The Historical Argument in Review
he comparison of demography and vital statistics involves two cases in
initially similar ideas developed in significantly di√erent direc-
tions. In France and England statisticians were aware of each other’s work.
French statisticians were familiar with French mathematicians’ work on the
application of probability theory to social statistics and with British vital
statistics. Louis Adolphe Bertillon explicitly modeled his project for demog-
raphy on William Farr’s work at the gro. Similarly, in England statisticians
followed French developments closely (it is interesting to note that English
libraries of the time had all the major French statistical publications, while
French libraries did not buy English publications). Farr himself spent two
years in Paris in the late 1830s attending lectures by Louis René Villermé
just before he introduced his program for vital statistics.
This similarity in the stock of available knowledge contrasted with dif-
ferences in the reception and development of what contemporaries referred
to as ‘‘scientific’’ administrative statistics. In France political and scientific
élites struggled with the ‘‘reality’’ of abstract statistical populations that
aggregated over heterogeneous individuals. They worried whether such
speculative knowledge should properly be called ‘‘statistics’’ and whether it
was wise to use it in political and administrative procedures. In England, by
contrast, vital statisticians di√used an atomistic, probabilist understanding
of mortality statistics that fit with the widespread scholarly view of statistics
as a component of a broader, theoretically informed social science.
These di√erences in content were associated with di√erences in the crite-
ria of scientific recognition. In France scientific recognition depended on
epistemological criteria; in England the acceptance or rejection of statistical
claims was voiced in terms of the explicitly political character of the knowl-
edge. Statistical knowledge in France was certain knowledge, whose scien-
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