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The statistical state: knowledge, numbers and population in Britain, c. 1780-1837

The statistical state: knowledge, numbers and population in Britain, c. 1780-1837

Knowledge and information are topics of fundamental importance across the social sciences. Concepts such as the 'knowledge economy' and 'information society' enjoy an increasingly wide currency in academic as well as policy-making circles. Conventionally, both phenomena are associated with what the noted American sociologist, Daniel Bell, termed 'post-industrial society' (Bell 1973). Common to all three notions is an emphasis on the decline of industrial employment and the concomitant rise of service sector jobs in fields such as education, finance, healthcare, consultancy, communications and retail. To a greater or lesser extent, new information technologies – principally computing – have played a transformative role in each of these areas by disrupting traditional modes of production.

While information technology is a relatively modern concept, the disruptive power of information has a much longer history. This research project is concerned with exploring one specific aspect of that history: the development and implementation of new state-sponsored, nation-wide information gathering technologies in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. Building on research initially undertaken as part of an ESRC-funded doctoral research project (PTA-031-2005-00272) into the development and implications of census-taking, this post-doctoral study will explore other dimensions of the 'avalanche of printed numbers' (Hacking, 1982), including the collection of data on criminals, poor relief expenditure and food prices. Far from being the precursor of the 'Information Age', state, economy and society in early industrial Britain (c. 1780-1837) was built on the accumulation, circulation and application of so-called 'useful' knowledge (Mokyr 2009).

This project is particularly concerned with investigating the disruptive effects of information gathering on modes of governance. Earlier PhD work suggested that the collection of population statistics from 1801 contributed to a major re-alignment of the relationship between the core of the British state, principally parliament, and its periphery, principally parishes and counties. Although parliament was the driving force behind late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century social enquiry (Innes 2009), the creation of new forms of social and demographic knowledge had dramatic, and unintended, consequences for the institution which had promoted information gathering so vigorously. In 1832 the Great Reform Act swept away the eighteenth-century system of corrupt boroughs. In its place new urban centres of manufacturing and industry were represented in the House of Commons for the first time. Electoral change on such a dramatic scale was only possible because of the availability of spatially and temporally consistent demographic and fiscal data. These data allowed ministers to cast the Reform Act's redistribution provisions in an objective light, thereby ensuring the political support of the Crown (Thompson 2011).

The current project intends to extend this analysis further by considering the relationship between new kinds of information gathering and economic and social policy-making in the period 1780-1837. By employing a wider definition of state action than is allowed for in crude measures of public expenditure or statute-making, this research seeks to challenge conventional accounts that insist on the rise of the laissez-faire state after 1815 (eg Harling and Mandler 1993).

A wide range of published and unpublished sources will be used in this study. Parliamentary papers, contemporary periodicals, economic treatises, private papers, and local and centrally-created records will be exploited using qualitative and quantitative methods to achieve the research objectives outlined above.


  • Bell, Daniel, The coming of post-industrial society: a venture in social forecasting, Basic Books, 1973.
  • Hacking, Ian, 'Biopower and the avalanche of printed numbers', Humanities in Society, 5 (1982), 279-295.
  • Harling, Philip and Mandler, Peter, 'From "Fiscal-Military" state to Laissez-Faire state, 1760-1850', Journal of British Studies, 32 (1993), 44-70.
  • Innes, Joanna, Inferior politics: social problems and social policies in eighteenth-century Britain, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Mokyr, Joel, The enlightened economy: an economic history of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Thompson, S. J., ''Population combined with wealth and taxation': statistics, representation and the making of the 1832 Reform Act', in Tom Crook and Glen O'Hara (eds.), Statistics and the Public Sphere: Numbers and the People in Modern Britain, c. 1800-2000, Routledge, 2011, pp. 205-23.