Research Diaries #1: Stats and Stories, or, the Alchemy of Quantification

Unlike many people working in the humanities, I have never suffered from physics envy. I don’t yearn for concreteness, for the apparently undeniable power of proof by numbers. Deniability and argument are, the way I see it, part of the fun and part of what makes the humanities useful – we relentlessly interrogate, rethink, criticise.

My PhD is an attempt to do at least some of those things. It focuses on the everyday experience of state power in early modern England, which in practical terms means reading lots of legal documents – especially witness statements – to find out what happened when, say, a constable turned up at the door with a search warrant. These are sources full of stories – all unreliable, some patently false.

But PhDs lead down unexpected paths. This summer, in an attempt to figure out what kind of people usually wielded state power (who was the constable?), I spent a lot of time counting. First names: who held what office, when, and for how long? Then dates: when were they born, when did they marry, did they have children? And then money: how much tax did they pay – were they rich or poor?

Attribution: Thomas Rowlandson. Beadle and Barrow Women. 1819. British Museum, British Roy PIV. © Trustees of the British Museum.

It wasn’t exciting. Compared to the kinds of sources I’m used to, parish registers and officers’ account books are as dry as the dust they’re coated in. With figures and digits there are no stories as you go along, nothing to spark new ideas or set you off on a seventeenth-century daydream. All the excitement of discovery, the thrill of the chase, is put off until you crunch the numbers.

I started feeling nervous as the reckoning approached – what if there was nothing there? What if all my names and numbers failed to produce a single meaningful curve or correlation? I had hunches about the information I was gathering, but hunches (especially those of someone with no statistical experience) tend to get crushed under the feet of averages and coefficients once Excel is on the march.

It turned out I was right to be worried. I had amassed data which showed nothing, or rather, which showed many different things – things I wasn’t expecting and am still trying to figure out. Part of the problem was that I had underestimated how difficult interpreting cold hard facts was going to be. There are any number of ways of reading the story you find in a witness statement, but usually there’s a fairly solid outline: constable demands entry to house, householder says something rude in response, constable brandishes warrant, householder insults magistrate who signed said warrant, constable threatens to break down door, householder remains obstinate, constable either does or doesn’t have the courage to carry out the threat.

Not so with statistics. What seems like basic information has a tendency to melt away under scrutiny, then resurface in a different shape somewhere else. Just as I lean towards the screen, thinking ‘that’s interesting, officers who served before 1700 seem to have been more likely to be married than the ones who served after 1700’, I realise that actually, if I calculate averages for each decade rather than every twenty-five years, there are uneven shifts going back and forth, and if I start my decades in the middle, the shifts go in different directions, appear less or more drastic, and suggest an entirely new set of conclusions.

The alchemy of quantification draws you in, promising golden rewards for just one more formula or adjustment, but it has left me slightly singed. It is as much an art as a science and I’ve only learnt the simplest of brush-strokes. For now, I think I’ll go back to the solid ground of stories.

Jonah Miller is a PhD student in the History department at King’s College London. His research examines topics of violence and masculinity in early modern England.

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