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The Politics of Large Numbers

The Politics of Large Numbers

A History of Statistical Reasoning

Alain Desrosières

Translated by Camille Naish

ISBN 9780674009691

Publication date: 09/15/2002

Statistics-driven thinking is ubiquitous in modern society. In this ambitious and sophisticated study of the history of statistics, which begins with probability theory in the seventeenth century, Alain Desrosières shows how the evolution of modern statistics has been inextricably bound up with the knowledge and power of governments. He traces the complex reciprocity between modern governments and the mathematical artifacts that both dictate the duties of the state and measure its successes.

No other work, in any language, covers such a broad spectrum--probability, mathematical statistics, psychology, economics, sociology, surveys, public health, medical statistics--in accurately synthesizing the history of statistics, with an emphasis on the conceptual development of social statistics, culminating in twentieth-century applied econometrics.


  • Statistics works in and on the world, simultaneously describing and remaking. It straddles the chasm between the invented and the discovered, the real and the constructed--oppositions that have structured an increasingly sterile debate about the nature of science among historians, philosophers, sociologists, and scientists. The great merit of Desrosières' study is that it points the way beyond this impasse by showing how statistical entities are simultaneously real and constructed, invented and discovered.

    —Lorraine Daston, London Review of Books


  • Alain Desrosières is Administrateur, Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, Paris.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 5-11/16 x 8-15/16 inches
  • Harvard University Press