Scientific Personae and the (Dis-)Unity of Modern Statistics in Comparative Perspective, c. 1860-1960. ESHS Biennial Conference 2018

Institute of Education of University College London
European Society for the History of Science / British Society for the History of Science
14.09.2018 - 17.09.2018
Jochen F Mayer

Following Daston and Sibum’s (2003) collection of essays, there has recently been an efflorescence of scholarship on scientific and bureaucratic personae (Becker and von Krosigk 2008; Paul 2014; Algazi 2016). Understood as an intermediary between the individual biography and the social institution, the persona concept explores processes of scientific knowledge making by looking at the interdependence between the subjectivity of the scientist and historically distinct cultural templates to which scholars were invited to conform: context-bound habits such as the ‘learned forgetfulness’ among married early modern scholars (Algazi 2003), or generic types of thinking, speaking, and working such as the impersonal observer ‘from nowhere’ in the case of 20th-century physicist Heisenberg (Carson 2003). Recent contributions, in turning to the Humanities around 1900, deploy a more narrow understanding of personae to emphasize discipline-specific virtues and skills deemed necessary to engage in scholarly practice (Paul 2013). Others still focus on the dynamics between the credibility of assertions in science and the ways in which scholars performed and embodied their identity as reliable and trustworthy, giving attention to forms of social power such as class, gender, or religious affiliation (Bosch 2016, following Shapin 2008).
Against this background, this session explores the validity and usefulness of personae accounts for biographical research in the history of (official) statistics and statistical thinking during the period 1860-1960. By comparison to the Humanities or modern physics, statistics seem a particularly unpromising field for such a project. During this formative period, generations of statisticians, under the impulse of the ‘probabilistic revolution’ in science and public life, pushed the field further towards neutrality and technicality, and sought to produce statistical results and methods that were allegedly more ‘impersonal’ and ‘objective’ than the outcomes of any other scientific endeavor (Swijtink 1987; Porter 2011). Yet the culture of statistics – understood here both as quantification and mathematical calculation – shapes and is shaped by the people who practice it. Exploration of how statistical truth-claims were assessed and statistical credibility secured beyond the recourse to the authority of the state or the epistemic powers of methods and numbers or, indeed, how statisticians attached moral value to their work, seems particularly timely now, as the very personae of the 20th-century government statistician, public expert, or technocrat – and the authority of the data they produced – have come under attack both from anti-democratic ideologies and developments in electronic database technology and the internet (corporate ‘Big Data’; data analytics).
While there is a rich body of work on the institutional and epistemic histories of (governmental) statistics, scholarship (excepting Porter 2004) has only tentatively begun to explore the wide-ranging categories of people (asylum directors, medical officers, actuaries, biologists etc.) that around 1900 became involved in statistics, and the multiple moral and political visions implied. In contradistinction to claims, in numerous internalist histories and biographical encyclopedia, to the unity of statistics and a quasi-linear evolution of statistical science, this session explores the resources – moral, cultural, and epistemic – that had to be mobilized in the making of a ‘successful’, and ‘good’ (or ‘failed’) statistician across various national scientific cultures, and how these demands changed over the course of the early twentieth century.
Papers may adopt a broad perspective on scientific personae (as outlined above) thereby further probing whether there can be discerned anything like ‘statistical personae’ in the first place.
Possible themes include:

- The development toward ‘observation without an observing subject’ (Swijtink 1987) during the nineteenth century and the fate of the persona of the ‘gentleman-statistician’ (Prévost and Beaud 2012);
- The scientist as a moral person (Veit-Brause 2002) and the rise of the 20th-century ‘technical’ statistician (Porter 2011);
- The (dis-)unity of statistics and the multiplication of statistical personae from the early-20th century? Descriptive vs. mathematical statistician; pollsters, survey researchers vs. official statistician; econometricians, actuaries, biologists…;
- The various meanings of ‘objectivity’ as a scientific and cultural concept (Daston and Galison 2007) and the transmutation of the statistical personae;
- Statistical machines, the objectification of data gathering, and the transformation of the statistical personae;
- The totalitarian ambition in the twentieth-century and the moral and scientific re-shaping (or not) of statistical personae;
- Epistemic virtues, skills, and desires (e.g. Anschaulichkeit, graphical skills; knowledge of legal procedures and bureaucratic paperwork…) and the contested credibility of statistical results;
- The (sick, disembodied, spiritual, selfless…) subjectivity of the statistician and the contested authenticity of official figures.

Please submit your abstract of 250 words to by 15 December 2017.


Jochen F Mayer

From January 2018: Deutsches Museum, München

Scientific Personae and the (Dis-)Unity of Modern Statistics in Comparative Perspective, c. 1860-1960. ESHS Biennial Conference 2018, 14.09.2018 – 17.09.2018 London, in: H-Soz-Kult, 03.12.2017, <>.