HOS methods, American history questions

I was struck by Hank’s conclusion a few posts back:

To put it another way: instead of answering history-of-science questions with American-history answers, we’re increasingly answering American-history questions with history-of-science answers. For those of us at the boundary–especially those on a market with more jobs in one than the other–this is a promising path.

Those ideas were floating in the back of my head while I was re-reading Alain Desrosieres’ _The Politics of Large Numbers_.


In his first chapter, Desrosieres does for France what Hank talks about us doing for the United States. An earlier generation of social historians, he explained, had been frustrated in their attempts to construct statistical models from the data left in departmental prefects’ statistical memoirs, instituted and published in post-revolutionary France up to 1830. Desrosieres’ gloss: “Historians long considered them to be heteroclitic, incomplete documents, unserviceable as a source of numerical data.” (40) 

But Desrosieres sees an opportunity. Rather than attempt to construct statistical series—which effort was indeed doomed to fail—why not shift one’s gaze to the “process of adunation,” to the means by which the revolutionary state went about remaking France. “Not only does the prefects’ view of their departments offer precise information on the actual departments,” he wrote, “it also and above all shows how the protagonists in this venture portrayed themselves, how they perceived the diversity of France, and the possible obstacles to this political and cognitive undertaking.”(41)

There’s something subtle going on in the first clause of that sentence I just quoted. Desrosieres does not simply abandon social substance for cultural interpretation. He offers an “and,” instead of an “or.” The careful reader can learn and convey a great deal of valuable information about the people of France, as read through these elite observers, he suggests. At the same time, that reader gains new insights into the cultural transformation of the French nation, with all its fits, starts, set-backs, and inconsistencies.


Of course, HOSers have already used their unique approach to offer revisions of standard American stories—Phil Pauly’s take on immigration restriction and cherry trees springs to mind from a much longer list. But Desrosieres struck me because he took an apparent limitation (the muckiness and diversity of statistical memoirs) and turned it into a decided advantage. As the old programmer’s adage goes (okay, so it can’t be *that* old): it not a bug, it’s a feature!

Hank is right. Historians of science have developed some extraordinary techniques for wringing meaning and significance out of the dryest and barest of facts. Why not turn those techniques back to problems that pester our fellow craftsmen?


But I’m even more intrigued and challenged by the idea that in the process of wringing meaning from limited facts, we can also bring those facts back into fruitful historical conversation.

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