Disciplining Statistics

Demography and Vital Statistics in France and England, 1830–1885

Disciplining Statistics

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 3 tables, 3 figures Published: November 2006

Author: Libby Schweber

History > European History, Science and Technology Studies, Sociology

In Disciplining Statistics Libby Schweber compares the science of population statistics in England and France during the nineteenth century, demonstrating radical differences in the interpretation and use of statistical knowledge. Through a comparison of vital statistics and demography, Schweber describes how the English government embraced statistics, using probabilistic interpretations of statistical data to analyze issues related to poverty and public health. The French were far less enthusiastic. Political and scientific élites in France struggled with the “reality” of statistical populations, wrestling with concerns about the accuracy of figures that aggregated heterogeneous groups such as the rich and poor and rejecting probabilistic interpretations.

Tracing the introduction and promotion of vital statistics and demography, Schweber identifies the institutional conditions that account for the contrasting styles of reasoning. She shows that the different reactions to statistics stemmed from different criteria for what counted as scientific knowledge. The French wanted certain knowledge, a one-to-one correspondence between observations and numbers. The English adopted an instrumental approach, using the numbers to influence public opinion and evaluate and justify legislation.

Schweber recounts numerous attempts by vital statisticians and demographers to have their work recognized as legitimate scientific pursuits. While the British scientists had greater access to government policy makers, and were able to influence policy in a way that their French counterparts were not, ultimately neither the vital statisticians nor the demographers were able to institutionalize their endeavors. By 1885, both fields had been superseded by new forms of knowledge. Disciplining Statistics highlights how the development of “scientific” knowledge was shaped by interrelated epistemological, political, and institutional considerations.


Disciplining Statistics is a welcome contribution, with the process of discipline formation at the centre of analysis, rather than its outcome (new formal disciplinary structures).” — Lea Hagoel, International Sociology,

Disciplining Statistics makes important contributions to our understanding of how a field of knowledge developed in France and England, and it may well be seen as a model comparative analysis based on research in public sources.” — Matthew Connelly, American Journal of Sociology

“[A]n absorbing intellectual and institutional history of the nineteenth-century rise (and later retreat) of vital statistics in England and demography in France as ‘disciplinary activities.’” — Geoffrey McNicoll, Population and Development Review

“[O}ffers an instructive overview of the invention and evolution of statistics in France and England in the middle of the 19th century.” — Raf Vanderstraeten, Sociology,

“[S]cholars will want to read this book if they are interested in comparative history, the sociology of discipline formation, or the intellectual history of population studies in particular.” — Graham Mooney, Victorian Studies,

“[Schweber’s] work adds to a growing body of literature about the origins of the new social sciences in the nineteenth century, and their relationship to other sciences, the state, and public-policy formation. . . . The work is a closely argued, careful, and detailed reading of the organizational forms, intellectual debates, and scientific practices created by the men who defined, literally named, and built the new population sciences.” — Margo J. Anderson, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“[T]his book is highly interesting . . . a systematic and comparative piece of research [that] contributes to interesting approaches in the history of sciences which are at the crossroads of social, political and scientific arenas.” — Alain Blum, European Sociological Review,

“[V]aluable and thought provoking. . . .” — Ann Rudinow Sætnan, Surveillance and Society

“Although Disciplining Statistics is ultimately about the process of discipline formation, Schweber’s work is of interest not only to those engaged in science studies, statisticians, demographers and public health professionals will also enjoy reading this work if only for the fascinating account of how various rates and ratios first developed and how their validity initially was questioned by many.” — Dennis Hodgson, Contemporary Sociology

“For people interested by the classic The Bell Curve, this book delves deeper into the history, use and possible misuse of statistics. It’s a great read, with plenty of charts and graphs to help those whose statistics is rusty.” — Janine Peterson Wonnacott, Feminist Review blog

“Schweber aims to explain not only levels of success or failure, but also the timing and qualities of the discipline that ultimately emerges. For anyone interested in these issues, I recommend Disciplining Statistics. . . . Schweber should be commended for her great attention to detail and for her contribution to understanding how and why disciplines emerge.” — Michael Haan, Histoire Sociale/Social History

“Schweber has given us a new perspective on how these polities disciplined the social sciences of demography and vital statistics.” — Andrea Rusnock, American Historical Review

“Schweber should be commended for her great attention to detail and for her contributions to understanding how and why disciplines emerge.” — Michael Haan, Histoire sociale / Social History

“Schweber succeeds in terms of many of the goals she sets out at the beginning of her study. With the aid of an excellent opening historiographical survey in particular, we are reminded of the issues that divide scholars when it comes to discipline formation. Indeed, Schweber's own argument about how best to approach such subject matter offers many important insights for historians of science to consider.” — Chris Renwick, British Journal for the History of Science

“Schweber’s book sheds new light on the history of national traditions of statistics, while at the same time presenting a model for understanding other historical episodes within a similar comparative frame.” — Morgane Labbé, Comparative Studies in Society and History

“In this original and instructive book, Libby Schweber puts the history of statistics in a new light by providing an institutional and sociological account which connects the development of statistics to a broader history of state expertise.” — Alain Desrosières, author of The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning

“Libby Schweber addresses both the institutional conditions of scientific change and the actual forms of knowledge produced. And she convincingly rejects the usual teleology of disciplines as what scientific practitioners always want and advanced states always need. She shows how the assertion of a discipline can be a sign of weakness, of inability to shape policy, really a course of action when all else fails.” — Theodore M. Porter, author of Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Libby Schweber is a Reader in the Department of Sociology at the University of Reading.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I. The Struggle for Disciplinary Recognition: Why “Invent” a Discipline in Nineteenth-Century France

1. The “Invention” of Demography, 1853–1855 35

2. The Neglect of Demography, 1855–1867 49

3. The Reinvention of Demography, 1867–1878 67

Part II. The Institutionalization of Vital Statistics in England: How to “Secure” a Discipline in Nineteenth-Century England

4. The Invention of Vital Statistics, 1830–1837 93

5. Vital Statistics as an Instrument of Social Reform 105

Part III. The Institutionalization of Demography in France: How to “Secure” a Discipline in Nineteenth-Century France

6. Discipline Formation at Last 135

7. Limits to Institutionalization 157

Part IV. The Struggle to Retain Disciplinary Recognition: How to “Defend” a Discipline in Nineteenth-Century England

8. The Challenge to Vital Statistics 179

9. Institutional Transformations and the Introduction of Disciplinary Specialization 191

Conclusion 213

Notes 227

Bibliography 253

Index 273
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Paper: 978-0-8223-3814-7 / Cloth: 978-0-8223-3825-3
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