance more as conceptual watercolours than a tool for urban planning. The enactors of urban reform conceived these maps as a visual medium to show housing density, which they perceived as a typical evil of new industrial cities. As the “social indicators” mentioned earlier, these maps actually reveal much more about those who produced them, their moral fantasies and their view of what housing for the working classes should be, than about the object they were supposed to depict.

TOM WILKINSON (London) showed something quite similar in his work about the central banks’ museums. As we immerse ourselves in the heart of these institutions, we find ourselves playing with Robinson Crusoe, an accomplished homo oeconomicus, in the interactive game “Can you control inflation”. We suddenly feel the desire to have our portrait appear on a Mexican peso, then shiver with excitement at the idea of touching a real gold bar with our own fingers; finally, we enter, fascinated, the temple that the Central Bank of London has erected in the centre of its museum. Here, several gold bars rest in peace under a glass pyramid. In short, by realizing the bad museography behind these artefacts, we end up concluding, with Wilkinson, that these museums serve above all to reassure the central banks that by transmitting the precepts of monetary orthodoxy to future citizens (i.e. these museums are mainly visited by schools), they are working towards the durability of their mandate.

Finally, the participants visited the Swiss Social Archive in Zurich, the largest collection entirely devoted to social movements, labour and economic and social knowledge in Switzerland. Its director, CHRISTIAN KOLLER (Zurich), first presented two institutions dedicated to documenting social issues, whose collections the Swiss Social Archive keeps: the Swiss Social Museum (on which Claire-Lise Debluë is currently conducting a study) and the Panopticon of social history by the photographer and activist Roland Gretler (currently being catalogued). Koller then presented the thematic catalogue of the social archive, from A for “Absinthe” to Z for “Zunftwesen”, and its historical evolution. He thus showed that, through its efforts to classify and categorize the social, the institution is in itself a producer of objectification.

At the end of the conference, Alix Heiniger commented that it was perhaps for those attending an opportunity to remember how fruitful it is to examine how other scientists have produced knowledge. For it is an opportunity to reflect on what we consider scientific evidence, our own categories of analysis and hence, perhaps, a way to improve our own ways of conducting research.

Conference overview:

Claire-Lise Debluë (University of Zurich), Alix Heiniger (University of Fribourg), Laure Piguet (University of Geneva): Welcome and introduction

The production of indicators as tools for social management

Chair: Matthieu Leimgruber (University of Zurich)

Christian Topalov (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris): Objectivized unemployment, derealized figures: Social reform and statistical revolution in Great Britain and France at the beginning of the 19th century

Guus Wieman (European University Institute, Fiesole): From poverty alleviation to market analysis: The history of organized household budgets in the Netherlands, 1850-1940

Constantin Brissaud (Université Paris-Dauphine): When technocrats objectivize the social: The Social Indicators Program at the OECD

Tanja Rietmann (University of Bern): Data provider and control tool: The dual function of the Bernese Pflegis computer project (1984-1993) for the improvement of foster care

Visualizing the social world

Chair: Monika Dommann (University of Zurich)

Christa Kamleithner (Brandenburg University of Technology): Visualizing population density: Statistical cartography and the emergence of a new urban imaginary (1830-1910)

Tom Wilkinson (Courtauld Institute, London): Money talking to itself: Central bank museums

Christian Koller (Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv, Zurich): Documentation and representation of the social world: Some institutions in Zurich

Transfer and transformation of social knowledge

Chair: Claire-Lise Debluë (University of Zurich)

Aykiz Dogan (Université Paris 1): A transnational scientist of the social: The Belgian sociologist, statistician and bureaucrat Camille Jacquart (1867-1931) and the making of Turkish statistics

Zeynep Yeşim Gökçe (University of Bonn): The creation of social anthropology: The evolution of the discipline of anthropology in the early Turkish Republic

Alessandro Stanziani (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris): The transfer of European social categories to Russian statistics, 1860s-1914: Objectification of societies or standardization of investigative tools?

Social knowledge as a subject of controversy

Chair: Brigitta Bernet (University of Zurich)

Mátyás Erdélyi (University of Prague): Statistical experts at the margins: The career trajectory of József Kőrösy

Călin Cotoi (University of Bucharest): A local history of the social: The last cholera epidemic and the dissolution of "health for all" in Romania

Agnès Hirsch (Université Paris-Dauphine): The authority of statistics: The reception and mobilization of labor statistics by workers' federations in France (1880-1930)

Morgane Labbé (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris): Objectivizing the living conditions of the working class in interwar Poland: Between public and private statistics