Who’s Afraid of Quantification?

When I decided to become a history major, the counsellor/advisor at my undergraduate university looked at my transcript to date and said “You should go into quantitative or maybe architectural history.” I admit, with courses in an accelerated calculus sequence, a joint grad/undergrad course in statistical analysis and classes in optical mineralogy, mechanical engineering and what have you, that might have seemed like a good fit. But the aspects of history that interested me most weren’t in statistics or buildings. Even then, I was interested in texts and politics, personal or national.

That said, I still love to play with numbers and technology. I used databases while I was in grad school in the late eighties to do everything from manage conference registrations to a meeting of the RSA our institution hosted right through tracking all the Henrician texts I reviewed for possible use in my thesis. I’ve recently returned to topics for which statistics makes sense, working with some data drawn from The Old Bailey Online and London Lives. Every few years, I teach a unit combining statistical analysis and the history of crime in Britain since 1600 to our sophomore majors.

Some of them are afraid of numbers. The overlap between people who choose to be history majors and people who feel they’re mildly innumerate is large. Many of them are also students in the B.Ed. program where they have to take an introductory statistics course. Many of them still bear the scars of that course (which, by itself isn’t a bad course, but it has to try to be all things to all people and, when you have a decent percentage of math-phobes, that’s daunting).

Few of my colleagues here in Laurentian’s history program are deeply into quantitative history, at least that’s my impression. (I could be wrong: correct me, please!) But recent discussion in the department has started us thinking about quantification. I’m dusting off my old notes and pulling down my copy of Making History Count, not that I have a lot of time to explore anything unrelated to marking and my next chapter project at the moment but I’m pretty sure this summer’s research plan is going to require me to do some quantification and I want to re-engage those old brain cells appropriately.

Wish me luck!



Filed under academe, history

5 responses to “Who’s Afraid of Quantification?

  1. Mike

    Good luck, luv.