CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Here is a book that describes information-gathering practices used before the development of official censuses in modern states. As the authors explain, their choice to study the historical antecedents of censuses distinguishes the work from “more conventional histories of censuses” in that it allows for determining the “different influences of the state and society”. Therein lies their research problematic and goal. Focusing on the practices used in the earliest counts and how the first censuses were developed facilitates the study of institutional actors and their roles. Meanwhile, to understand the role of social actors requires a comparative methodology. The authors thus adopt a composite approach, attending to both fiscal and demographic information gathering in the United Kingdom, the United States and Italy. Their essential aim in this first of two volumes is to retrace “the prehistory of censuses”, beginning around 1000 in England and ending with the harbingers of Italian unification in the mid- nineteenth century. The second volume will concentrate on the history of official censuses.

2In the first and second chapters, the authors specify the guiding principles of their methodology and the reasons they chose this particular corpus. Applying Weber’s distinction between social science and common sense, they posit that census categories are second-order concepts deduced from common sense. Moreover, while official censuses gather information on a society of which they are an integral part, they also conceptualize that society by way of categories derived from perceptions of ordinary individuals (sex, age, occupation, etc.). This means that information-gathering techniques are largely dependent on the political and policy context in a given state and the degree of confidence in the data collected. This in turn explains the authors’ decision to adopt a “state centered” perspective attentive to the influence of social and political conditions on fiscal and demographic information gathering. The main methodological pillar is what they call “macro-Weberianism”, that is, the understanding that a dialectical relationship obtains between bureaucratic practices and democracy, a perspective inspired by the thought not only of Max Weber but also Michel Foucault.

3These methodological considerations, which generate references to a vast array of philosophers, sociologists and historians, are the subject of the heavily documented Part I, somewhat difficult to read but essential for understanding what follows. Though the review of sociology of sciences does not contribute anything new methodologically, it is useful in explaining and grounding the authors’ chosen “prehistorical” perspective.

4The other two parts are more descriptive. The two chapters of Part II offer a comparison of fiscal information gathering in England/Great Britain and in Italy before national reunification. In England, the information thus produced was used in place of census data. England was a powerful state, but it had little strictly demographic data; for the authors, this is explained mostly by the fact that two separate processes were used to collect fiscal information on people and land. The data obtained by the state was gathered by information intellectuals and local notables, mainly jurists – social actors who furnished relatively little demographic data to institutional actors. The next chapter, on Italy, presents a different situation: all the Italian states requested integrated data on people, property, wealth and income. That information was of course presented separately, but processed in connection with an overarching political and policy aim. Sophisticated methods were used to gather and describe it; here the authors cite the Catasto in fifteenth-century Tuscany and the Censimento in eighteenth-century Lombardy.

5The three chapters of Part III discuss practices that led to developing official censuses. The first counts in Great Britain were associated with a consolidated state founded on a strong parliament and an effective constitutional monarchy, illustrating the author’s arguments that “strong states should collect extensive information” and that “states have administrative needs that they meet by establishing information gathering bureaucracies” (pp. 142-143). In another point that illustrates their general thesis, the authors explain that population counts were closely related to social strata, which were the social reason or foundation for developing censuses. And they note that in Great Britain, counts were “descriptive, not interventionist” (ibid.).

6The next chapter is on the United States. There, the first attempts at population counting clearly show the influence of the state; the role of social actors is also visible though it was less important than in Great Britain. The purpose of the new statistics in the US was to resolve governance problems and attain specific state administration objectives. The first attempts at census taking were organized around individuals’ voting rights and race – major categories in that society corresponded to divisions that were the historical result of territorial conquest and the institution of slavery. The reason information intellectuals played a less important role in the US than in Great Britain when it came to developing censuses is that the actors who advocated for information gathering were among the revolutionary leaders and were therefore well integrated into the young American state. For the authors, though the history of this state’s formation is brief, it nonetheless accounts in large part for the inseverable tie between the state and the census.

7The last chapter returns to the Italian states. None was dominant, according to the authors, and they all gathered information using parish records and tax declarations. Originally concerned primarily with taxation, food supply and military strength, the counts gradually changed their objective to understanding population movements. Across Italian states, there was a long tradition of information gathering and the resulting data could be handled relatively freely. According to the authors, this tradition was due to the preexistence of independent information intellectuals and the particularities of the individual states, free of centralized control until the mid-nineteenth century.

8In their “Conclusions” the authors return to their “interactive method” – what they call here their “micro-macro interaction model of information gathering”, stressing once again the long-term importance of interaction between state and society in assembling, processing and creating information, activities that were not the work of a particular group or party but rather the result of a context in which a considerable number of the components of state and society were engaged. Theirs is therefore, as they clarify at the very end, a “bottom-up version of power that includes the influence of ordinary, everyday individuals” or intermediary bodies.

9This is an interesting work with a wealth of references and, conveniently, an index. The methodology and corpus are described with precision and convincingly legitimated. It is an exercise in the social history of sciences that benefits from both Weber’s fundamental insights and more recent research on biopolitics and Foucault’s thought. The authors’ handling of the long term in light of their specific claims enables them to avoid the pitfall of over-generalization. I therefore recommend this book and await with interest the second volume, which will no doubt prove a useful complement to it.

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