(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

Lee kicked of a lively discussion Friday as he wondered what the history of capitalism had to say to the history of technology, (medicine?), environment, and science (HoTeES, or HoTMeS?). Lee postulated that the interactions of capitalism/political economy and science might be expected within the realms of shared problems and jointly produced tools. I wrote a dissertation about “tools for discrimination” and the “science of difference,” wherein life insurers are shown to be important sponsors of investigations into human difference—so I am on board. To help me judge Lee’s hypothesis, I would like to offer a few posts over the next week that point to intersections between these two fields (HofCapitalism, HofScience/Tech/Med/Env). Let’s get empirical, so to speak!

A different sort of account book, but an accounting nonetheless—from Samuel Blodget’s Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (1806)

Evidence 1: Caitlin Rosenthal’s exquisite essay in the most recent issue of Common-place, one of the hippest journals around. Rosenthal has one big argument, accented by a score of anecdotal gems. She argues that account books, whatever else they might be, are always narratives—they tell stories. This, she claims, was true for the early nineteenth century books that now populate her historical work and remains true for the accounting summaries published by firms like Countrywide Financial on the brink of its disastrous unraveling.

Rosenthal battles the false conception that keeping accounts implies a mechanical, objective system (or, really, that such a system precludes narratives). Her case rests in part on evidence that nineteenth century systems were anything but mechanical: indexes were just being invented and were hardly standardized, accounting procedures varied from account keeper to account keeper (to much consternation). But she closes the piece noting that today’s accounting system, although constrained by hosts of rules and standards, still produces narrative documents, which are trusted with peril.

Yet Rosenthal’s point does not appear to me to be destructive or skeptical—she has not come to bury objectivity, accounting, what-have-you. In fact, much of the essay revels in the details of early nineteenth century bookkeeping practices, asking, not judging. The question arises over and over: why did all these individuals keep books?

One answer Rosenthal provides is this:

Keeping accounts was a daily quest for useful information. Sometimes quantitative information was punctuated by a bit of prose, verbalizing the intentions of a book’s keeper. In 1870, Thaddeus Fish of Kingston, Massachusetts, contemplated the buying and selling of eggs in his account book. He described how a woman had “bought 150 eggs of a country man.” She sold all of the eggs, but at an array of different prices, some yielding a profit, but others a loss. Fish, puzzling over her business, supplemented his muddled calculations with text: “I Demand to know whether she Lost or gained by her eggs.” The urgency of his demand reflected neither profit seeking nor an opposition to it. Rather it revealed the daily necessity of understanding whether time was well spent and which risks were worth taking.

She also points to accounts kept to facilitate long distance management, to discipline laborers, to judge workers’ alcohol consumption (and morals, implicitly), to facilitate inheritance, and more generally to provide some antidote to the complexity of modern life.

So, how can we use Rosenthal’s piece as evidence in our general investigation? First, we might decide to conclude something not-that-surprising: that historical or sociological approaches to knowledge (like Ted Porter, who looms here, next to Michel Foucault, among others) have provided useful tools for historians of capitalism like Rosenthal (although I’m not sure if that’s a label she would embrace).

Second, we might say something more significant: that nineteenth century Americans (and lots of other people too) were interested in making sense of an increasingly complex, interconnected world. They encountered overlapping and interrelated problems of trust (how do I decide who to invest in, or who to believe?), problems of risk (how do I decide whether its worthwhile to invest or believe?), and problems of knowledge (what is true? what will work?). To solve these problems, they (whether businessmen, farmers, or scientists) turned to new tools and techniques, and especially to quantification.

Finally, we might learn a lesson from the attention to materiality in Rosenthal’s essay and apply that to our investigations of new shared knowledge practices. Rosenthal shows us account keepers writing over every corner of a book, desperate to save expensive paper, for instance. How did those account books compare to the ledgers and notebooks that scientists increasingly relied upon? Did astronomers and actuaries go to the same shops in New York (the Mutual of New York, I happen to know, bought all its accounting materials from a printer on Nassau Street in the 1850s)? My guess is: yes. In so far as the actuaries were often also astronomers, the answer was surely yes. So I will add a category to Lee’s speculations: shared problems, shared tools, and shared materials.

[Three different people sent me a link to Caitlin Rosenthal’s piece in the space of two days—it might have taken me a while longer to find it otherwise. Thanks to GH, HR, and MK.]


3 thoughts on “(Capitalist) Numbers to Narratives

  1. Hank

    So happy to see you back, Dan! And looking forward to more in this series. Lukas will have a lot to say specifically about how “accounting practices” link the history of science and the history of capitalism in concrete ways: c. 1900, museum scientists and curators more-or-less consciously adopted the bookkeeping methods of their capitalist trustees!

    I'm interested in your second option. From what I know of Jon Levy's new project on the origins of the “profit motive” in accounting practices and its impact on the governance of corporations, it seems like “new tools and techniques” are often taken up without realizing the problems they're for.

    That is, something like the “inertia of practice” might be at work in the day-to-day work of scientists or managers – tools adopted “just because,” rather than innovated to solve pressing problems. Needless to say, if this is true, it could speak to phenomena from the stasis of “normal science” to the relationship between things and thoughts we've been discussing lately.


  2. Lee

    This is great.

    Taking up Dan's second point and extending it to the first and third: a cornerstone of STS is that most social problems (perceptions of risks, worries about trust, etc.) are solved, or at least stabilized, using the same set of tools, regardless of where in society or in what field (business, science, art) the problem falls. It would be interesting to view all institutions in the 19th century as dealing with the problems of coordination, scale, trust, and risk, and see if they used the same “problems” (questions as conceptual tools), tools, and materials to solve them. And then to determine if the fields shaped and informed each other.

    Perhaps this is precisely what historians are already doing. I'll have to think about it. I guess I share Lukas's instincts that historians of capitalism haven't taken the opened black box of science seriously enough yet.

    Another way of making this point about fields is to examine networks of knowledge making, something that historians are very good at. This is not to add a fourth category to problems, tools, and materials but to ask how networks are informing people about these categories. Where are capitalists, accountants, scientists, engineers, and others talking to each other? How are these ideas being spread?

    This is a real question for me for the 19th century. The business school becomes an interesting node for this kind of thing in the 20th century. And on that point, I would just recommend a quick scan of Brindle and Stearns' fun (if lightly researched) book on management faddism: http://www.amazon.com/Facing-Management-Faddism-Look-Force/dp/1567203965/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336491848&sr=8-1

    Talk about tool transmission!

    BTW, I like HoTMes, if only because academia is inevitably sometimes a hot mess.


  3. Dan

    Lee is spot in reframing “problems” as “questions as conceptual tools.” That's more in line with what I was thinking. Whether or not some Platonic problem existed at the end of the nineteenth century, I think it is fair to say that corporations framed new “problems” that got their scientific/expert employees working, often with substantial spill-over.

    With that said, on some level, the late nineteenth century did pose new and significant problems of trust, coordination, risk, etc. and those conditions undoubtedly play some role in determine which “tools,” “problems,” and “materials” stick around—even if not a determinative factor. But, then, this is ground we've been over.

    The Brindle and Stearns book looks interesting and there's more and more work being paid to business schools, consultants, etc as avenues for spreading tools, problems, etc. Maybe we can talk more about that.

    I have some ideas about avenues of exchange in the 19th century that I'll come back to, either in this thread or in another post.



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