How numbers can help recover the past
'Quantitative History and Uncharted People' out in September
No historical archive is ever complete; the records of the powerful overshadow the narratives of the ordinary. The absence of documents reflecting the lives of the illiterate, poor, and subjugated has profound consequences for our understanding of the past and its impact on our present and future. In an effort to address these omissions, historians have employed various strategies, including oral testimonies that provide insights into the lives of ordinary people. However, these sources have limitations.
A new book, ‘Quantitative History and Uncharted People’ (Bloomsbury, September 2023), based on the five-year Biography of an Uncharted People project I coordinated at Stellenbosch University between 2018 and 2022, argues for a different approach to remedy the gaps in historical archives: quantitative history. Quantitative historians, in short, apply statistical data analysis to the study of the past. Advancements in quantitative tools and techniques have made it easier and more cost-effective to analyse administrative records on a large scale. While individual administrative records may hold limited interest, their collective analysis can offer valuable insights and test existing hypotheses.
Quantitative history holds particular promise in South Africa, where historical records are abundant, but questions of bias and prejudice persist. By extracting information from these records and subjecting them to statistical analysis, researchers can mitigate or account for biases and even quantify their extent. The eleven case studies in the book demonstrate how quantitative tools and techniques can challenge historical truths and provide new perspectives.
The rise of quantitative history can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s. This interdisciplinary approach drew from economic history, social history, and cultural history. The availability of new data, improved computing power, and statistical software further facilitated the growth of quantitative history.
Despite its initial enthusiasm, though, quantitative history faced criticism and declined in popularity by the 1980s. Historians questioned its practicality, its ability to address relevant research questions, and its potential to overemphasise sophisticated techniques at the expense of meaningful findings. Other approaches, such as Marxism and postmodernism, gained prominence during this period.
A renaissance in quantitative history has, however, occurred in recent years, driven by demand- and supply-side factors. Global history, the need for explanations of material progress, and the credibility revolution in economics have all contributed to the revival. Technological advancements, such as digitisation, transcription, and statistical software, have made data analysis more accessible and cost-effective.
These advantages help quantitative historians, I argue in the opening chapter of the book, to offer unique advantages in understanding the past. It allows historians to identify representative samples, analyse trends, and examine the experiences of marginalised groups. While oral testimonies and traditional archival sources have limitations, quantitative approaches can provide a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of historical events. Furthermore, the use of digitised administrative records opens new avenues for exploring the lives of individuals who have been overlooked in conventional narratives. By embracing quantification and contextualising data, historians can shed light on the experiences of those who have been lost or forgotten in the records, contributing to a more complete and inclusive historical record.
Over the next few months, I will dive into some of these issues and case studies on Our Long Walk. Make sure to sign up. And, if possible, please pre-order a copy of ‘Quantitative History and Uncharted People’ on Amazon or your preferred online bookshop. Pre-orders help to make books more prominent in searches, increasing their reach long before their release.
Image was created using Midjourney v5.1.
I am visiting the UK during the next two weeks. It includes several paper presentations: at the LSE on Wednesday, UCL on Thursday, another one at the LSE on Friday and at Queen’s University Belfast the following Thursday. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, please send me a mail for more detail. The trip also includes two Stellenbosch University Alumni events. If you’re an alum or friend of the university, please join me on Wednesday, 24 May, at the Heist Bank in London or on Tuesday, 31 May, in Belfast.
Astonishing work … what’s the source for the painting at the top of the post