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November 24, 2003

Michelle Mancini (Dean's Office and College Seminar Program)
"The Face Behind/Above/Within the Numbers:
Sentiment Versus Statistics, Then and Now"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

As background for her exploration of the relationship between sentiment and statistics in Victorian England, Michelle invited us to consider the Judeo-Christian tradition of valuing the individual. In Genesis 18:20-33, for instance, Abraham debates with the Lord the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: if there be fifty? forty-and-five? forty? thirty? twenty? ten? righteous men within the city, it can be saved. In Luke 15: 1-10, Christ tells a parable of the shepherd who, "having an hundred sheep, doth leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it." These passages, which value the individual over the aggregate, form a sharp contrast to the "Felicific Calculus" of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), in which the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham gave instructions on how to measure the value of a lot of pleasure or pain, according to its intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity and extent.

This history formed a backdrop for the center of Michelle's presentation, on the work of Henry Mayhew, who conducted a large-scale survey of Britain's working poor, eventually collected and published in four volumes titled London Labour and the London Poor (1861). Mayhew estimated and tabulated all manner of things: the numbers of fish sold by the costermongers, the amount of garbage collected by scavangers, the millions of tons of excrement secreted by horses, the pounds of blood discarded by the slaughterhouses of London. Mayhew's work was, in some ways, "proto-anthropological," providing a record of how vagabonds could make a living in the heart of the civilized city. There is also a "reformist slant" to his work; that social consciousness emerges, for instance, in the "moralistic tone" of headings which call attention to the uneducated, improvident, "sad drunken" nature of the "cats-and-dogs-meat sellers" (those who sold the meat fed to cats and dogs). But these statistics are only half the story Mayhew assembled; his four volumes also include the oral histories of various street workers, accounts of their joys, sufferings and amusements. It is for this latter contribution that these books are valued; abridged versions of the survey used in classrooms today omit the charts, tables and numbers which fill the volumes, in favor of the the interviews in which the poor talk about their lives. There is no real pattern to the types who get to tell their stories: they are not the most virtuous nor the most degraded. They are presented as "typical," but the sheer number of stories queers that claim.

As a compiler of portraits of the poor, Mayhew was a very important resource for Charles Dickens, who, in Bleak House tells the story of Jo the crossing sweeper, a figure at the center of knowledge--and contagion: those who use his crossing catch smallpox from him, indicating how we are all exposed to and affected by the lives of those around us, even those not related to us by class or occupation. Jo was closely modeled on Mayhew's figures, and he has force in Dickens' novel because he is representative of the crowd: he is the "type" of a common problem. The Victorians were great social reformers, and they told such stories to encourage philanthropy. But they knew that numbers could seem meaningless without a face and that, contrari-wise, the power of an individual face rested on the power of numbers behind it. Michelle suggested that, for the Victorians, the non-quantitative had little significance without the quantitative; they knew that responses to suffering were aroused by individual cases, which functioned as indices to collective measures. Questions were asked (not answered definitively, but it was thought likely) that Mayhew's work contributed to the establishment of the poor laws and to the state project which was the sanitarian movement. Mayhew represented the costermongers as a small tribal unit within the depersonalized city, a tribe with its own slang. He got his numbers from his informants; his estimates were not "scientifically" imposed from the top down.

Michelle closed her presentation by asking us to think of related cases today:

  • A Face on the Numbers, "a website intended to show what numbers (unemployment percentages, appropriations, program cuts or increases, tax cuts or increases) really mean and bring attention to what priorities ought to be met"
  • the arbitrariness of the poverty line (does the problem of poverty actually lessen if the line is lowered?)
  • orphan diseases (not attended to by pharmaceutical companies, because not suffered by many)
  • discussions generated in the Dean's Offices at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, after meetings with the colleges' registrars: should we keep better statistics? what relation do they have to particular cases? are the numbers large enough to be statistically significant? should deans measure their actions against those of other deans?

It was suggested, during discussion, that we are preoccupied with numbers because we don't have effective qualitative ways to speak about the collective good; we lack the vocabulary. The example was given of Eastern State Penitentary in Philadelphia: this was a panopticon, the focal point of a great debate about prison reform and the site of the gathering of many statistics. But it was not until Dickens conducted an interview with a prisoner about his life in this "heartless system" that the practice of separate confinement finally came to a halt. Telling an individual story was in this case, as in many more modern ones, a very powerful tool for political action. Iconic representations (of a whale trapped in the ice, for instance) often determine public action: photogenic visuals move educated people, who--entranced by the power of the image--are thrown off balance, become incapable of abstract reasoning. "When it bleeds it leads:" images have visceral effects. But people also respond to numbers, and doing so can be disastrous; weren't urban renewal projects the result of a quantitative expression of a problem, a singularity of analysis which qualitative experiences (of walking through those neighborhoods, for instance) might have altered? Numbers are in social science as in science a gesture toward the unadultered view from nowhere, but numbers taken out of context mislead us. The matter of kind is not the same thing as the matter of magnitude; visceral reaction is not relative to quantity.

If one is in touch with a culture, one will be able to assess the relative significance of single events. As our social groups got larger, as we found ourselves in increasingly larger assemblies lacking common experiences, we turned to numbers to tell us what was important. Numbers only became relevant when there was a degree of estrangement from a social group. The use of numbers increases according to the size of a community; they have a function that is relative to scale. The argument from numbers in the Bible (the examples from Genesis and Luke with which Michelle initiated this conversation) is a tribal one: in small groups, the collective good can be measured on the level of individuals. But as the size of our assemblages increased, a more federalist approach came to dominate, and it was thought that collective good could only be measured by magnitude. If we had better math education, would statistics always trump sentiment?

This conversation is invited to continue online and will pick up again next Monday, December 1, when Jan Trembley, Editor of the Alumnae Bulletin, will discuss "Measuring 'Success' and the Alumnae Bulletin.

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