Quantitative History and Statistics — Research Methods 31.10.11

Historians aren’t generally known for liking numbers, if not for being downright scared of them. Which is probably why we discussed them on a chilly Halloween evening! In all seriousness, this was a good class, numbers and statistics are important in the study of history.

If you don’t believe history has any quantitative elements, go through your nearest history book, article, or whatever text you might have and underline any quantitative words. You’ll probably find a lot, even if they don’t seem directly connected with words. Look for words like growthmany, primarily, for some, increasingly/decreasingly, remote, popular, one of, mass, smaller, and so on. Our lecturer, to make his point, gave us a short excerpt which we underlined those quantitative words.

Some historiographical schools of thought use statistics and economics as as significant part of their analysis. Can you guess which one I’m thinking of at the moment? Yup–Marxism! Still, their use does not have to be confined to Marxists alone. We discussed several advantages to using quantitative history.

Downsides can include:

  • Imposing to rigid categories onto history
  • Loss of detail (summarizing data necessarily involves a loss of data)
How historians might intigrate numbers and statistics into their projects will of course vary by project. Certainly, at the very least, they ought to be aware of the words they use, as mentioned at the beginning. Tables and charts are probably one of the primary ways to present data, and we discussed formatting and uses for different types of charts. It isn’t anything I didn’t learn in my undergraduate stats course, but a good refresher anyway.

As with a lot of things, I think it is important for the historian to use numbers and statistics where appropriate, just as they ought to at least consider the impact of memory, gender, culture, and so forth in their historical analysis.

This is a part of my History at Queens series. I am writing on what I’m learning in my modules and as a part of my own research. Hope you enjoy!


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