Hard Facts for Hard Times: Social knowledge and social crisis in the nineteenth century
The social domain invades public consciousness in moments of crisis: accidents in mines, fires in factories, outbursts of epidemics aboard ships, sanitation calamities in slums, riots, strikes, and scandals. These crises entice opinion, elicit sentiment, and often prompt new legislation, a new bureaucracy, or, in the least, a new report. Social breakdowns in the new urban centers of the nineteenth century, for instance, generated calls for new forms of knowledge and, more narrowly, for a greater number of facts. Information-gatherers of all kinds, ranging from reporters and reformers to inspectors and government commissions, consequently went into action.
The contemporary critique of knowledge has emphasized the role of science—in the guise of medicine, engineering, or the nascent and as yet unprofessionalized and undifferentiated social sciences—in mapping and controlling the social terrain. Discursive cousins such as journalism and emerging “realist” literary genres have also received considerable scholarly attention. This essay proposes a different perspective, arguing that concrete historical events were just as important as ephemeral scientific “revolutions” or instantaneous “epistemic shifts” in shaping the history of knowledge. Employing examples from American and British history, the following discussion interrogates the relationship between crisis and facts. This is not only a means for asking how crises generated social knowledge, but also for understanding how knowledge itself instigated crises. How did the discovery of social “truths” prompt dismay, outrage, an acute sense of failure, and demands for intervention?
The long history of social inquiry is especially pertinent today, as the United States and the world grapple with a severe economical failure that has taken an enormous social toll. The contemporary public sphere is suffused, even saturated, with information. Government agencies, research institutions, and the media transmit facts and figures in “real time” without the cumbersome mechanisms of lengthy investigations or mammoth reports. And yet, while we produce and consume social knowledge in unprecedented fashion, we do not share a strong sense of the social.
What was the nature of the nineteenth century’s social problem, or crisis? The Communist Manifesto (1848) poeticized about the pulverizing effects of modern capitalism. In Marx and Engels’s formulation, the “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” Their famous metaphor is implausibly violent: “Everything that is solid turns into air.” But while Marx was fascinated with the creative, revolutionary aspects of capitalism, he too condemned the new system’s destructive force. Five years later, Charles Dickens, for instance, depicted the air of Coketown, the fictional modern industrial city in Hard Times (1853), as filled with ominous smoke. It is a hellacious place, a man-made jungle populated with mechanical elephants and serpentine smokestacks billowing their toxins and poisoning the public.
Nineteenth century social and economic knowledge at once functioned as an instrument of capitalism while also serving as a tool for minimizing capitalism’s most disturbing consequences, informing measures to alleviate social pain. Even more significantly, knowledge was persistently aggregated in order to address the very uncertainty woven into the fabric of modern life. Beyond the reams of facts—of maps, interviews, statistics, tables, illustrations, graphs, reports, of quantitative and qualitative information of both the hard and soft variety—the clamor to generate taxonomies of the social, to conceptualize social life by distinguishing between its various provinces and limbs and then hypothesizing about the interrelationships between these respective parts, was fueled by the promise of explanation and even predictability.
But while the countless localized crises that inspired social inquiries and sometimes reform legislation seem to exemplify the endemic instability of the industrial order, the relationship between such small-scale emergencies and the liquidity of the capitalist condition in general is more complex . Thus, for instance, particular crises often served to deflect attention from underlying sources of social strife and focused public attention on more manageable symptoms such as sanitary conditions, malfunctioning machines, and physical dangers, symptoms that the new technologies could also ameliorate.
The emerging knowledge/crisis nexus represented other aspects of the modern experience that reached beyond the specifics of industrialization. These were the rise of the liberal state and the elaboration of its other, that is, the public sphere. On the one hand, knowledge was ostensibly mustered to organize the social field, ultimately leading to expectations that society could be depoliticized and managed by objective, expertise-driven, information-laden policies that distanced themselves from the hurly-burly of emotion-driven public opinion. On the other hand, the accumulation and distribution of knowledge did not relieve anxieties. In fact, this only fueled contentious public exchanges, including an ongoing critique of the state and its actions. In this sense, knowledge and information were themselves intrinsically and consistently unstable, unruly, and hard to control.
The phenomenology of social knowledge is inseparable from the experience of crisis and from the interlacing of fact and affect, which became a hallmark of nineteenth century social inquiry. Urgent petitions, for instance, prodded the House of Commons to begin an investigation of the employment of chimneysweepers in 1802. A select committee then verified that little children were being stolen from their parents or enticed out of workhouses and then forced by the threat of sharp pins to climb up narrow, soot-filled chimneys. Another investigation of child labor, which led to the milestone Cotton Mill Act of 1819, coincided with a fire at Atkinson’s Mill, Colne Bridge, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in which seventeen girls perished. The victims were working the night shift, locked in the mill, while their overseer was busy elsewhere. The disaster stunned the British public. In the early 1830s, an intense Ten-Hours agitation in the industrial north prompted another parliamentary investigation. This movement had the character of an evangelical crusade led by several Tory sympathizers who instructed workers to “establish committees in every manufacturing town and village, to collect information and PUBLISH FACTS.” The House of Commons’ Sadler Committee consequently interviewed factory workers whose bodies were mangled and deformed by years of hard work with heavy machinery. When the committee proposed far-reaching legislation, the Whig-led cabinet countered with its own investigation. A royal commission of inquiry was instituted which sent agents to observe first hand the damage wrought by work to the health and the morality of young factory wage earners, leading to the Factory Act of 1833. Later in the decade, Poor Law Commissioner Edwin Chadwick headed another groundbreaking panel of investigation, the Sanitary Commission, in response to an outbreak of cholera in Whitechapel, London. Other examples of social investigation propelled or accelerated by a sense of public urgency abound. Official inquiries into the social ills of industrializing Britain were sometimes launched at the explicit request of distressed laborers—such as the handloom weavers and silk knitters in the 1830s—or, conversely, at the urging of employers asking the government to investigate.
By the middle decades of the century, such social investigations had become a defining feature of British political culture as well as a driving force of energetic American reform, especially in the Northeast. Animated by notions of scientific legislation, the British government dispatched commissioners and inspectors to factories and mines. Meanwhile, Parliament, as well as reform societies, philanthropists, and journalists amassed testimonies and statistical data on the condition of the impoverished. Their findings undergirded the great public debate over the nation’s social predicament, what Thomas Carlyle called the “condition of England” question. Cycles of legislation centralized poor relief and inaugurated state regulation of new industries by such means as the restriction of child and female labor and the imposition of safety and educational measures, all to be enforced by periodic inspections.
The United States had not yet experienced industrial revolution in such magnitude as Britain. Nevertheless, Boston, Philadelphia, and, especially, New York were to be counted among the fastest-growing urban centers in the world, consequently contending with tenement squalor, prostitution, crime, and abandoned children, which all became subjects of public curiosity, alarm, and the intensifying production of social knowledge that mobilized civic associations, individual reformers, and city and state governments. Thus, for example, the Pennsylvania Senate dispatched a committee in 1838 to visit the “manufacturing districts” of the commonwealth to survey the employment of children. New York’s Assembly examined the condition of tenements in New York and Brooklyn in 1857. Officials, doctors, and clergymen produced reports on the circumstances of paupers, foreign immigrants, orphans, and prisoners. In the 1850s, governments on both sides of the Atlantic began to investigate the conditions under which immigrants crossed the ocean. A Senate committee was formed “to consider the causes and the extent of the sickness and mortality prevailing on board the emigrant ships on the voyage to this country, and whether any, and what legislation is needed for the better protection of the health and lives of passengers on board such vessels.”
Traveling from one state capital to another in both North and South, the reformer Dorothea Dix, known as the “voice for the mad,” campaigned to establish asylums and hospitals for the “feeble minded.” Dix gave public testimonies to legislatures and formulated lengthy petitions that interlaced facts about the dire state of the insane poor with proposals to establish new institutions that would address the problem. In a memorial to her home state of Massachusetts Dix declared, “I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience.” For nineteenth-century reform entrepreneurs such as Dix, social knowledge was an essential element of advocacy. Their public campaigns were permeated with a sense of urgency embedded in the matter of hard-hitting facts.
Two immensely important efforts to produce information about distressed groups in the United States targeted subjects outside urban centers and the industrializing Northeast. Repeated attempts to collect social and ethnological data concerning indigenous peoples—for instance, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s enormous project sponsored by Congress in the 1850s on the Indian Tribes of America—were conducted under the specter of a permanent crisis: the Indian’s alleged inability—or, worse, refusal—to civilize, and the collateral prophesy of his impending demise as expressed in the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” Likewise, the antebellum dispute over slavery—and, in particular, the indefatigable endeavors by abolitionists to collect and disseminate material concerning the facts of slave life—constituted an enormous project of social investigation, and a rather innovative one at that. Barred from the South, abolitionists had to develop fresh tactics in order to garner information pertaining to circumstances south of the Mason-Dixon line. The use made of ads for runaway slaves by Theodore Weld and the Grimké sisters in order to indict their masters in Slavery As It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses (1839) was arguably the most ingenious empirical study of its kind to that date. In both these cases of indigenous peoples and the “peculiar institution,” the consequences of modernity were not so much put under investigation as was the alleged failure-of either Indians or slave masters—to modernize.
Reformers and government officials fixed their gaze on the social margins, on orphans, miners, poor wage earners, and racial others. The middle class was also susceptible to various forms of scrutiny, but investigation of the propertied segments of society followed distinctly different protocols. Thus, in the wake of the American economic crisis known as the Panic of 1837, financial institutions began to more carefully assess the credibility of prospective debtors, which included reports on their character and personal circumstances. The British government studied and then intervened in the manner by which factory owners managed their workforce. Some proprietors complained bitterly that their prerogatives as proprietors were being violated, but none had the misfortune of a philanthropist knocking on the door to inspect one’s dwelling and count how many persons were sleeping in a single bed. Only in the twentieth century-in the age of Gallup polls and other massive surveys—did social investigations bring middle America into focus and make the fictional “average citizen” a subject of study and comparison.
The Panic of 1837 and later economic crises provided consistent impetus to American reform. But the Civil War and its tumultuous aftermath marked a watershed in American perceptions of the social problem. Following the war, several states, again mainly in the Northeast, established boards of charity and public health, as well as bureaus of labor statistics. The American Social Science Association was founded in 1865. And the war itself was followed by one of the most ambitious social experiments in American history, Reconstruction. The history of that project to rebuild southern society was replete with congressional hearings and investigations.
The historical episodes heretofore sketched out point to an expansive notion of both social investigation and social crisis. The latter ranged from accidents and disease to destitution, war, abject physical environments, immoral behavior, mortality, and labor relations. Different emergencies entailed different strategies for collecting data. Investigations into workplace conflicts, for instance, variously featured court-like protocols, attempts to determine the facts-of-the-matter, and even whodunit elements. Major accidents further narrowed the difference between social investigation, scientific studies, and judicial procedures. For example, antebellum authorities launched inquests into those frequent steamboat disasters that claimed so many lives . In October 1844, three boilers of the Lucy Walker exploded near Albany, Indiana, on the Ohio River, sinking the vessel and killing more than a hundred passengers. The explosion of the Sultana, a Mississippi River paddleboat, in April 1865, caused the death of an estimated 1,800 persons. Explosions prompted early protective legislation in 1838 and 1852. The history of safety regulations and reform continued to be enmeshed with spectacular accidents, culminating on the eve of the First World War with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911) and the sinking of the Titanic (1912), two iconic calamities. In both cases, questions of technology, the value of human life, and, significantly, disparities issuing from labor and class were at issue.
Knowledge itself was in perpetual flux. Different disciplinary strategies competed for legitimacy. Discourse and facts were often contested. Governments, for instance, embraced the language of statistics, which came into vogue in the 1830s, inspiring the founding of new associations whose members collected statistical data among the poor in their spare time. For Dickens, by contrast, such statistical thinking dissolved stable, affective human ties. Vying for a fuller, more veracious representation of industrial society, his Hard Times attacked the heartless regime of aggregated facts that characterized utilitarian Britain. In his view, hard facts were at the core of hard times, not a remedy.
Confusion typified discussion over the proper way of measuring social phenomena. How, for instance, should factory workers be observed? There were few experts and little expertise for addressing the problems of large cities, factories, and mills, let alone slavery or the future of native peoples. Contests ensued among various poor-watchers, reformers, government officials, missionaries, Indian agents, prison wardens, and philanthropists, each group claiming better (that is, “disinterested”) access to knowledge. In Britain, the aggregation of facts concerning social life became a national pursuit. Nevertheless, the constant, nearly compulsive, thirst for more empirical evidence betrayed deep doubts about the usability of information and about the boundaries of what could actually be known.
Facts proved elusive and controversy-prone. The 1840 U.S. Census, for example, provoked public dispute when it purported to show that the percentage of “colored insane” increased the further north they resided (especially in Massachusetts and Maine), ostensibly proving that persons of African descent fared better under slavery than in freedom. This became yet another skirmish in the antebellum sectional debate in which slavery was increasingly being defended on scientific-racist grounds. In Britain, the publication of a royal commission of inquiry report on the employment of children in the mines in 1842 triggered a scandal, for the official document featured illustrations of half naked working boys and girls which violated basic norms of decency in public communication. At times, the investigation itself rather than the concluding report prompted opposition. Witnesses would refuse to testify, or they would engage in various other forms of resistance. The Iroquois in western New York refused to collaborate with a census conducted on their reservations in the 1840s because they suspected it would lead to their taxation. In the case of the early 1830s Factory Commission, members of the Short-Time movement followed government agents wherever they went and staged demonstrations against the inquiry which they feared would undermine their reform campaign.
The causal relationship between crisis and knowledge thus moved in both directions. Social surveys did not merely respond to alarm bells. Their purpose was often to bring social phenomena otherwise deemed latent or hidden to the surface of public consciousness. The social realm was conceived to be a subterranean stratum in need of exploration and the kind of shock and awe associated with acts of discovery. Crisis resided in the interface between social reality and public rhetoric and sentiment. Shaped by language, imagery, moral discourse, and politics, crisis was a discursively and affectively constructed cultural phenomenon as much as it was a reflection of concrete social events.
In the period prior to the advent of modern expert culture which developed late in the nineteenth century, citizens were expected to read and opine on social and other policy matters of the day. Several investigatory reports thus received a wide circulation and became popular reading material. The factual texture of public discourse also rested on a humanitarian sensibility and the responses it elicited to detailed descriptions of human suffering. Conversely, social (or racial) curiosity increased the public’s appetite for titillating, sometimes sexualized, narratives of destitution and transgression. The popularity of investigation, that is, also fed off the voyeuristic possibilities contained in the exposure of concealed and potentially dangerous worlds.
Facts did not always provoke such intense reactions. The opposite was also true. Numerous studies and surveys went largely unnoticed. Nevertheless, social knowledge as a whole was oriented toward public consumption. Reform culture in both countries created arenas specifically for the exchange of information and the consequent debates. These specialized spheres—or sometimes counter-publics, such as the abolitionist movement or labor unions—supported large systems for dispensing printed matter. Thus, for example, numerous battles over the competing prison systems in New York and Pennsylvania—the “separate” versus “silent” experimental methods of incarceration were carried out in the pages of annual reports published by penal reform associations such as the Boston Prison Discipline Society. America penal reform drew international attention and numerous foreign visitors, including Dickens. Neither experiment seems remotely acceptable today. The fierce debate was carried in the language of republican citizenship, the reforms being designed to rehabilitate wayward individuals and transform them into autonomous, self-disciplined subjects. But this exchange was far from inclusive. It rarely paid any attention to the inmates’ point of view, for instance. Indeed, the central place of factual matter in such debates privileged groups and institutions that could assume empirical authority over other participants. At the same time, facticity also made novel forms of contestation addressing the veracity and challenging the interpretations of fact collectors possible in the first place. The rules of public exchange rendered such discourse open to anyone with access to information, thus giving new participants an opportunity to enter the public stage. This was evident in the Short-Time Movement’s own efforts to collect facts. Similarly, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels employed the prolific fruits of British social research for purposes inimical to those of the institutions and individuals who had generated them, the British state and bourgeois reformers. The accumulation of social knowledge, in other words, while enhancing and reifying social distinctions, also contributed to the struggle to subvert the emerging class system.
While social knowledge is often studied through the optic of science (sociology, anthropology, and economics) or the contributions of famous social cartographers (Henry Mayhew, Jacob Riis, and Charles Booth), the nineteenth-century knowledge apparatus consisted of a mammoth record of increasingly bureaucratized information in which the state figured prominently. Together with special investigations responding to occasional exigencies, governments established permanent tools for measuring society. These included the ever-more detailed national census, statistical bureaus, or the annual reports submitted by governmental departments. Reform organizations also unleashed an immense volume of periodic literature to the reading public.
Like crises themselves, these studies and the publication of their findings constituted historical events. What’s more, they were highly cognizant of their own temporal nature. Social knowledge, therefore, comprised an archive already arranged as history—the history of economic crisis, for instance, or the history of reform legislation—or it was produced on a strict calendrical basis, issued in regular intervals and featuring the periodic findings of bureaucratic agencies and reform associations that also had a regular, cumulative effect. Large-scale social reports were often framed as mini-historiographies. These self-referential accounts alluded to prior strings of investigations, often couching the particular crisis under examination as a case history.
This archive could be mined to produce stories of progress that led, in the British Whiggish tradition, from one reform victory to another. At the same time, social knowledge as history alerted its readers to the recurrence of crises and the cycles of boom and bust characteristic of the modern marketplace. In the American historical imagination, the narrative is also often circular or looped, as reform is perceived as restoring fundamental American values. Moreover, the history of government growth and social legislation in the United States cannot easily conform to a linear plot.
In addition, records of social knowledge form the backbone of the history (and, arguably, the identity) of the state. Regardless of this or that specific policy, amassing evidence on the condition of the nation typifies the modern governing process. Crises allowed governments to interject themselves into the social scene. These moments cemented the bonding, or the mutual constitution, of state and society. Beyond the (sometimes doubtful) utility of specific studies, social reportage in general fulfilled other tasks, managing a public exchange in which government was only one actor, (and not always the most powerful), allowing weaker, disenfranchised populations some form of representation, and responding to the pressures of popular social movements. Social investigations opened for the British state a space of negotiations between itself and different segments of society. When Samuel H. G. Kydd (under the pseudonym Alfred) wrote The History of the Factory Movement in 1857 he largely focused on the interactions between the movement and investigatory proceedings and legislation, using parliamentary papers (“blue books”) as a primary source.
While society and knowledge were in perennial crisis, the public procedures devised to address emergencies remained relatively stable. Governments often responded to periods of endemic crises by engaging in a vigorous exploration of the nation, especially of vulnerable social groups. This was evident in nineteenth century Britain as well as in depression-stricken America of the 1930s. Indeed, the New Deal was a watershed in reinforcing the affinity between the federal government and ordinary citizens. The rituals of social investigations may thus help us understand the process through which the modern state became a receptacle for ordinary people’s expectations of social remedy. This development cannot be taken for granted since governments typically served the interests of commerce and industrial capital. But beyond this or that policy or piece of legislation, the practices of social inquiry and the circulation of information allowed the Victorian state to develop the means to communicate with its subjects and to acknowledge them as citizens.
The archive of social knowledge also testifies to the long, somewhat convoluted history of liberalism. The formative inquiry carried out in Britain in the 1830s—the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Poor Laws—epitomized the ascent of classical liberal thought to power. The New Poor Law that followed the Inquiry in 1834 replaced an older, more generous public relief system with parsimonious arrangements based on Jeremy Bentham’s principle of “less eligibility,” employing the workhouse as a whip to funnel paupers into the workforce. Nevertheless, the administration of the Victorian poor laws was taken away from local parishes and centralized under state supervision. Half a century and numerous reforms later, a shift became apparent in Britain and the United States (and elsewhere too) from orthodox laissez-faire to “new liberalism” or “social liberalism.” Emergent ideas about the interventionist role of government in society and the economy gave birth to increasingly professionalized and scientific forms of social investigation. By the middle of the twentieth century, with Labour’s “democratic socialism” in the United Kingdom and a “modern liberal” Fair Deal consensus in the United States, both countries were busy building welfare states.
What, then, is the status of the crisis/knowledge nexus today, especially in light of an ascendant neo-liberalism that criticizes the earlier notions of social justice and obligation? Crisis continues to be capitalism’s mode of operation. According to Naomi Klein’s recent “disaster capitalism” argument, emergencies around the globe, including natural catastrophes, are now used to impose radical free-market policies. As for knowledge, government- and business-produced information is omnipresent and effortlessly accessible. Expert culture is thriving. The popular media pepper this flow of official data with “human interest” accounts of individual plight or of difficulties suffered by entire communities. This blend of hard and soft “news” is certainly reminiscent of an older culture of the social fact. But it is to be distinguished from those precedents by the absence of a public sphere willing to address the social, a strong public wishing to discover society, and social movements speaking for the disaffected. The only grass root organization to emerge so far from the current crisis reenacts a different moment in the American past, the Boston Tea Party, and partakes in the grand old effort to ignore society and downgrade the state.
Admittedly, the social has also been subject to attacks from the Left, especially its academic wing, cast as a domain of modern technologies of power deployed by the state and the middle class to mold populations in their own image, or to simply discipline the masses. The nineteenth century preoccupation with knowing society was indeed motivated, at least in part, by the ambition to domesticate the lower classes and alien populations. Nevertheless, the public rituals of social investigation and the reading materials they generated also buttressed notions of social affinity, solidarity, and collective responsibility-all rather diminished today.
For a classical analysis of the modern state and its relationship to capitalism and society, see Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York, 1944). On nineteenth century statistical imagination, see Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago, 1998), chap. 7; Theodore M. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (Princeton, 1986); Ian Hacking,The Taming of Chance (Cambridge, 1990). On new liberalism and social investigation, see The State and Social Investigation, ed. Michael J. Lacey and Mary O. Furner (Washington, D.C., 1993). For an account of the rise of sociology to replace disrupted social ties, see Bruce Mazlish, A New Science: The Breakdown of Connections and the Birth of Sociology (New York, 1989). Also see Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain, 1840-1914 ed. David Englander and Rosemary O’Day (London, 1995); Robert C. Davis, “Social Research in America Before the Civil War,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Science, 8 (1972). James Vernon’s Hunger: A Modern History (Cambridge, 2007) follows the changing relationship between the British state and its subjects through the process that redefined malnutrition and the combat to eliminate it. On the establishment of boards of charities, public health, and labor statistics in American states after the Civil War, see William R. Brock, Investigation and Responsibility: Public Responsibility in the United States, 1865-1990 (Cambridge, 1984). On the U.S. Census, see Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History (New Haven, 1988). For neo-liberalism and crisis, see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York, 2007). On descriptions of bodies in pain and the humanitarian sensibility, see Thomas W. Laqueur, “Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley, 1989), 176-204. For Dorothea Dix’s reform crusades, see David L. Gollaher, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York, 1995).
This article originally appeared in issue 10.3 (April, 2010).
Oz Frankel is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Committee on Historical Studies, New School for Social Research. He is the author of States of Inquiry: Social Investigation and Print Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain and the United States (2006).