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The Russian Review


Historians of statistics are only beginning to understand the politics of numbers that accompanied the rise of statistical thinking in the nineteenth century. In the Russian empire, this statistical awakening opened numerous possibilities for state servitors and the intelligentsia. To officials in St. Petersburg, especially the enlightened bureaucrats who shaped the Great Reforms, statistics held out the promise of providing hard data for the development of informed policies.

For educated society, numbers had a profound impact on debates over the nature of Russia’s rural (particularly peasant) economy. Numbers provided a cloak of objectivity for polemics motivated by different visions of the empire’s present and future. In trying to express rural life in numbers, bodies charged with collecting statistical data at various administrative levels had to contend with the fact that numbers are not naturally occurring objects. In measuring, observers convert various phenomena into “stable, mobile and combinable elements” of knowledge that can be used to assess, conceptualize and control.

During this process of constructing numerical representations the agendas and biases of the measurer emerge in the choice of method, the creation of categories, and the presentation of data. The tendentiousness of numbers originates in the very process of measurement. Thus, measuring can itself be an inherently political act and controlling the measurement process--the process of constructing numerical representations--becomes a question of power. These are the politics of numbers.

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