Economic and Social History Blog


History by Numbers?

I spent the first semester of this academic year teaching a course called Growth and Inequality in a history master’s programme where we tackle quite a lot of economic history papers. I have now taught this course three times and taken it myself when I was a graduate student. The students who take this masters come from various backgrounds, but this year I have a larger group than normal and the overwhelming majority are historians. In contrast to previous years the last couple weeks of the semester saw a quite marked push-back from some students as to the value of studying history using quantitative sources. The cliche sentence “but numbers don’t tell us everything” kept being repeated. I decided to address this issue explicitly in a class discussion and was interested in some of the responses.

A student from a more technical background made the opening point that he was so surprised to find historians treating numbers as if they were something abnormal and unusual, that they are simply another form of source with it’s strengths and pitfalls. The most vocal students felt that this was something that had been sorely lacking during their bachelors, that it was essential that historians are able to read and cope with papers in which numerical data is presented in all sorts of forms. One very strong student with a cultural studies/cultural history background pointed out that sometimes there’s a presumption that numbers are superior, and that this is what many historians fight against (rightly so) but that we have to learn to talk to each other whether we’re using quantitative or qualitative methods.

In general what I try and teach history students with little background in statistics is that just because you don’t understand everything written in a statistical paper doesn’t mean you can’t critique it. I explain that the assumptions made by the authors are often open to criticism, that how they collect and collate their data is worth looking closely at and that for specific statistical techniques (for instance IV) there are parts of the theoretical justification which if you don’t agree with and can argue against undermine the whole exercise. Historians also need to be aware that their unique selling point (to go all business jargon) is their ability to provide rich context to the data. For that reason I also try and convey that every number tells a story; behind everything expressed as a digit is a person, place or thing with it’s own unique identity. Collecting data is therefore a process of codifying stories in a way that allows for different forms of analysis.