The living beings in a population do not constitute a succession in which each one finds
its raison d’être in its contemporary antecedents. Each age group is, in fact, the very
complex product of those particular events that weighed on each of the ages through
which it has already passed, events that could very well have no influence on the groups
that preceded it or followed it in the series of ages. . . . This is why the age groups in a
population, who make up the population as a whole, have no necessary relation to one
another. They are nearly strangers that the hazards of time have brought together,
and whose (collective) force is the product of the di√erent adventures that each one
has endured.∞
s enter the twenty-first century, the notion of a statistical population
part of our everyday vocabulary. Not only do we accept the reality of
statistical aggregates, we intuitively understand them to be probabilistic
entities. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, neither assumption could
be taken for granted. Or rather, neither assumption could be taken for
granted if you lived in France. This book begins from an observed contrast
between two liberal states, both of which legitimated government action in
the name of individual rights and interests. In England, political liberalism
went along with an individualist, probabilist understanding of population
rates. In France, by contrast, politicians, administrators, and legislators
struggled with that understanding.≤ When statisticians reported to them on
the mortality of the nation, they responded by asking who or what those fig-
ures referred to and whether one could reasonably combine radically di√er-
ent individuals to make up a statistical population. This contrast reflects dif-
ferences not only in basic styles of statistical reasoning but in the political and
scientific institutions in which social statistics and social policy developed.
The comparison of two disciplines, demography in France and vital
statistics in England, serves to explore these relations. Both disciplines were
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