Authors: Jrgen Osterhammel Patrick Camiller
These four components did not appear all at once: it took decades for them to be introduced throughout Europe. Britain (first census in 1801) and revolutionary-Napoleonic France got the ball rolling. In 1810, statistical offices were created simultaneously in Prussia and Austria. It was much harder to collect
near-complete data in the multiethnic empires than in small countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands, whose statistical services were considered exemplary after 1830. By 1870 or thereabouts, modern statistical bureaus existed everywhere in Europe, and conferences of the International Statistical Congress (1853â78) set quality standards that no country could evade. In the United States, censuses of a reasonably modern character had been taking place since 1790. The sixth national count (1840), though full of gaps and other defects, was held up everywhere as one of the great achievements of the American nation.
It was one of the most demanding tasks imaginable to produce population statistics for India. Unlike in China, Japan, or Burma, precolonial governments seem to have bothered little there about the number of their subjects, but the British soon turned to the work of empirical description. This meant first of all collecting information about the major cities: their living conditions, political significance, and number of inhabitants.
By 1820 the first, rather skimpy, gazetteer was available, containing neither an approximately correct figure for the total population nor an account of social structures in the Subcontinent. European measures of quantification could not be directly transferred. After all, what was meant in India by “family,” “household,” or “village”? At what age was the dividing line between “adult” and “child”? Was a “caste” always identical with a certain occupation? And, if not, how was caste membership to be understood? There were decades of experimentation, during which the population was counted in various provinces with different degrees of exactitude. Only after 1881 did regular and better-organized all-India censuses yield satisfactory results,
though at the price of more rigid categories; statistics did not simply reflect reality but imprinted its own rules on it. Thus, whereas a census in the British Isles never asked about religious affiliation, the colonial authorities treated it as central to the classification of society, thereby boosting the significance of “communities” that would later be so important in Indian politics. The demographers of British India and their ethnographic advisers were obsessed with the ranking of castes; race theories typical of the age also entered the picture, so that the 1901 census, reputed to be particularly scientific, rested on the assumption that India's social hierarchy reflected differing degrees of racial purity. An ambitious attempt at a fully integrated census of the entire British Empire was abandoned at the outbreak of the First World War.
Modern censuses are not simply a matter of head counting. Scandinavia was the first country to include aspects that would eventually become a matter of course: births (divided into legitimate and illegitimate), age of marriage, and age of death. Whether such data were available depended on what the churches and secular authorities deemed worth registering. In the comparatively backward Catholic Philippines, for instance, patchy but revealing data may be found a long way back in parish registers. In general, the demographic data improve once marital status becomes a state-recognized civil matter. In a country such as China, where marriage remained a private affair, such information is lacking.
Statistics and National Politics
A census is public business, a matter for the authorities. As the state became an organ through which society observed itself, the nineteenth century took up and continued a number of older tendencies. In Central Europe it had been the task of a special “science of public governance” (
)âin English-speaking countries, of “political arithmetic”âto gather data about the present day. So what was new in the nineteenth century? Improved observation techniques, institutions to preserve the results, a more objective approach. It was the nineteenth century that first thought in terms of “populations.” The “new” mathematical statistics, which was fully developed by 1890, was an expression of such thinking. As early as 1825, the Belgian astronomer and mathematician Lambert-Adolphe Quetelet tried to identify averages and social regularities in the numerical material, and to correlate various social facts with one another. He was searching for a “social physics” beyond mere numbers and came up with the statistical “average citizen” (
), one of the great mythical figures of the modern age.
Quetelet was among the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century.
In the 1830s and 1840s, several European countries were gripped by a passion for statistics. It made things visible that had previously been hidden or taken for granted. The poor appeared as a social entity only when they were counted, and the resulting emergence of “poverty” as an abstract concept helped to arouse a moral commitment. Statistical societies and journals were founded, and government offices were called into being to gather, evaluate, and store social data. Politics rested more than ever before on exact information. In France, the systematic and regular collection of data was instituted at the prefecture level in 1801. Seeking to make deep inroads into civil society, the Napoleonic state needed as much accurate information as possible about it.
In Britain too, despite its much less developed regional bureaucracy, the parliamentary government made extensive use of empirical facts about all manner of thingsâfrom sanitation in workers' districts to the medical condition of soldiers in the army.
The collection of these was entrusted to ad hoc royal commissions, whose conclusions were publicly available both to the government of the day and to its critics. In
(1854), Charles Dickens poked fun at the type of hard-boiled positivist who collected such data, in the person of Thomas Grandgrind. However, such positivism not only generated the knowledge base for control of society but also provided grist for the analytic mill of an anti-positivist opponent of the system such as Karl Marx.
In the United States too, statistics acquired a major place in public life, perhaps even more so than in Britain or France. Full-scale social integration was conceivable only in a statistical perspective; only numbers could have brought home the unparalleled, and otherwise elusive, dimensions of the United States. For similar reasons, statistics played an important role in the unification of Italy,
both in the imagination directed to the nation's future and as special knowledge at the disposal of new elites. No sooner had political unity been achieved than statistical surveys spread like wildfire; even liberals were interested in recording the country's population and resources and in monitoring the performance of lower authorities from the vantage point of central government. Italy, in a sense, was a creature of statistics.
The nineteenth century can be seen as the century of counting and measuring. The idea of an all-embracing taxonomy now grew into a belief that the power of numberâof statistical processing or even “social mathematics,” as the Marquis de Condorcet, a bright star of the late Enlightenment, put itâcould open up truth itself to human reason. It was in the nineteenth century that societies measured themselves for the first time and archived the results.
There is much to suggest that they sometimes went too far. In some countries, more statistical knowledge was produced than could be scientifically and administratively handled. Statistics became what it still is today: a form of political rhetoric. The categories that statisticians had to develop were reified in the hands of government bureaucracies. Categories that statistics made technically necessaryâclasses, strata, castes, ethnic groupsâacquired the power to mold reality for administrative departments and, indeed, in society's perception of itself. Statistics had two faces: a tool for sociological description and explanation, and a powerful mechanism for stereotyping and labeling people. In both respects, it became a central element of the social imaginary. Nowhere was the second face more apparent than in the colonial world. Where social relations were much more difficult to understand than in close and familiar surroundings, many European observers and administrators succumbed to the false allure of objectivity and exactitudeâwhen they did not simply come to grief because of the practical obstacles involved in pinning down mobile populations.
The Press and Its Freedom
The nineteenth-century press ranged even wider than the realist novel, statistics, and empirical descriptions of society. Weekly or daily newspapers, as well as periodicals and magazines, opened communicative spaces of every conceivable dimension, from the local sheet to the London
, which by the end of the century was bringing news from all around the world while delivering its papers to be read on every continent. The conditions for political communication changed as soon as the press took root. The demand for freedom of the press, hence for the opportunity to voice opinions without fear of punishment, became a transformative impulse in every country, creating for the first time something like a public space, where citizens exchanged ideas and asserted the right to be kept informed. The founding fathers of the United States thought that only
well-informed members of the community would be capable of fulfilling their civic responsibilityâa view whose optimistic assumptions about the rise of the popular press few would share.
It is also possible to see the space opened up by the press in a different light, as a new level of society's reflection of itself. The distinctions between different types of printed media were fluid. In the early decades of the century, short “pamphlets” played an important role and evaded censorship more successfully than books or newspapers. The hazy boundaries were apparent in the fact that many novels, including most of those by Dickens, originally appeared in serial form in magazines.
The special characteristics of the newspaper were: (1) publication at regular intervals; (2) production by an editorial team; (3) division into separate departments and fields; (4) reporting that went outside the regional and social horizon of its readers; (5) a rise in topicality, which in Germany meant that the proportion of news less than a day old rose from 11 percent in 1856 to 95 percent in 1906;
(6) increasingly industrial production, based on the latest technology, which required considerable capital investment for a mass circulation press; and (7) a fluctuating market that depended on daily decisions by customers at the newsstand, except in the case of subscribers.
The newspaper established readers as politically mature subjects while at the same time mobilizing them for certain ends. The period from the middle of the nineteenth century until the end of the 1920s (when radio began to reach a wide public in Europe and America) was an age when the press had no rival in the world of media. Since the press was not as concentrated as it would soon become, it may be said of the United States, for example, that the number and variety of printed news sources was greater at the turn of the twentieth century than it has ever been before or since. By then, the press “tycoon” was a sui generis political force in countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.
The golden age of the press could begin only when there was freedom of the press. In countries like Germany, where censorship did not relax as production technology advanced, “family sheets” and illustrated magazines had an easier time of it politically than newspapers. The Karlsbad Decrees of 1819 established highly repressive press laws in the German Confederation, and although the censors often found it too difficult to apply them rigorously, they were a daily nuisance for publishers and journalists. But the Karlsbad system did not survive the revolution of 1848;
-publication censorship was anyway no longer necessary, since the state apparatuses had other means to control the printed word. Police and the courts took over the job of the censor, whose passing began to be almost regretted. The first German state to introduce full freedom of the press was the Kingdom of WÃ¼rttemberg, in 1864, but it was another ten years before an imperial press law ended preventive censorship for good throughout the Reich. From then on, publications that offended the authorities had to fear harassment but no longer suppression. In his later battle against Catholics and especially
Social Democrats, however, Otto von Bismarck did not refrain from attacking press freedom.
Opposition journalists were never safe from prosecution, while behind the scenes the chancellor used sectors of the conservative press for his own ends. Only after 1890 did the bourgeois pressâthings were not so easy for the Socialistsâenjoy the freedom that had long been taken for granted in the English-speaking world.
The special place of countries marked by British culture is nowhere more evident than in respect to freedom of the press. John Milton's
, which already called in 1644 for an end to the system of advance licensing of publications, would have a lasting influence. In the United States, the First Amendment (ratified in 1791) forbade Congress to pass laws restricting free speech or press freedom. Of course this remained open to interpretation, and from 1798 the question repeatedly arose as to when it was overridden by the common law on “seditious libel,” notorious for the looseness with which it could be applied to protect “public figures.”
But on the whole, nineteenth-century America was a country with a free press. The idea of the press as an institutional counterweight to the government, a “fourth estate,” became ever more deeply rooted in its political culture. In Britain, after 1695, the state no longer had the legal right to act against critical publications, although a special stamp duty limited their distribution until its last vestiges were abolished in 1855.