Quantitative History — History by the Numbers?


“Very little effort has actually been given to the importance of numbers in making historical determinations. If the numbers were given their proper place, it is likely that there are many stories that would be changed for the better.” — Kent Allen Halliburton

When discussing history, it is important to include a discussion on the use of Quantitative Methods in making factual determinations. An article written by Robert William Fogel in 1974, discusses the usefulness of quantitative methods. Additional articles written in the late 1990s by Reynolds and Wetherell are analyses of the status of quantitative methods by that period, and Time on the Cross, also published in 1974, is an example of quantitative methods put into practice in a work of history. Fogel, in his article, opens with the question, “Should quantitative methods be used in history?” He then responds that the question really should not even need to be asked, in the first place, because historians have to use quantitative methods on a regular basis to answer some of the most important questions that face them. Reynolds and Wetherell, in their articles, both point out the noticeable decline in the use of quantitative methods and both express concern about the decline, as well as, stating that something needs to be done about it. Fogel and Engerman, of course, base Time on the Cross, entirely on quantitative methods. Fogel, Reynolds, and Wetherell are all very much correct; quantitative methods are essential to the study of history, and it is not a good thing that the current trend is moving away from their use.

How can a historian write the history of anything if they have no numbers to back up what they are saying? One can only imagine reading a history, fifty years from now, of the 2000 election. Consider that the author may take the position that Bush did not actually win the election and that Gore should have been elected the 43rd President. What types of evidence is the author going to use? Looking at the opinions of others will only get the author so far. Unless the author has some solid quantitative evidence, their claims will be nothing more than claims. This person will need to spend many hours reevaluating voting records. How many people were unjustly disenfranchised, and if they had not been, based on their demographics, who would they have voted for? They will also need to determine the number of votes that each candidate would have gotten from the many absentee ballots that were never counted. If their numbers were then to show that Gore would actually have won, their statement would then be justified, and historians would be less able to dispute the statement.

Fogel and Engerman, in Time on the Cross, use quantitative methods to analyze a great many of the assumptions about slavery that have gone unchallenged for years. The overriding assumption that they address is that slavery, as an economic process, was grossly inefficient, and that by the beginning of the Civil War, it was already at the point that if given time, it would have collapsed on its own. Some of the other assumptions that they address within this greater topic are that slaves were generally malnourished, mistreated, and incapable of any success, whatsoever, in a system that exploited their labor, solely, so that their masters could retain a lifestyle that they had grown accustomed to. Through the use of quantitative methods, Fogel and Engerman argue that each of these assumptions are false. They argue that the numbers were misunderstood and that people based arguments on observations that were not made properly. With their numbers, they argue that, in fact, slavery was at a high point just before the Civil War and that slaves were actually fairly well fed, generally well treated, and very much capable of success in a system that was designed to hold them down.

Time on the Cross was a very controversial book when it first came out. It took established assumptions about an economic system that many people are ashamed of, and seemingly, to many people, stated, “You know, it really was not that bad.” They felt like Fogel and Engerman were trying to sell slavery. This is not the case. What they were really trying to do was to confirm or deny assumptions that made an entire race of people seem infantile and completely incapable of intelligent thought. What their numbers told them, however, was that this group of people was forced into a situation that subjugated them and compelled them to service the needs of others at the expense of their own, and that despite this, they managed to make the best of what they had and did so, in many cases, in many exceptional ways. Later, they admitted that some of their numbers needed some adjustment, and that they, in an attempt to stick to those numbers, may have come across as unemotional, in relation to the suffering of an entire people. This, also, was not the case; they were simply showing that quantitative methods could and should be used in the study of history because they help historians get down to the real truth of the issues.

Since the writing of Time on the Cross, as Reynolds and Wetherell point out, the use of quantitative methods in historical studies appears to have declined significantly. This is shown by the fact that fewer and fewer articles using quantitative methods are appearing in professional journals, such as the American Historical Review, which suggests to them that less research is being done in that area. The fact that fewer books that use quantitative methods are being published is also a sign. They point to a couple of reasons for this. First, in the late ’70s and early ’80s undergraduate mathematics requirements were relaxed and second; few graduate programs in history have courses that train students in the use of statistics. What this means is that fewer graduate students have the pre-requisites for advanced statistical training and then are not required to get the training once they are in graduate school.

These are good explanations for why less work is being done using quantitative methods. However, there are a couple other possible reasons. The first is readability. Numbers are important, but how many people enjoy reading a text in which they are constantly required to interrupt their flow because of a table, or graph, or a reference to an appendix. Such things are fine for professionals, but general readers are turned off by such things, and the market reality is that the general public is less likely to buy a book that is replete with tables, graphs, and appendices. Another reason for the decline in the use of quantitative methods may be an emotional one. Perhaps, people are uncomfortable with the idea that many of the things that they consider to be undeniable facts are actually in question. Perhaps, they want to retain their stories, despite the fact that they may be false, because those stories are a part of a reality that makes up who they are, and they do not want to lose that. They do not want to face numbers that will possibly undo their reality.