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? Continue reading