Inventing Industrial Statistics

Michael Zakim


This Article explores the success of the new science of statistics in establishing order within the pandemonium of industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. This success was based on the fact that the expanding circulation of both men and goods that characterized capitalism constituted the ontological foundation of statistics as well. In this respect, one can say that statistics turned variety and multiplicity into the basis of system, if not of uniformity. The study focuses on the 1850 federal census of the United States and, more specifically, on the new taxonomy adopted in the census’s manufacturing schedule for enumerating industrial activity. This taxonomy was organized around a single, universal threshold of capital investment applied to each enterprise, a criterion that replaced various systems applied in previous censuses, all of which were based on an a priori definition of what actually constituted production. The innovation of 1850 resulted in a far more extensive account of manufacturing and was consequently perceived to be a most effective means of measuring the dramatic expansion of the economy. In fact, this was accomplished by making money the rule of measure, and so redefining the essence of industry to be financial rather than material. Profit-making consequently achieved a scientific, and even neutral, status. As such, statistics can be said to have made an epistemological contribution to the legitimization of the new capitalist order.

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