This book is a history of an illusion. It is also a history of the dream that preceded the illusion. The book discusses statistics as the field of tension between the scientific claims of neutrality and universality on the one hand and the political and economic reality of the conflicting interests of nation-states on the other. The various paths of state- and nation-building that European countries traversed in the nineteenth century are recognisable in the objectives of government statistics and are reflected in the topics selected for statistical study and in the categories used in the research. Each congress was clearly dominated by the specific interests of the country in which the statisticians convened. The book shows in each case how the organisation of government statistics and national concerns influenced the international agenda. It describes the perceptions, goals and dilemmas of the protagonists and their contact with each other, and in so doing unravels the complex relationships between science, government and society, wherever possible from their point of view. The genesis of international statistics was inspired by a desire for reform. Belgium's pioneering role in the European statistical movement was informed both by its liberal polity and the special status of statistics within it, and by Adolphe Quetelet's key position as an intellectual. The consolidation of the Grand Duchy of Baden, a new medium-sized state in the Rhine Confederation and later in the German Confederation, offered great opportunities for the development of official statistics.
society would conform to the same laws as nature … For
a while there was hope that statistics would make objective policy and unchallenged state intervention possible. This testing of the boundaries of science
and politics was a circuitous process that led to new definitions (remember
Engel’s 180 definitions of statistics), new terminology (sociology, demography)
and new explanations for socio-economic changes (class struggle). In the end,
afterword 9.indd 189
States and statistics in the nineteenthcenturystatistics did not emerge the big
-lived popularity. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the
dividing lines between scientific disciplines were still vague, or positioned
differently than we would expect today. The fate of statistics would be tied to
political economics one day and geography or ethics the next. If statistics was
not the science of the century, then at least it was the chameleonic manifestation of a procession of sciences that emerged and disappeared throughout the
Statistics was a field with as many practitioners as definitions. Statisticians
all shared a desire for
’une table pour faciliter les observations
statistiques et politiques et de l’esquisse d’une carte statistique. Remarkably, this
seems to sum up nineteenth-centurystatistics.
The third international statistical congress in Vienna continued along the
course set by the Paris congress. As before, the preparatory commission put
several topics on the agenda which received special attention from the assembled statisticians. The advantage of this procedure was that it precluded the
need to address the entire international statistics project. On the other hand, it
addressed him as his ‘maître’ – it is questionable whether they were in complete agreement on the nature and function of statistics. Even if they did agree
that statistics was the foundation of good government, they must have realised
that applying this idea to the Prussian and Belgian government systems and
cultures would most likely lead to very different outcomes. In the nineteenthcentury, statistics was both a social science and an instrument of government.
Nevertheless, every handbook opened with a different definition of statistics
and every country had its own way
-century successor saw a society that was guided by order despite the
irrational nature of the human beings living in it. Eighteenth-century political
probability theory evolved into nineteenth-centurystatistics, but underwent a
radical metamorphosis along the way.8
Science was not solely responsible for this transformation. The French
States and statistics in the nineteenth century
Revolution paved the way to a well-ordered state, which may not have been
immediately evident in practice, but the blueprint was there. In 1789–1790 the
brains’. But he did not restrict himself to picking Farr’s brains. Dr Farr later
acknowledged that the prince had digested much more than the one report he
had sent him. Albert’s speech was his own work.2
That speech may have marked the highpoint of nineteenth-centurystatistics.
Never before had any member of a royal court or government spoken with such
authority about statistics. Albert began by focusing on the congress’s public and
national character, which was entirely consistent with the high intensity of political life in Britain where every important
congress a resounding success.
The key to it all was the alpha and omega of Engel’s thinking: organisation.
Engel personified nineteenth-centurystatistics, perhaps more than any other
statistician discussed in this book. If he could have organised and registered
his own birth, he would have. Statistics, he once wrote, ‘accompanies a person
throughout their entire earthly existence … and leaves him only after death
– once the precise age of the deceased and the cause of death have been established’.2 Ernst Engel was born in Dresden in the Kingdom of Saxony in
. He even adopted Quetelet’s
position on probability – that it should receive more attention at the congress
– though he knew this was a controversial issue. It is very likely that his stance
was connected with a dual desire to limit the number of outsiders and build
a bridge between statistics and actuarial mathematics. Moreover, the theory
of probabilities was for Von Baumhauer to return to the foundations of nineteenth-centurystatistics, the theory of constants and the law of periodicity, i.e.
the idea that all manner of natural and social phenomena increase and