Competing Numbers. Population Statistics in Use in the 19th and 20th Century

Loveno di Menaggio
Villa Vigoni
Maria Dörnemann (Tübingen), Petra Overath (Köln/Berlin), Christiane Reinecke (Hamburg); for the Network "Population, Knowledge, Order, Transformation: Demography and Politics in the Twentieth Century in Global Perspective"
17.06.2014 - 19.06.2014
Christiane Reinecke (Network "Population, Knowledge, Order, Transformation")

The concept of “population” in many ways owes its existence to statistics. In the course of the 20th century, demographers and other experts repeatedly warned of ever growing or declining numbers. The conference on “Competing numbers” looks at the use of population statistics in different political and social contexts, investigating how population statistics became indispensable argumentative tools in the political sphere, academic circles and the mass media from the late 19th century onwards. Concentrating on the question of how experts and non-experts alike used and presented numbers in different public arenas, it puts an emphasis on the circulation rather than the production of statistical knowledge.

The conference brings together historians who specialize in different world regions in order to investigate the communication of expert knowledge in a transnational perspective. Comparing the intersection between the mass media, political arenas and scientific expertise in different national, imperial and international contexts, the conference aims to historicize the coproduction of lay knowledge and expert knowledge in the modern age of mass media. It is a common topos in current academic debates that modern societies were media societies and have to be investigated as such. In preceding years, historians have become increasingly interested in the question of how the mass media and changing forms of communication influenced political as well as social and scientific practices. However, the question of how academic expertise corresponded with media coverage as well as political activities is still under-researched. The conference thus uses the example of population statistics in order to explore the intricate relationship between the media, science, and politics. Its aim is to give new insights into the “medialization” of politics and the academic sphere in the 20th century.

The history of population knowledge is a history of transfer and entanglement. But the question of how this knowledge travelled needs to be further explored in order to fully grasp its transnational history. Offering a numeric rather than a semantic language, statistics in their various form suggested a universalism beyond words. As numbers, they allowed for comparisons – and could be presented in compact graphs and tables which represented scientific thoroughness, and thus credibility. So how did journalists, political actors and experts make use of numeric knowledge, how did they present and manipulate demographic figures – and what do we learn about the relationship between political decision-making and knowledge production when investigating the public use of statistics over the course of the 20th century? What, on the other hand, does such a perspective add to the history of population knowledge? Not only did numbers travel across continents, they also traversed boundaries between disciplines and societal spheres. Development experts, demographers, bureaucrats, sociologists, doctors or politicians as well as international organizations, churches, empires or states – a large range of actors used statistics in order to establish their worldview, discover problems or legitimate their actions. At the same time, they were themselves influenced by social facts. With regard to these different actors, the participants are asked to choose one “population figure” and discuss its circulation in different spheres, thereby analysing its various uses. Participants are invited to present papers in which they either a) follow a set of quantitative data from its genesis to its transfer into different spheres, or b) concentrate on a social fact – a diagnosed societal problem – asking how the said problem was discovered, observed and seemingly resolved through statistical argumentation.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
9:00 – 9:30: Introduction

9:30 - 11:00: Discussing Colonial Figures: Demographic Knowledge and Colonial Experts
- Samuël Coghe on: “A Colony on the Brink of Demographic Collapse? Henrique Galvão, the Colonial Administration and the Problem of African Emigration in Portuguese Angola, 1930s-1940s”
- Alexandra Widmer on: “Of Population Decline and Problems with Pigs: The Uses of Imbalanced Sex-Ratios in the Colonial Regulation of Reproduction in the New Hebrides”
Commentary: Uoldelul Chelati Dirar

11:30 – 13:00: Discussing the Norms of Development: Population Knowledge and Development Experts
- Corinna Unger on: “'The ‘Small Family Norm’: A Precondition for Modernization? Development Debates and Family Planning in 1960s India”
- Maria Dörnemann on: “The Population Growth Rate: The Story of an Index to Determine Kenya’s Degree of Development, 1960s-1980s”
Commentary: Morten Jerven

15:00 – 16:30: Discussing National Figures: Statistical Knowledge, Censuses and the Nation-State
- Axel C. Hüntelmann on: “The Construction of Population and Practices of Counting: Census and Population Statistics in the late 19th and early 20th Century in Prussia”
- Paul Schor on: “Race and Ethnicity in the 20th Century US-American Census”
Commentary: Silvana Patriarca

17:00 – 18.30: Population Statistics and the Media
- Keynote: Massimiano Bucchi
Commentary: Christiane Reinecke

Thursday, June 19, 2014
9:30 – 11:00: Discussing the Globalization of the Social: Travelling Knowledge and the Construction of Social Problems
- Teresa Huhle on: “Travelling Survey Data: The Transnational Production and Multiple Use of Fertility Knowledge from Colombia”
- Heinrich Hartmann on: “‘Attitudes’ towards ‘Values’. Evidence on a Demographic Paradigm in the 1970s from the Turkish perspective"
Commentary: Theodore M. Porter

11:30 – 13:00: Crisis Tales: Demographic Experts and the Topoi of Decline and Crisis
- Thomas B. Robertson on: “Population Growth, Ecological Models, and Environmental Crisis: How Biologists and Conservationists Conceptualized and Represented the ‘Population Bomb’”
- Petra Overath on: “Discussions on the Decline of Birth Rates in Different Spheres: Historical and Actual Perspectives”
Commentary: Emmanuel Betta

14:45 – 15:30: Final Discussion
Introduced by Emmanuel Didier


Christiane Reinecke

Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg, Beim Schlump 83, 20144 Hamburg

Competing Numbers. Population Statistics in Use in the 19th and 20th Century, 17.06.2014 – 19.06.2014 Loveno di Menaggio, in: H-Soz-Kult, 29.05.2014, <>.
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