08 September 2011

An Awe

Among the traits characteristic of the historical line of research begun during the 1930s by the Annales school, reference to statistical objectifications has been significant. From this point of view quantitative history has inherited, via Simiand, Halbwachs, and Labrousse, elements of the Durkheimian school and, even closer to the source, of the mode of thinking centered on averages engendered by Quetelet, who opposed macrosocial regularities to the random, unpredictable, and always different accidents of particular events. It sought, by this technique, to overcome individual or factual contingencies in order to construct more general things, characterizing social groups or the long run, depending on the case. This attempt to give form to the chaos of countless singular observations involves having recourse to previous sources or to specific encodings, of which historians ask two questions: Are they available? Are they reliable? In this perspective, the question of the reality and consistency of objects is assimilated to the question of the reliability of their measurements. The cognitive tools of generalization are presumed to have been acquired and firmly constituted. All that matters is the controlled collection and the technical treatment--eventually automated--of the data.
--The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, Alain Desrosieres, trans. Camille Naish, Harvard UP, 1998, p. 323.