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Primer: Adolphe Quetelet, Statistics, and Social Physics June 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of social changes and regularities in social activity remained an intense concern as population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political upheaval captured the attention of scientific and political thinkers throughout Europe and America.  As today, this thought necessarily spanned political, popular, philosophical, and scientific realms of thought as debates ensued concerning what could be said about societies and what could and should be done to affect how they function.

In the early 19th century, keeping and deploying statistics was already widespread, but their use as a tool of political discourse remained novel, and thus a subject of general and heated discussion.  The astronomer and essayist Adolphe Quetelet proved to be one of the century’s most singular and influential thinkers concerning the use of social statistics.  Born in Belgium in 1796 shortly after French annexed Austria’s Belgian provinces in the wars following the Revolution, Quetelet was educated in a French lycée, and as a youth took notice of the place accorded to the sciences in the Napoleonic empire.  After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Quetelet taught mathematics in Ghent, earned a doctorate in the subject, and, after convincing the government to build an observatory in Brussels, he departed to Paris—still the intellectual center of the world—to learn astronomy.  Quetelet took up his post as director of the new Brussels Observatory in 1828, and the observatory began operation in 1832.

By no coincidence, it was in this same period that Quetelet first began writing about statistics and “social physics” (a phrase taken from contemporary “positivist” philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte).  Principles of statistics and probability had been worked out by key figures in the development of the technical methods of astronomy in France who were also interested in social statistics, particularly Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).  And, like many others writing (more…)