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The history of quantification: the link between statistics and policy

The history of quantification: the link between statistics and policy

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5 From statistics to international quantification ...


when the World Bank’s policies began to emphasise the privatisation of public services

(structural adjustment, role of the market), the demography was focused on measuring the

cost of children. The Bank was engaged in microeconomics, on the one hand, and in analysis

of demographic behaviour, on the other. Fertility became an object of cost-benefit analyses.

Working in UNESCO’S statistical department while I was researching my PhD, I

observed that the history of education data had followed the same logic. The two IGOs’

statistics had evolved along similar lines and had paved the way for policies that were also

similar. Nevertheless, the mechanisms of change were different. The World Bank had been

through a radical restructuring at the beginning of the 1980s, with changes to both the

organisational structure and the personnel. The restructuring at UNESCO had been less

thoroughgoing, with the main focus being on a wide-ranging critique of its data.

The two restructuring processes constituted a ‘system’, but how could I move forward

in my efforts to demonstrate that this was so? Discussion of a paper by Alain Desrosières,

“Décrire l’État ou explorer la société: les deux sources de la statistique publique/Describing

the state or exploring society: the two sources of public statistics” (Desrosières 2005) during

the ACI seminar on statistics and the evaluation of public policies at INSEE (February 2005)

offered me some valuable new avenues to pursue. In the paper, Desrosières advanced the

following idea: “Market, incentive, rankings: this triad characterises the space within which

public statistics were in part redeployed from the 1980s onwards”. He put forward a reference

framework for the various stages of the quantification process based on the linking of three

elements: “1) the way of conceptualising society; 2) the modalities of action in that society; 3)

the modes of description, particularly statistical” -see also Desrosières (2003). He then

applied these elements to the history of the state: the engineer state, the planner state, the

liberal state, etc. Could these dimensions be transposed to IGOs? What were the factors

driving change? In the case of the World Bank and UNESCO, could the shift from

Keynesianism to neo-liberalism ‘simply’ be an effect of the changes that had taken place in

member states? Or conversely, was it the IGOs that were coordinating states and their

policies? Here was a new avenue to be explored, raising new questions linked to political

science and international relations but going beyond them to address the question of the part

played by quantification in these changes.

The idea of moving from a collection of studies that were beginning to be interlinked –

World Bank, UNESCO, European Union (EU)26– to the construction of a field of enquiry

with its own specific questions and hypotheses and encompassing the history and sociology of

quantification in IGOs and not just statistics developed out of these initial fruitful exchanges

with Alain Desrosières. I then immersed myself in his writings in order to explore his ideas

more fully and holistically.


In the context of my post-doc project on the EU, see for instance Cussó (2004).


R. Cussó


3. The construction of a theory and the birth of a field of research

The book The Politics of Large Numbers, published in 1993, both presents an historical

narrative and lays down solid theoretical foundations. Over the following 20 years, Alain

Desrosières developed this ontological contribution in his writings as he set out various

arguments and original perceptions on a range of subjects. Viewed in their entirety, his

writings constitute an ‘historical sociology of quantification’, as he was to call it in a paper

published in 2008 (Desrosières 2008).

The debates initiated by his writings are full of diversity and complexity. An initial

example is the debate around the notion of the objectivation of social forms on the basis of

equivalence conventions. Objectivation as a hardening of ‘reality’ replaces the idea of

objectivity, which is too rigid. It is a ‘boundary concept’ that makes it possible to transcend

the debate between constructivism and realism, especially but not exclusively in the area of

quantification. In a 1991 paper, Desrosières tackles the controversy between ‘constructed’ and

‘real’, while at the same time debating Hacking and Latour: “Indeed, by deciding to take any

social as at the same time constructed and real, one discovers a way of at a stroke

transcending the two apparently opposed positions constituting positivist scientism and

denunciatory relativism” (Desrosières 1991: 196).

A second example is Desrosières’ combining of the ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’

functions of statistics, which enabled him to link together the cognitive and practical aspects

of statistics. Statistics constitute a “cognitive space of equivalence constructed for practical

purposes, in order to describe, manage, or transform human societies” (Desrosières 1998a:

17). However, he was not content simply to analyse the functionality of that space, however

complex and interconnected it may be. There was no single blueprint but rather a slow,

historical process of construction, with aims that were very diverse and academic approaches,

statistics schools and government actions that differed from country to country. From this

point of view, Desrosières was developing a wide-ranging approach. His commitment to

multi-disciplinarity is reflected in all his writings, more than he actually asserts himself. He

mixes sociology, history, economics, political science and statistics, without abandoning the

realities of numbers and of society. This is the approach of an epistemological constructor,

one who invents questions and stimulates debate.

In 2006, after two years of a post-doc appointment at the Free University in Brussels,

where I worked under Corinne Gobin, and having moved to the University of Paris 8, I set

myself the goal of writing a thesis on quantification in IGOs for the qualification to supervise

research (2012). The underlying idea was that there is not one single abstract process of

quantification from which different cases derive, but only situated processes of quantification:

those taking place in states, IGOs, towns and cities, private bodies, etc. Although the

quantification carried out by governments is the one most closely studied, this by no means

exhausts all the theoretical and empirical possibilities for investigating quantification as a

phenomenon that is simultaneously political, social, scientific and institutional.

5 From statistics to international quantification ...


4. Statistics and institutions: a programmatic link

Although he was concerned mainly with quantification undertaken by the state, Alain

Desrosières was also interested in the new international and European processes of

quantification, particularly from the point of view of their impact on state statistical institutes

(Desrosières 2003). He investigated, among other things, the shift from the harmonisation of

outputs (governments classifying their data in accordance with international standards) to the

harmonisation of methods (governments producing internationally standardised statistics at

source). What other issues does the history of international harmonisation raise? Is the trend

towards the standardisation of methods a new one?

In 2008, I embarked on an analysis of the archives of the League of Nations, the first

political IGO (1919), which revealed that a veritable quantification programme had existed

from the institution’s very early days. I worked on several sections: economic and financial,

mandates, minorities, health, etc. The link between description and prescription in the

production of statistics could indeed be observed, particularly in the economic and financial

section, which was responsible for the production of norms, common standardisation and

comparable data (Cussó, 2012a), and in the supervision of the mandate system, where the

principal concern was an attempt to establish measurable accountability (Cussó forthcoming

in 2016).

At first sight, the approach adopted by the League of Nations was very similar to that

adopted by states, in the sense that it wanted to have its own policies and therefore produced

its own statistics, as states did. Closer examination, however, reveals that IGOs have four

major institutional and socio-political specificities that serve to strengthen the unique and

fundamental role played by their statistical output (harmonisation and comparison of member

states’ data) while at the same time substantiating the ‘non-political’ nature of the resultant


Firstly, the councils and assemblies on which governmental representatives sat did not

reflect political pluralism. They were not organised into majority and opposition, as they are

in democratic systems. This is relevant to the EU, because its parliament does not elect a

government and, in particular, because it makes decisions only in consultation with the other

European institutions, the Council and the Commission. Thus there are constants in the

institutional forms that IGOs take, both in their components and in their way of working.

Secondly, the fact that they do not operate democratically strengthens the relative autonomy

of IGOs’ secretariats. For example, if a tariff nomenclature is drawn up and approved in

principle by the intergovernmental body, the secretariat still retains powers of interpretation

and implementation. Thirdly, and this is an important point, governments operating at a

distance from their respective parliaments may find it convenient to go through IGOs in order

have measures adopted that will subsequently be incorporated into member states legislation,

leaving the opposition facing a fait accompli, at least in part. Thus governments are not the

‘victims’ of IGOs; rather they interact with them, even though they may sometimes have to

accept international decisions that in their view are less desirable. Finally, the transnational

element makes its impact felt more directly in IGOs than in member states, with the support

of the intergovernmental element (in the form of agreements) and, in the absence of an

opposition, without challenge.


R. Cussó

These specificities, and in particular the absence of pluralism, provide the basis for an

original form of linkage between statistics and prescription, which might be described as

‘ethical pragmatism’ or a direct link between the technical and the ethical. The process of

quantification is linked to consensual ethical objectives, such as ‘development’, that are

located beyond ‘politics’. For example, measurement of pupil numbers is directly linked to

the right to education, while birth control is intended to facilitate access to better child health.

This connection does not preclude intermediate choices in favour of formal schooling or

health services for which patients have to pay, but they are omitted.

To return to the beginning of this section, the harmonisation of methods (by Eurostat,

for example) is only one outcome of a longstanding process of harmonisation, as Desrosières

describes with great subtlety. Another element of this same process is a powerful and equally

longstanding programme that is both pragmatic and ethical, that is constantly being renewed

and is closely linked to the institutional forms and organisation of IGOs.

5. The actors and professionals involved in statistics

Adopting a broad sociological perspective, Desrosières took into account the role of

statisticians and other actors by means of biographical analysis and occupational sociology.

My experience at UNESCO and my research on the specificity of IGOs logically led me to

compare international statisticians with those in the government departments whom he had

studied (Desrosières 1998b).

The left-right division is less evident within IGOs than in states, which gives a

particular meaning to the notion of ‘statistical independence’. The direct connection between

knowledge and ethics, already alluded to above, gives officials of international organisations

the impression they are acting for the public good and that their missions are universal ones

(Bardet and Cussó 2012). In this context, being in the service of governments is not a problem

– what would be a problem would be to serve a single government! Their main concern is to

adopt the IGO’s core mission. It is in order to defend their interpretation of that mission that

they invoke their independence, particularly from the middle layers of the organisation’s


When UNESCO’s statistical services were being reformed and the nature of the

statistical undertaking changed (with effectiveness being lauded rather than rights), the

attempts at renewal were opposed by some statisticians, who maintained that they better

represented the institution’s values, compared to the new officials put in charge. This was

reflected in personnel changes and the introduction of new recruitment criteria. I have already

mentioned the statistical department’s move to Montreal. One of the consequences was that

the notion of the international civil servant’s independence was redefined: the statistical

endeavour had to distance itself from the past (personnel changes) and from

intergovernmental control (distance from the Paris headquarters) in order to facilitate the task

of implementing the political aims of the reform, such as the introduction of measures of the

effectiveness of state policies with a view to ranking countries.

5 From statistics to international quantification ...


6. The history and sociology of quantification in IGOs

At the beginning of 2012, I asked Alain Desrosières if he would be so kind as to be a

member of the examining panel for my accreditation to supervise research (habilitation à

diriger des recherches) (Cussó 2012b)27. In his usual thoughtful way, he had kept a file with

all the articles I had sent him as my research progressed, but this was the first time I was

formally presenting quantification in IGOs as a coherent field of research, open to

interpretation and testing by original hypotheses. This was the first time he had been a

member of the examining panel for an habilitation, although he had examined many PhDs. I

think this was an indication that quantification had become an established area of research.

My habilitation thesis presents the IGOs investigated (League of Nations, World Bank,

UNESCO, UN, EU), the quantification processes analysed (population, education, economics,

minorities) and their histories. The hypotheses advanced are informed, quite logically, by the

work of other researchers, including that of Alain Desrosières, in particular, and the

publications already cited above, as well as many others. Initially, it seemed to me important

to highlight the linkage between the history and sociology of quantification in IGOs, as

Desrosières had done in the case of the state, since in the international sphere researchers

often focus on highly specific, contemporary topics that produce relatively limited results. For

example, countries emulating each other on the basis of statistics are often regarded as an

innovation in international governance, whereas historical analysis reveals that this is a longestablished practice and that the secretariats of international organisations and member states’

governments jointly contributed to its development. From the same viewpoint, I sought to

avoid the North-South divide, which prevents analyses of statistical changes in Northern

countries from benefiting from those of statistical undertakings in the South, which often

foreshadow those in the North. Like Desrosières, who developed country typologies that

shared a common analytical framework, I observed that the differences between IGOs were

not decisive. Finally, a number of hypotheses had to be advanced in pursuit of my initial

objective, namely to provide evidence to substantiate the view that IGOs’ statistical processes

are specific in nature and can be treated as a completely separate field: (i) IGOs have more

power than the congresses and international statistical institutes of the 19th century; (ii) they

manage to produce statistics and use them in order to ‘govern’; (iii) IGOs and their statistical

processes emerged at the same time and evolved in stages; (iv) because of their institutional

specificity, quantification in IGOs is not simply a tool of government but also the basis for

‘ethical pragmatism’; (v) as pluralism has gradually been eroded, the functioning of

international organisations has tended to converge with that of states.

Let us examine these points.

(i) The statistics produced by IGOs mark a turning point in the longer history of

attempts to compare countries. In the 17th century, William Petty, for example, compared the

populations of London and Paris: “these two cities do not differ […] by a 20th” (Petty

1905[1690]: 272). However, the analyses produced by adherents of political arithmetic lacked


The other examiners were Alain Chenu (proposer), Ted Porter, Martine Mespoulet, Hervé Le Bras, Corinne

Gobin and Olivier Martin.


R. Cussó

a systematic dimension. This was remedied in the later 17th and 18th centuries with the

development of “the study of the forces of the state” (Staatskunde, or civics). These studies

are monographs on different countries, produced with comparisons in mind. They are

methodical and use common analytical frameworks, but are seldom quantified. In fact, while

the two approaches give the impression that comparisons can improve the government of

England or Germany, they do not make comparison a tool that can be used to produce

normative analyses for all countries.

When Adolphe Quetelet founded the International Statistical Congresses in 1853, he

was clearly seeking to compare countries in order to show governments what were the best

policies: “Statistics, conceived in a spirit of unity and founded on stable bases appropriate to

all countries, will assuredly […] extend their benefits to all countries and shed new light on

the real interests of governments”28. However, the congresses and the International Statistical

Institute (ISI), established in 1885, attempted to move towards their objectives – development

of data harmonisation, lists of topics to be compared, methodologies for conducting

comparisons – simply by setting up transnational networks made up largely of members of

state’s statistical institutions and departments. The debates that took place were relatively

independent of governments, but this approach very quickly proved to be inadequate and

ultimately the congresses and ISI produced little in the way of harmonised statistics (Cussó

2010)29. In fact, unlike the League of Nations, these bodies had no real political power. As

already noted, the League of Nations had an official intergovernmental section whose

decisions were binding on the executives of member states. It had its own assignments, based

on the fact that states’ governments had devolved part of their sovereignty to it (this was the

novel feature of the charters, in which certain policies were delegated). The League of

Nations had a permanent secretariat charged with carrying out the responsibilities that formed

the basis of the international or internationalist section. In addition to these three aspects, the

League of Nations covered transnational activity, which extended to voluntary associations

and the world of business, from which were drawn its experts, representatives of civil society

and interest groups.

(ii) Thus the innovative feature of IGOs was the linkage between the transnational

(inherited from the congresses), the intergovernmental (political legitimacy) and the

international (the secretariat and its missions): member states both contributed and submitted

themselves to the new quantification. This is why IGOs immediately put in place their own

statistical programmes, laying the foundations for a real process of quantification at

international level and positing comparison both as a means of producing norms and a lever

for action (or government).

Supervision of the mandate system is one example of this. An attempt was made to

establish a certain degree of rivalry or emulation among the mandatory powers (their

comparative ‘evaluation’) when it was judged that mortality rates among the ‘indigenous’


Compte-rendu du Congrès international de statistique de 1853, p.19.

In 2009, Alain Desrosières asked me to write a paper for the 150th anniversary of the Journal de la Société de

Statistique de Paris (JSSP). In that paper, I test the influence of the congresses and the ISI on the journal and

investigate the differences between those bodies and IGOs.


5 From statistics to international quantification ...


people should decline year on year. The powers produced the data and accepted supervision

by the League of Nations; however, they also made the figures work to their advantage (i.e.

show their successes). In the case of the economic and financial section, the international

statistics supported free trade policies. The balance of trade (openness to imports), (the

absence of) customs duties etc. were indicators – plain for all to see – of the extent to which

that freedom was being honoured. In both cases, data harmonisation was fundamental. The

countries concerned filed them on the basis of new classifications, or at the very least under

particular headings that gradually introduced new methods.

(iii) The opportunity to identify the various stages in the process of international

quantification confirms the existence of this linkage. Furthermore, for the three major stages

in the history of IGOs (free trade, 1919-1940; development/Keynesianism, 1945-1975;

deregulation/globalisation, 1975-to the present), the inextricable link between norms and

statistics is evident with potential for new policies.

(iv) This potential stems from the fact that quantification in the IGOs required, as we

have seen, the establishment of a new pragmatic ‘regime’. Freed, by definition, from the

constraints of pluralism (comparison of different political projects), IGOs introduced a farreaching change that is not entirely covered by the term ‘governance’. Quantified

comparisons, the means whereby they functioned, also served to underpin them through the

construction of a power that was both non-alternating and intergovernmental (legitimate).

Implementation of the OECD’s Programme for international student assessment

(PISA) from the year 2000 onwards is an example of this regime, which has been reflected in

the development of classifications and good practices that derive their technical and ethical

legitimacy from the optimal use of economic resources. However, this exercise in

international quantification can be fully understood only when seen in the context of a long

history. PISA has similarities with the instruments used in the mandate system while at the

same displaying certain differences: with its micro-economic calculations and cost-benefit

analyses, it has moved some distance from the notion of public policy.

(v) Our final hypothesis is that national governments do not appear passive, whether in

the mandate system or with regard to PISA. However, their position has changed and has

perhaps become more difficult with the current statistical comparisons, which are increasingly

intrusive. The measures adopted by the EU and Eurostat, particularly since the 1992

Maastricht Treaty, have gradually changed the relationships between the actors involved in

quantification. The links between indicators and reforms have become closer, governments

have on occasions been out of their depth while at the same time taking part in decisionmaking and national statistical institutes have lost some of their autonomy. It is against the

background of this change that we can speak of ‘contagion’ between international

organisations and states. There is increasingly little space for pluralism in our political

societies. This contributes to a better understanding of the rise of the new public management,

which aims to establish effectiveness as a driving force and not simply as a means of

criticising the opposition.


R. Cussó

To conclude, two remarks about my luck in having been able to engage in dialogue with

Alain Desrosières. The first is the opportunity it gave me to get to know and collaborate with

other researchers involved in the networks he organised. I’m thinking particularly of Ted

Porter, Béatrice Touchelay, Martine Mespoulet, Michel Armatte and Fabrice Bardet – this is

not an exhaustive list. The second point concerns the demands his work have imposed,

making any attempt to contribute to the ‘historical sociology of quantification’ a long and

complex exercise. It cannot be reduced to a sociology of statistics, to their historical and

political dimension, to a methodological analysis of data, to case studies or to the inclusion in

analyses of institutions and actors. It is all of this and much more. A potent programme of

research has been brought forth, one that continues and will continue to nurture current and

future research, even though its scope is not yet fully appreciated in the textbooks.


Bardet, F. & Cussó, R. (2012). Les essais randomisés contrôlés, révolution des politiques de

développement? Une évaluation par la Banque mondiale de l’empowerment au Bangladesh.

Revue Franỗaise de Socio-Economie, 10, 175-198.

Cussú, R. (2001). La dộmographie dans le modèle de développement de la Banque mondiale.

Doctoral thesis, Paris: EHESS.

Cussó, R. (2004). La méthode ouverte de coopération en Europe: des statistiques pour une

nouvelle politique d’éducation. RAPPE seminar on National and international comparisons

of education policies 24-25 May 2004, Paris.

Cussó, R. (2006). Restructuring UNESCO’s statistical services: The ‘sad story’ of

UNESCO’s education statistics four years later. International Journal of Educational

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Cussó, R. (2012a). L’activité statistique de l’Organisation économique et financière de la

Société des Nations: un nouveau lien entre pouvoir et quantification. Histoire & Mesure,

XXVII(2), 109-138.

Cussó, R. (2012b). Comparer pour mieux régner: histoire et sociologie de la quantification

internationale, Paris: Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (IEP).

Cussó, R. (forthcoming in 2016). Aux origines de l’évaluation statistique internationale: le

système mandataire de la Société des Nations. Experts et expertises dans les mandats de la

SdN : figures, champs et outils, Conference 26-27 March 2015, Paris.

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Desrosières, A. & Thévenot, L. (1988). Les Catégories socio-professionnelles. Paris: La


Desrosières, A. (1991). How to Make Things Which Hold Together: Social Science, Statistics

and the State. In P. Wagner, B. Wittrock, R. P. Whitley (Eds.), Discourses on Society: The

Shaping of the Social Science Disciplines (pp. 195-218). Netherlands: Kluwer Academic


Desrosières, A. (1998a). The Politics of Large Numbers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

University Press.

Desrosières, A. (1998b). L’administrateur et le savant. Les métamorphoses du métier de

statisticien. Courrier des statistiques, 87-88, 71-80.

Desrosières, A. (2003). Comment fabriquer un espace de commune mesure: harmonisation

des statistiques et réalisme de leurs usages. In M. Lallement, J. Spurk (Eds.), Stratégies de la

comparaison internationale (pp. 151-166). Paris: CNRS Editions.

Desrosières, A. (2003). Historiciser l’action publique: l’Etat, le marché et les statistiques. In

P. Laborier, Danny Trom (Eds.), Historicités de l’action publique (pp. 207-221). Paris: PUF.

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publique/Describing the state or exploring society: the two sources of public statistics.

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Chapter 6. Learning from the history of the probabilistic revolution: the

French school of Alain Desrosières

Fabrice Bardet


In this chapter, Fabrice Bardet, a long-life student of Alain Desrosières tells the

amazing academic dynamic that Alain Desrosières created around him. From the 1990s to his

death in 2013, he was, without any doubt, the French scholar situated in the center of the

sociological field dedicated to quantification’s processes. Fabrice first comes back on the

history of his master, a story that he had been told several times, by his side. Then he tells the

story of the influence of his master on several generations of scholars, in France and abroad.

He insists, among other things, on the importance that Alain Desrosières gave, from his main

book published in 1993, The Politics of Numbers, to his most recent publications, to the

influence of the writing of The Probabilistic Revolution, in the 1980s, in an international

context, set up in Bielefeld, Germany. From this perspective, he explains how, in his own

view, this focus made by Desrosières participated in creating a French school for sociology of


Theodore Porter, one of the main historians of the "Probabilistic Revolution", maintains

that the impact of this history on the social sciences was stronger in France than anywhere

else. Written after a seminar organized in the early 1980s at Bielefeld, in Germany, by the

Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (Zif), this history was the fruit of a long

interdisciplinary encounter envisioned by physicist and philosopher of science Lorenz Krüger

and sustained by the research dynamic stemming from Thomas Kuhn's work on the structure

of scientific revolutions. The revolution, which played out primarily between 1800 and 1930,

placed the statistical sciences at the heart of all the activities of all the intellectual disciplines,

throughout the world. The widespread use in industrial societies of "quality" tests is the

product and symbol of this revolution. In France, Alain Desrosières, who had not been part of

the Bielefeld group, was enthused by this masterpiece in the contemporary history of science

immediately on its publication (Krüger et al. 1987, Krüger et al. 1987). He made it a basis for

developing his plan for a historical sociology of quantification. He led a number of peers and

students in this endeavour and was unquestionably the individual largely responsible for

bringing this French school of the sociology of quantification into being. Within this school,

the hypothesis of an accounting counter-revolution, dialectically linked to the probabilistic

revolution, took shape as a means of shedding light on contemporary modes of government30.

1. The meeting with sociology


I would like to thank Roser Cussó, Elisabeth Zucker, Morgane Labbé and Philippe Corcuff for their

suggestions and comments.

F. Bardet

University of Lyon, ENTPE, Laboratory EVS-RIVES

Lyon, France

e-mail: bardet@entpe.fr

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

I. Bruno et al. (eds.), The Social Sciences of Quantification, Logic, Argumentation

& Reasoning 13, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44000-2_6



F. Bardet

Alain Desrosières studied the sociology that Pierre Bourdieu taught at the Ecole

nationale de la statistique et de l'administration économique (ENSAE) in Paris, from 1963 to

1966. Bourdieu had just returned from Algeria where he had worked with three administrators

of the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), with whom he

had published one of his first books (Bourdieu et al. 1963). He nurtured the hope of initiating

a large-scale quantitative sociological undertaking like the one that had started to develop in

the United States (Desrosières 2003). Alain Desrosières was part of that generation of INSEE

administrators influenced by Pierre Bourdieu's teaching but who ended up developing an area

of sociological enquiry that was actually quite distant from that of the master: not "with" but

"about" statistical tools. His first objective was to establish their history (Affichard 1977,

Desrosières et al. 1976, Guibert et al. 1971).

This difference of perspective fully explains Alain Desrosières' decision, in 1984, to

support the creation establishment of the Groupe de sociologie politique et morale (GSPM).

One of the group’s founders, Laurent Thévenot, also an INSEE administrator, was working at

the time with the sociologist Luc Boltanski on the operations of social taxonomy

(Boltanski,Thévenot 1983), and with Robert Salais, another INSEE administrator, on the

conventions structuring labour markets (Salais,Thévenot 1986). These two research projects

were to lead to the development of the "economics of conventions" (Desrosières 2011). The

influence of Alain Desrosières, and in particular that of his work on the long history of French

socio-occupational classifications (SOCs) (Desrosières 1987 (1977)), was decisive in these

entangled dynamics, as the introduction to the book that brought them together attests

(Boltanski,Thévenot 1991). Desrosières’ approach to sociology was to change as a result.

This was evident in the first book that he published, with Laurent Thévenot, on SOCs, in

which he explored their history on the occasion of their reform and which has remained a

reference for French sociology students (Desrosières,Thévenot 1988). It was around this time

that Desrosières' perspective shifted in a sense from social history to the historical sociology

of statistics.

2. The Probabilistic Revolution as a historical and sociological tool

In fact this was more than a shift, for Alain Desrosières probably imagined the addition

of a line of "tension", to use one of his favourite terms. He studied the history of sociology

and that of its genetic ties with statistics, in particular (Desrosières 1985). At the time,

however, he was also regularly participating in the seminar on the history of the calculation of

probabilities organized by Ernest Coumet, Marc Barbut and Bernard Bru, all of whose work

he admired. That was where, in May 1987, he met Lorenz Krüger, who had been invited to

MIT on the occasion of the publication of The Probabilistic Revolution. A few months later

he met Lorraine Daston, whose work, following on from that of Coumet, was concerned with

the development of the first probabilistic techniques by Italian city state bankers during the

Renaissance (Daston 1989).

This contact with the Bielefeld group opened up new horizons for Alain Desrosières.

For several years, he had been seeking to develop links with research projects abroad. He had

combed through the English-language journals, in particular, and in 1984 had come across

Simon Szreter's work on the British census office (Szreter 1984). He wrote to Szreter and,

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The history of quantification: the link between statistics and policy

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