Cultures of Quantification

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In an inquiry concerning the improvement of society," wrote Thomas Malthus in his much-expanded Essay on the Principle of Population, "the mode of conducting the subject which naturally presents itself, is, 1. To investigate the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind towards happiness; and, 2. To examine the probability of the total or partial removal of these causes in future." The key term here is not "happiness," but "probability," for to understand the legacy of Malthus and other major figures in the rise of the social sciences, we need to look at the myriad ways that counting, measuring, and calculating became central to academic scholarship as a public good in the nineteenth century. Our historical tasks are intellectual and cultural more than technical, yet we cannot properly appreciate the present role of the quantitative social sciences without investigating how statistics, mensuration, regulation, and accounting acquired their status against a broader background of contested scientific rationalism and uneven technological development.