European History Quarterly
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The International Statistical
Knowledge Transfers and
Maastricht University, the Netherlands
Between 1853 and 1876 nine international statistical congresses were held in different
European cities. The aim of the congresses was to bring about uniformity in the themes
and methods of national statistics. However, this goal could not be attained overnight.
Much of the failure to bring about rapid change was due to the difficulties in realizing
effective knowledge transfers, that is, effective communication, in an age that was not
quite ready for truly international activities. It has been shown that the second half of
the nineteenth century was a period of numerous experiments in internationalism, but
at the same time rampant nationalism nipped many initiatives in the bud. Increasing
nationalism, however, is not the only explanation for the collapse of the international
statistical congress. The implicit faith in the possibility of a neutral science of statistics
also created huge difficulties. Realizing statistical uniformity presupposed that the under-
lying facts and figures were comparable. This uniformity was far removed from the
rapidly changing administrative reality in nineteenth-century Europe.
Congresses, statistics, transfer history
Between 1853 and 1876 nine international statistical congresses were held in dif-
ferent European capitals.
The aim of the congresses was to bring about uniformity
in the themes and methods of national statistics. Altogether, the nine congresses
brought together more than 5000 participants, mostly from European countries
but, particularly towards the end, also from the Americas, Northern Africa and
The congress was a real hub of knowledge, with a huge transfer potential.
Nico Randeraad, Maastricht University, the Netherlands
It would be overly simplistic to assume that the international statistical con-
gresses were a straightforward success. To begin with, no more congresses were
held after 1876, though the participants still harboured hopes of continuation.
More importantly, by then it was clear that the aspirations of the early congresses
had been too high. International uniformity in statistics was evidently not a goal
that could be reached overnight. Much of this failure to bring about rapid change
can be explained by the diﬃculties in realizing eﬀective knowledge transfers, in
other words eﬀective communication, in an age that was not fully prepared for
truly international activities. It has been shown that the second half of the nine-
teenth century was a period of numerous experiments in internationalism, but at
the same time rampant nationalism nipped many initiatives in the bud.
and German statisticians and political economists, for example, were continually
quarrelling about population ﬁgures. The French were anxious to prove that the
size of their population was not dangerously decreasing, whereas the Germans
proudly presented statistical laws demonstrating their nation’s vigour, which man-
ifested itself in rapid population growth.
Increasing nationalism, however, is not
the only explanation for the collapse of the international statistical congress. The
implicit faith in the possibility of a neutral science also created huge diﬃculties.
Realizing statistical uniformity presupposed a comparability of the underlying facts
and numbers that was far removed from the rapidly changing administrative reality
in nineteenth-century Europe. Moreover, despite the communication revolution of
the nineteenth century, the ability of governments and other actors to share knowl-
edge advances in the ﬁeld of statistics was limited. By highlighting diﬀerent stages
of (attempted) knowledge transfer by means of the international statistical con-
gress, I hope to demonstrate that close cooperation and uniformity were anything
Transfers and Exchanges
The study of transfers and exchanges is currently very much in vogue. In many
ways, this is a sign of the times. Today’s buzz words, such as globalization,
mobility, networks and hubs, typically refer to connections and interchanges in a
24/7 world. Nothing is ﬁxed anymore, panta rhei. This situation is reﬂected in
historiography too. Rigidly national histories are becoming scarce. Interest in
comparative history (comparing two or more distinct cases, often at the level of
nation-states) seems to have faded and been replaced by ‘relational’ perspectives.
Whether this approach is entirely novel is open to dispute. It could be argued that
many historians of art, music and literature, but also of science and technology,
have long employed what has recently been proposed as a new approach in political
and cultural history. Arguments about the novelty of the approach aside, there are
many areas in which transnational perspectives can produce new insights.
‘Transfer’ is understood here as the migration of information, expertise and
knowledge from one environment to another, whereas ‘exchange’ plainly refers
to the act of giving something (i.e. elements of knowledge) in return for something
Michel Espagne has made good use of the concept of cultural transfer, in
particular in the framework of Franco-German relations.
Other historians have
opened up the study of transfers and connections to extra-European contexts,
introducing related concepts such as connected, shared and entangled history.
A promising new avenue in historical methodology has been opened up by
Michael Werner and Be
´dicte Zimmermann, who coined the expression ‘histoire
´e’ to resolve the apparent contradiction between comparative and transfer
To some extent, the aforementioned approaches of comparison and transfer go
hand in hand, particularly when applied to geographically close regions where
there are existing political and economic relationships. As Donald Sassoon inad-
vertently showed, the history of socialism in Western Europe is at once a history of
comparable political parties, a history of cultural transfer and a history of multiple
crossroads in the development of a political concept.
Similarly, but more explic-
itly joining the discussion on knowledge transfer, Pierre-Yves Saunier assembled a
series of contributions on the linkages binding together municipalities, often geo-
graphically far apart, in their quest to improve local government.
In a similar
vein, I edited a volume on the spread of administrative knowledge of cities since the
early modern period.
Following the same line, Wolfram Kaiser’s analysis of the
spread of free trade in the decade after the Great Exhibition (1851) can be read as
an accumulation of various transnational approaches.
Curiously enough, there is
often an inherently optimistic undercurrent in the transfer literature. It is as if the
discovery of the transfer channel is proof of its functionality. This article adopts a
more critical approach by focusing on the adaptation, selection and disruption of
knowledge during transfer processes. The migration of knowledge is no less con-
ﬂict-ridden than the migration of people.
Hartmut Kaelble, a renowned comparativist, recently joined the discussion sur-
rounding the checks and balances of transnational approaches. He views ‘histoire
´e’ as a combination of comparative and transfer history. According to
Kaelble, histoire croise
´egoes beyond the predominantly bilateral design of both
comparative and transfer studies but at the same time is critical of portraying
transnational milieus as if they have a life of their own. Instead, it focuses upon
constantly changing perspectives on the phenomena under investigation as they
move from one context to another. He also notes that the number of case studies is
still rather small, and that we should not forget to carry out empirical research
before embarking on theoretical discussions. Methodologically, he continues, it is
necessary to be precise in one’s use of concepts. Would it not be better, he asks
(perhaps rhetorically), to start from a kind of hierarchy in approaches stemming
from transnationality, transfer history and entangled history?
There is a danger in many of the relational approaches sketched out above of
concentrating solely on the mechanics of exchange and the channels of transfer,
thereby losing sight of the content of the knowledge transferred and the eﬀective-
ness of knowledge dissemination. Transfer cannot be detached completely from
content and results. I would therefore like to focus on one area of knowledge
52 European History Quarterly 41(1)
(statistics), and on the political, cultural and institutional factors that fostered or
impeded knowledge transfer in this area. Following Kaelble’s line of reasoning,
I aim to disentangle a typically ‘entangled’ topic, that is, the burgeoning interna-
tional scientiﬁc congresses of the second half of the nineteenth century, paying
particular attention to the international statistical congress.
Transfer and exchange are essentially forms of communication. Communication,
in short, is the process of exchanging information. Basic communication theory
distinguishes between three stages of communication: encoding; transmitting; and
decoding messages. In other words, a message is drawn up, sent and received.
All three stages impact on the content of the message, and disturb the communica-
tion. Moreover, the communication process rarely stops after one message, but is
followed, traversed and thwarted by numerous other exchanges, creating a complex
web of information streams. In order to analyse this web, one does not have to start
from an advanced state of data ﬂows. It suﬃces to begin at an elementary level. The
consequences for the understanding of a more complex web are then easy to grasp.
I will attempt to apply the model of a simple communication process to the
international statistical congresses.
In the three sections that follow I will discuss:
(1) the sources of statistical knowledge (encoding); (2) the transfer arena (trans-
mitting); and (3) the reception and further use of transnational knowledge
(decoding and re-encoding).
The Sources of Statistical Knowledge
The ﬁrst stage of communication involves preparing the message. Statistics seemed
to have a distinct advantage in this respect. In the course of the ﬁrst half of the
nineteenth century most European states had established some sort of national
statistical service. The institutional form of the statistical services diﬀered from
state to state, but there was a common, albeit rudimentary, understanding of the
use of statistics for measuring the economic and social potential of the nation.
During the ﬁrst World’s Fair, the Great Exhibition of London which was held in
1851, the Belgian astronomer and statistician Adolphe Quetelet, supported by his
countryman Auguste Visschers and a small circle of experts from various countries
in Europe, developed the idea of an international congress on statistics. Due to
Napoleon III’s coup in December 1851 and international troubles concerning
Schleswig-Holstein in 1852, the ﬁrst congress was eventually held in September
1853, in Brussels.
This was not Quetelet’s ﬁrst scientiﬁc conference, or even his ﬁrst international
congress. Nevertheless, in the early 1850s the phenomenon of international con-
gresses was relatively new. It is debatable whether its predecessors, such as the
Deutsche Naturforscher Versammlung (since 1822), the British Association for
the Advancement of Science (since 1831) and the Congressi degli Scienziati
Italiani (since 1839), were national or international gatherings.
some of them brought together representatives from diﬀerent states, but it has been
convincingly shown that their primary purpose was to further the national cause by
consolidating a national science.
In any case, Quetelet had been a guest at more
than one, and not just as an observer. During one of his visits to London (in 1834)
he helped to establish the Statistical Society. Moreover, immediately before the
international statistical congress he organized a meteorological congress, also in
Brussels. Quetelet saw a direct link between the two. The statistical congress, he
said, aimed at studying ‘in another context, the ﬂuctuations, movements and obsta-
cles in modern societies’.
Other international congresses held in those years
addressed speciﬁc threats to bourgeois society. Notably, the ﬁrst sanitary congress,
held in Paris in 1851, was convened to address the danger of cholera epidemics, and
the ﬁrst congress on demography and public hygiene was held in Brussels in 1852.
It is safe to say that the statistical congresses forged links between the various
international scientiﬁc initiatives of the early 1850s, mainly because statistics was a
broad and ﬂuctuating concept and much more than the auxiliary science it is today.
To a certain extent it was equated with ‘good administration’, a connotation it had
acquired in the Revolutionary-Napoleonic period around 1800. Around the mid-
century statistics embodied the hope of discovering the ‘laws of society’ and
improving the moral and material standard of living. Quetelet’s work, in particular
his Sur l’homme et le de
´veloppement des ses faculte
´s, ou Essai de physique sociale
(Brussels 1835), had encouraged this widespread conviction. In this book he intro-
duced the idea of the ‘average man’. He believed that measuring a person’s moral
and physical abilities would show large or small deviations from the arithmetic
mean. According to Quetelet, the ﬂuctuations around the mean followed general
laws. Physical and mental qualities, such as height and girth, but also the predis-
position towards crime, could be classiﬁed along the Gaussian curve. These tanta-
lizing ideas had already been travelling around Europe and America well before the
congress was ﬁrst organized. The predictable pattern of all systematic observations
greatly contributed to the belief that human society could be controlled and man-
aged. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most popular objects of statistical
study were directly or indirectly connected to social reform.
Crime, poverty, dis-
ease, prostitution and – more generally – issues related to the composition and
development of the population were favourite topics, but they certainly did not
exhaust the possibilities. Everything that could be counted was a potential target
for the statisticians of the nineteenth century. Hence, among the topics discussed
during the congresses we encounter cities, lighthouses, wine, ﬁsheries, works of art,
books, Esperanto, cultural institutions, the Red Cross and many more.
The indistinct boundaries of statistics were an ambivalent factor in the devel-
opment of the international congresses. On the one hand, they attracted many
participants, on average more than 500 at each gathering, all with a diﬀerent
interest in the matter; on the other hand, this sometimes led to a Babel-like con-
fusion surrounding the purpose of the congresses. In 1869, at the seventh congress,
not for the ﬁrst time, the inner circle of those present discussed the true nature of
statistics. The Dutch representative Simon Vissering proposed making a clear dis-
tinction between the historical school and the mathematical school, implying that
the ﬁrst had become somewhat obsolete. The Belgian, Xavier Heuschling, strongly
54 European History Quarterly 41(1)
opposed this notion, and gave preference to the historical school, which he iden-
tiﬁed with the activities of statesmen and oﬃcials, that is with public administra-
tion, whereas he assigned the mathematical school to the austere world of
academia. His maıˆtre Quetelet immediately intervened by stating clearly that he
did not want to hear about divisions, and that science and administration were
interdependent. Another authoritative statistician, the German, Ernst Engel, head
of the Prussian statistical oﬃce, agreed with Quetelet, and noted that he had assem-
bled 180 deﬁnitions of statistics from textbooks and periodicals.
He argued that it
was unnecessary and undesirable to make a priori choices.
It is quite remarkable that at the seventh congress there was still no real con-
sensus about what its subject matter essentially was. Admittedly, statistics was not
very diﬀerent from other disciplines in this respect. The boundaries of scientiﬁc
disciplines were elastic. Scientiﬁc congresses could be dedicated to a whole range of
interests, such as ‘demography and public hygiene’, or ‘geographical, cosmograph-
ical and commercial sciences’. The same supporters of social reform could be found
at diﬀerent congresses. Marie Matthieu von Baumhauer, head of the Dutch bureau
of statistics, for example, had been active in the movement for prison reform, and
had attended its ﬁrst international conference held in Frankfurt in 1846.
Moreover, successive congresses hardly ever followed the requirements of a speciﬁc
science at a particular moment in time.
Who, then, determined the agenda of a speciﬁc session? In the case of the statis-
tical congresses, the next venue was decided during the last plenary session of each
congress, whereas the organizing country was responsible for setting the agenda.
This procedure was maintained throughout the period that the international statis-
tical congresses were held. The ﬁrst congress, held in Brussels, was organized by a
subcommission of the Belgian Central Commission of Statistics, chaired by Quetelet,
who had taken the initiative to convene the meeting. Usually, the preparatory com-
missions consulted the heads of the national statistical bureaus or similar bodies, and
other prominent statisticians who had regularly participated in earlier meetings.
Some topics recurred at each conference, such as population statistics (in particular
the censuses) and the organization of statistics at national and international level.
However, the organizing countries invariably added speciﬁc themes to the agenda.
The Belgian commission, for example, probably following the express wish of
Auguste Visschers, wanted to pay particular attention to the statistics of workers’
budgets. Visschers was a member of the Belgian Mining Council, had been active in
the ﬁrst investigations into women and child labour, and was fairly familiar with the
burgeoning interest in this topic in Britain. He had already discussed the question of
working-class housing at the Congress on Public Hygiene held in 1851–52. In his
proposal to the statistical congress he explicitly referred to the work of Joseph
Fletcher for the Statistical Society of London. Due to its obvious political nature
this topic was dropped after the Brussels congress, only to reappear in the form of a
discussion about mutual funds at the Berlin congress.
Other organizing countries also managed to insert speciﬁc national interests into
the agenda. Vienna set great store by ‘ethnographical’ statistics, a branch of
population statistics that suited the needs of the Habsburg Vielvo
larly well. The director of the Habsburg statistical service, Karl von Czoernig, born
in Bohemia and stationed in the imperial bureaucracy of Trieste and Milan
between 1828 and 1841, believed strongly in the viability of a multi-national
state. In 1857, the year that the international statistical congress was held in
Vienna, he published the second part of his Ethnographie der o
Monarchie, a eulogy of the Austrian reforms implemented after 1848. The book
was accompanied by an unprecedentedly detailed map of the Austrian empire,
based on the census of 1851. It showed all administrative units and all ethnic
and language groups within the borders of the Habsburg Empire in diﬀerent col-
ours and was a work of art that had demanded the utmost of the printer. The
purpose of the map, however, was not to show oﬀ the ﬁne quality of Austrian
printing, but rather to highlight the sheer impossibility and illusion of creating a
state or states on the basis of nationalistic aspirations.
The London congress of 1860 was imbued with the spirit of the sanitary move-
ment that had gradually taken possession of reform-minded Britain since the 1830s.
At the congress, William Farr and Edwin Chadwick were the main spokesmen of
the public health movement. The driving force, however, was Florence Nightingale,
who – though she did not attend the sessions – played an inﬂuential role behind the
scenes. She gathered the leading statisticians of diﬀerent countries at her house in
order to cement peace in Europe.
She was deeply moved by her encounter with
Quetelet, with whom she continued to correspond. A copy of Quetelet’s
Sur l’homme with numerous comments in the margins added by Nightingale
shows the strong inﬂuence of the Belgian savant on his British friend. She presented
a general scheme for hospital statistics to the congress, which the participants
discussed, approved and praised.
In similar ways Germany put social insurance and ‘social self-help’ on the
agenda, Italy came up with municipal statistics and wanted to keep count of arts
and culture, the Netherlands paid particular attention to colonial statistics, Russia
had particular wishes with regard to the census and Hungary promoted investiga-
tions into domestic industry. These special, sometimes patriotically inspired, topics
were even harder to internationalize than the more recurrent themes of the statis-
tical congresses. Participants either showed no real interest in these issues or
denounced their political background.
The second stage of the communication process is transmission. The traditional
means of passing on knowledge across borders, tested and improved by artistic and
intellectual elites over the centuries, were visits to masters of a certain art or science,
study trips to other countries (‘le grand tour’), universities and academies, and
communication through international correspondents, letters, books and periodi-
cals. Knowledge continued to travel in these ways, and at an increasing pace as the
European railway network expanded. As late as 1890, a young Italian professor of
56 European History Quarterly 41(1)
statistics was still following the classic model. While a member of the Italian del-
egation to the international conference on the regulation of labour conditions held
in Berlin, Giuseppe Majorana, recently installed at the University of Messina,
presented himself to leading intellectuals in his ﬁeld with introductory letters writ-
ten by his father Salvatore Majorana Calatabiano, a former minister of agriculture,
industry and trade. In Berlin, Majorana visited Gustav Schmoller and Adolph
Wagner. Continuing his journey he went on to see Maurice Block, Gustave de
´ric Passy and E
´mile Levasseur in Paris. They exchanged books,
scientiﬁc opinions and worldviews, in much the same way as their intellectual
ancestors had done for centuries.
The beginning of Quetelet’s career is also a marvellous example of an ‘enlight-
ened’ transnational apprenticeship. After completing his studies in his native
Ghent, he continued his academic education in Paris with Laplace and Fourier.
He visited many internationally renowned scholars, such as Schumacher and
Olbers (both astronomers), Encke and Poggendorﬀ (physicists), the composer
Mendelssohn and of course Goethe in 1829. He started exchanging letters
with many prominent savants,
circulating his articles among well-known scho-
lars, and co-founding, with Jean Guilaume Garnier, a scientiﬁc journal called
´matique et physique which aimed to connect all practi-
tioners of the quantitative sciences. He also used the journal to maintain a
public correspondence with the French physician Louis Villerme
and mortality rates, and about the extent to which these rates were convertible
to social laws.
Quetelet must have understood, however, that individual visits and scientiﬁc
correspondence would not suﬃce to bring progress and uniformity in Europe in
his lifetime. Following preliminary ideas developed by Condorcet, he started to
devote his energies to trying to assemble scholars of diﬀerent backgrounds and
nationalities at scientiﬁc gatherings.
Quetelet was surely not the ﬁrst to experi-
ment with this format, but by the mid-nineteenth century he had suﬃcient experi-
ence and status to act as ‘ﬁrst among equals’ in diﬀerent environments. Moreover,
he was Belgian. In the decades after its secession from the Kingdom of the
Netherlands, Belgium had become a centre of ‘free trade’ in technology and scien-
tiﬁc knowledge. Though much smaller than Paris, Brussels competed with the
French capital as a centre of academic excellence.
The relatively new format of knowledge transfer – the international scientiﬁc
congress – would become hugely successful in the second half of the nineteenth
century. The number of sessions increased from 26 in the 1850s to 1351 in the ﬁrst
decade of the twentieth century. Initially, however, it was far from evident how an
international scientiﬁc congress should be organized. The statistical congress, apart
from being one of the ﬁrst truly international congresses, had the additional prob-
lem that it encompassed the ﬁelds of both science and politics. As noted above, by
the mid-nineteenth century most European states had a statistical oﬃce, usually
attached to one of the government ministries. Quetelet and his co-organizers made
sure that they had invited the oﬃcials who were in charge of those administrative
bodies, although it remained unclear to what extent these oﬃcials actually enjoyed
a special status at the congresses.
The organization of the congress itself was an item on each agenda of the con-
secutive gatherings. The thorniest issue was perhaps the choice of language. During
the ﬁrst two congresses, held in Brussels and Paris, the question went unanswered
since the language of government in both host countries was French. But during
the subsequent congresses, held in countries where French was at best the second
language, the organizers insisted that participants be allowed to speak the ﬁrst
language of the host country, since the vast majority of participants invariably
came from the organizing country. Hence, despite the general assumption of mas-
tery of French among the elites, the accentuation of national languages at inter-
national gatherings was readily accepted. After another dispute about language at
the last congress, held in Budapest in 1876, the Italian representative Cesare
Correnti tried to settle the matter by addressing the audience in Latin. Frustra.
The followers of Quetelet strongly believed in the idea that numbers were self-
evident, and laws would emerge automatically from systematically collected data.
However, they had to acknowledge that in order to collect useful numbers it was
necessary to achieve uniformity in the organization of statistics, starting with the
way the congress itself was structured. The idea was that it would evolve from a
loose gathering of savants taking non-binding decisions to an eﬃcient and author-
itative supranational agent of statistical research. The inner circle of oﬃcial dele-
gates, that is, the participants who were being paid by their governments to attend
the congresses, tried to extricate itself from the congress, and began to organize
separate gatherings. A formal ‘pre-congress’ of oﬃcial delegates was introduced in
the run up to the ﬁfth congress in Berlin; at the eighth congress in St Petersburg in
1872, there was much discussion as to whether a ‘post-congress’ should be held as
well. At the same congress the active Russian head of statistics, Petr Petrovich
Semenov, tried hard to get a ‘permanent commission’ oﬀ the ground, an issue
that had been raised at the Berlin congress in 1863. To some extent the arguments
that were exchanged were comparable to the debates about European integration
after the Second World War. Most oﬃcials were in favour of an international
permanent commission for statistics, but discovered that it was exceptionally dif-
ﬁcult to decide how many members the commission should have, who would get a
seat on the commission, who would preside, how many meetings should be
planned, how the agenda should be set, and so on. A permanent commission did
meet on several occasions between 1873 and 1878, but in diﬀerent compositions
and with diﬀerent agendas. It was probably Otto von Bismarck himself who even-
tually pulled the plug, forbidding Prussian statisticians from participating after
1878, thereby ending the era of the international statistical congresses.
As a channel of knowledge transfer, the international statistical conference was
certainly a new phenomenon in the second half of the nineteenth century. However,
as the example of the international statistical congress has shown, this format was
by no means a guarantee that the broader goals of such gatherings would be
attained. How to organize an eﬀective congress continued to puzzle the scientiﬁc
58 European History Quarterly 41(1)
community. Moreover, the congress could easily become a forum for competition
and national suspicion. Evidence from other congresses conﬁrms this conclusion.
The creation of an international coinage – a subject that had its own international
congress but was also discussed during the statistical congresses – stirred a lot of
enthusiasm in the 1860s, but was abandoned in the 1870s, when currency develop-
ment became a top priority of nation-building.
The international sanitary con-
gresses on cholera, as Valeska Huber has eﬀectively shown, ‘were spaces where
distinctions and boundaries between professional and national cultures were
deﬁned and European feelings of superiority were cultivated’.
The last stage of communication is the reception and implementation of the mes-
sage. The diﬃculties of organizing eﬃcient congresses paled into insigniﬁcance
compared to the intricacies of eﬀecting any real compliance in the national
states. Though the oﬃcial delegates to the international statistical congresses
were reimbursed for their travel and subsistence costs, they left their home coun-
tries without a clear mandate. In addition, the congress possessed no recognized
supranational powers. The only way it could show success was if its resolutions
were voluntarily accepted and implemented by the delegates’ countries of origin.
One of the ﬁrst hopes of Quetelet and his associates was that the states of
Europe would organize their oﬃcial statistical inquiries in the same way. In 1841
Belgium had established a Central Commission for Statistics, a mixed body of
government oﬃcials, medical and school inspectors, university professors and inde-
pendent scholars sharing an interest in statistics. It was Quetelet’s conviction that
state-sponsored statistical investigations were best steered by a team of scientiﬁc
and administrative experts. The congresses in Brussels and Paris had already
passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a central commission in each
country when the topic was addressed again in Berlin in 1863. Both Ernst Engel,
the hyperactive head of the Prussian statistical bureau, and the constitutionalist
Rudolph von Gneist were active supporters. The pre-congress of oﬃcial delegates,
however, could not reach agreement on this issue, partly because many German
delegates insisted on speaking their native language, which intensely irritated
participants from other countries. The issue was raised again during the congress.
Von Gneist defended the idea of a central commission, emphasizing that thus far
the congresses had been of an ‘amphibious nature’, combining free academic dis-
cussion with indirect government participation. In his view, this practice was not a
handicap. Amphibians had their place in nature.
Central commissions should be
based on the same principle (academic discussion supplemented with administra-
tive knowledge), if possible with some decision-making power. The congress even-
tually endorsed his point of view, voting in favour of establishing central
commissions, but left unanswered the crucial question of how to realize this plan
in the states of Europe. The issue was discussed again in The Hague in 1869. The
exchange of opinions showed that there were marked contrasts between diﬀerent
state systems (at least in how they were perceived), stages of economic development
and ideologies. Germany, through Engel, held that a central commission was not
enough, and preferred a pool of statistical societies, uniting state and socio-
economic interests. Henry Lord Houghton of England, however, abhorred the
idea of centralization, even if it was intended to serve no other purpose than
science. In the end the congress accepted a watered-down resolution stating that
both administrative and scientiﬁc interests should guide statistical inquires.
Nothing was said about how this resolution should be implemented.
Similar outcomes are discernable in other topics of interest addressed by the
congress. The census was the item that appeared most frequently on the agenda.
Important aspects, such as the periodization of the counts, the content of the
questions and the debate as to whether the actual or legal population should be
counted, were discussed again and again. On the one hand, this debate suggests
that there was no consensus on the topic during the congress era and that, more
importantly, the uniformity that the congress sought remained a vain hope. On the
other hand, the impact of the congresses did diﬀer from state to state. Some oﬃcial
delegates used the congresses to back up their claims for resources vis-a
governments, but this did not necessarily lead to the uniformization of national
statistics. It was much more diﬃcult to depart from a road taken (path dependence)
than to introduce new institutions or procedures from scratch, although this is a
theory that does not always hold, as the following short selection of cases shows.
Generally speaking, the larger European states were reluctant to adopt the
resolutions of the congress. There was still very little convergence in the way the
government statistics of France, Britain and Germany were organized in the course
of the nineteenth century.
The oﬃcial delegates of the larger countries often
lamented the lack of interest shown by their respective governments in the out-
comes of the congress. William Farr was unable to convince successive govern-
ments that more coordination and centralization was needed if Britain wanted to
keep up with other European states. Alfred Legoyt started his report about one of
the international statistical congresses with undisguised criticism of the French and
other governments, which failed to give statistics its rightful place among public
services: ‘Why keep silent about it? Statistics is unpopular’.
When the congress
convened in Berlin in 1863 Ernst Engel had to accept the Prussian government’s
decision to force kindred spirits, such as Rudolf Virchow, Salomon Neumann and
Hermann Schulze-Delitsch, to resign from the organizing committee.
For the smaller states, the picture is less clear. The Hungarian state, for example,
which came into existence in 1867, modelled many of its statistical investigations on
the resolutions of the congress. The Netherlands was quite eager to follow the
instructions of the congress, but soon abandoned this path. Von Baumhauer, the
inﬂuential head of the statistical bureau, was unable to capitalize on his interna-
tional standing in the national political context where many were allergic to cen-
tralizing tendencies. The Dutch did not have a central commission for statistics
when the idea was ﬁrst proposed by the congress. A commission was established in
1858, to some extent in line with the congress resolutions, but it was abolished in
60 European History Quarterly 41(1)
1861 because it was considered too expensive, it did not have enough political
support and its recommendations were frequently disregarded (not unlike the con-
In 1834, soon after gaining independence, Greece established a
Bureau of Political Economy, inspired by the British (Board of Trade) and
French examples. This bureau was also responsible for national statistical inquiries.
In 1855 and from 1867 onwards the heads of the bureau proved to be attentive
participants in the international statistical congresses. From 1861 onward, Greek
censuses were organized on the basis of resolutions passed by the congress.
In the sphere of public health and sanitary services the congress passed an impres-
sive list of resolutions: in Paris in 1855 on traﬃc and industrial accidents, on epi-
demics, on causes of death and on madness; in Vienna in 1857 again on causes of
death and epidemics, on sanitary institutions and personnel, on hydrophobia as a
result of animal bites and on the inﬂuence of geographical conditions on health; in
London in 1860 on hospitals, on military sanitation, on sanitary statistics in general
(‘plan to determine the sanitary conditions of the population of all civilized states’)
and on vital statistics on ships; in Berlin in 1863 on comparative statistics of the
health of the civil and military population. Thereafter, interest in sanitary statistics
declined, probably because the sanitary congresses were ﬁrmly established by then
and general international medical congresses were launched in 1867.
topics that the statistical congress addressed were complex and tied up with deep-
rooted local traditions of dealing with public health issues. As much as some par-
ticipants (the English delegate William Farr being among the ﬁrst) wanted to arrive
at a generally accepted nomenclature of causes of death and a uniform registration,
this key issue in health statistics was diﬃcult for the congress to solve. Although
Farr’s system became the template for further revisions of causes of death classiﬁ-
cations, national resistance to international harmonization remained vigorous until
well into the twentieth century.
The deliberations usually ended in the same way: with an open resolution that
left ample discretion to the governments addressed. Of course, in the nineteenth
century (and perhaps even the twentieth) this was all Europe could hope for.
It would be anachronistic to assume that while the instruments of national inte-
gration were being reﬁned, eﬀective international cooperation was likely to
Starting from Kaelble’s suggestion to disentangle the transnational world of
connections and transfers, this paper has focused on the international statistical
congresses held in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. These congresses
were a signiﬁcant step forward from the practice of ‘learned consultation’ (individ-
ual study visits and private correspondence) that characterized the Republic
of Letters. This new form of knowledge transfer, however, did not develop
By scrutinizing the consecutive stages of statistical knowledge transfer
via the congresses, I have singled out a series of critical moments, which impacted
on attempts to converge national standards. Opening channels for transfer and
exchange could have adverse or, at least, unwanted results (not to mention the
transfer of false knowledge, which can also be regarded as a form of transfer).
It could be argued that Quetelet’s profound belief in social laws and universal
quantiﬁcation, which the congresses helped to spread, was a mixed blessing for
the development of the science and practice of statistics: there were too many
numbers and not enough direction.
The basic communication model I have used (highlighting the sources, trans-
mission and reception of statistical knowledge) points to a range of other prob-
lems facing governments, the international statistical congress and individual
actors at various stages in the transfer process. The congress movement itself,
represented by a core group of frequent participants (mostly the oﬃcial dele-
gates), had great diﬃculty taking the congress beyond the original format, which
became increasingly less eﬀective. As a result, the congresses ended not with a
bang but a whimper in the second half of the 1870s, when the Germans refused
to participate in the permanent commission. Setting the agenda, choosing a
language, organizing eﬃcient deliberations, drawing up legitimate resolutions,
eliminating national hang-ups and, last but not least, standardizing statistical
inquiries continued to be vexed projects. Of course, this does not mean that the
international statistical congress was entirely redundant. ‘New’ countries, such
as Greece or Hungary, seeking to set up new statistical services, sent represen-
tatives to the congress, thereby securing immediate access to inside information
about best practices in national statistics. Heads of national bureaus, by refer-
ring to the congress, were able to strengthen their position and acquire funds
for speciﬁc investigations or organizational innovation. While still serving as
head of statistics in Saxony, Ernst Engel used the congress deliberations crea-
tively to organize the state census of 1855 in accordance with his ideas about
eﬃciency, in particular by making use of forms which heads of households and
producers had to ﬁll in themselves – a method that had not yet been widely
employed in Europe and which the congress had not dared to impose on
It would be too narrow, however, to look only at institutions, regulations and
procedures that developed in European states as a direct result of the congress.
Granted, the congress was an important phase in the acceptance of statistics as a
guiding instrument of political decision-making. By the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury it was impossible to imagine modern government functioning without statis-
tics. As the French historical sociologist Brian observed, the congresses helped to
build an intellectual capital that formed the basis of the subsequent transnational
authority of statistics.
The long-term indirect and unintended consequences of the
congresses were perhaps more signiﬁcant than the express wishes of the protago-
nists: the creation of the International Statistical Institute in 1885, the growth of
national statistical bureaus, the use of eﬃcient methods (e.g. the graphical method),
the spread of ideas on social reform, and last but not least, the intensiﬁcation of
nation-building processes throughout Europe.
62 European History Quarterly 41(1)
1. The sole exception was the 1869 conference held in The Hague, which is the seat of
government but not the capital of the Netherlands. A first draft of this article was
presented at the 2007 bi-annual Anglo-Dutch-German workshop organized by the
Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, 21–23 June 2007.
2. E. Brian, ‘Transactions statistiques au xixe sie
`cle. Mouvements internationaux de capi-
taux symboliques’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, no. 145 (2002/5), 34–46.
3. F. S. Lyons, Internationalism in Europe 1815–1914 (Leiden 1963); M. Geyer and
J. Paulmann, eds, The Mechanics of Internationalism: Culture, Society, and Politics
from the 1840s to the First World War (Oxford 2001).
4. See, among many other examples, the review by Achille Guillard of Johann Eduard
¨us, Allgemeine Bevo
¨lkerungsstatistik in ‘De
´mographie (lois de population)’,
Journal de la Socie
´de Statistique de Paris, Vol. 2 (1861), 277–88.
5. For example, the ‘border crossing potential’ of social policy and the analysis thereof
were recently proposed by M. Herren, ‘Sozialpolitik und die Historisierung des
Transnationalen’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Vol. 32 (2006), 542–59.
6. J. Paulmann, ‘Internationaler Vergleich und interkultureller Transfer. Zwei
¨tze zur europa
¨ischen Geschichte des 18. bis 20’, Historische
Zeitschrift, Vol. 267 (1998), 649–85.
7. M. Espagne, ‘Sur les limites du comparatisme en histoire culturelle’, Gene
`ses no. 17
(1994), 112–21; M. Espagne, ed., Les transferts culturels franco-allemands (Paris 1999).
8. R. W. Strayer, ed., The Making of the Modern World: Connected Histories, Divergent
Paths, 1500 to the Present (New York 1989); L. A. Tilly, ‘Connections’, American
Historical Review, Vol. 99 (1994), 1–17; J. Osterhammel, Geschichtswissenschaft jenseits
des Nationalstaats. Studien zu Beziehungsgeschichte und Zivilisationsvergleich (Go
2001); S. Conrad and S. Randeria, eds, Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale
Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften (Frankfurt a/M 2002); P-Y.
Saunier, ‘Circulations, connexions et espaces transnationaux’, Gene
`ses, Vol. 4, no. 57
9. M. Werner and B. Zimmermann, eds, De la comparaison a
M. Werner and B. Zimmermann, ‘Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croise
Challenge of Reflexivity’, History and Theory, Vol. 45 (2006), 30–50.
10. D. Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth
Century (London 1996).
11. P-Y. Saunier, ‘Taking Up the Bet on Connections: A Municipal Contribution’,
Contemporary European History, Vol. 11 (2002), 507–27, and following articles in this
issue; P-Y. Saunier, ‘Les re
´gimes circulatoires du domaine social 1800–1940: projets
´nierie de la convergence et de la diffe
`ses, Vol. 2, no. 71 (2008), 4–25.
12. N. Randeraad, ed., Formation und Transfer sta
¨dtischen Verwaltungswissens. Jahrbuch fu
¨ische Verwaltungsgeschichte 15 (Baden-Baden 2003).
13. W. Kaiser, ‘Cultural Transfer of Free Trade at the World Exhibitions, 1851–1862’,
The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 77 (2005), 563–90.
14. H. Kaelble, ‘Die Debatte u
¨ber Vergleich und Transfer und was jetzt?’, URL (consulted
17 May 2007): http://geschichte-transnational.clio-online.net/forum/2005-02-002
15. Part of what follows is the subject of my recent book on statistics in nineteenth-century
Europe, N. Randeraad, States and Statistics in the Nineteenth Century. Europe by
Numbers (Manchester 2010).
16. S. J. Woolf, ‘Statistics and the Modern State’, Comparative Studies in Society and
History, Vol. 31 (1989), 588–604.
17. A. Rasmussen, ‘Jalons pour une histoire des congre
`s internationaux au XIX
´gulation scientifique et propagande intellectuelle’, Re
´lations internationales, no. 62
(1990), 115–33, in particular 122.
18. See for example on the Italian congresses U. Levra, ‘Gli uomini e la cultura
delle riforme’, Atti del LVI congresso di storia del Risorgimento italiano (Roma 1994),
129–68; and M. P. Casalena, ‘The Congresses of Italian Scientists between Europe and
the Risorgimento (1839–75)’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, Vol. 12 (2007), 153–88.
19. Compte rendu des travaux du congre
´ral de statistique re
`Bruxelles les 19, 20, 21
et 22 septembre 1853 (Bruxelles 1853), 23.
20. V. Huber, ‘The Unification of the Globe by Disease? The International Sanitary
Conferences on Cholera, 1851–1894’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 49 (2006), 453–76.
21. T. Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking: 1820–1900 (Princeton 1986).
`s International de Statistique a
`la Haye, Compte-rendu des travaux de la septie
session. Seconde Partie (The Hague 1870), 38–9.
23. C. Leonards, De ontdekking van het onschuldige criminele kind. Bestraffing en opvoeding
van criminele kinderen in jeugdgevangenis en opvoedingsgesticht, 1833–1886 (Hilversum
24. A. Rasmussen, op. cit., 119.
25. M. Vicinius and B. Niergaard, eds, Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale. Selected Letters
(London 1989), 208.
26. G. Majorana, Le Grand Tour. Lettere alla famiglia 1890 (Palermo 2000).
27. See L. Wellens-De Donder, Inventaire de la correspondance d’Adolphe Quetelet de
´mie royale de Belgique (Bruxelles 1966).
28. E. Brian, ‘Y a-t-il un objet ‘‘Congre
`s’’? Le cas du Congre
`s international de statistique
(1853–1876)’ Mil Neuf Cent. Revue d’histoire intellectuelle, Vol. 7 (1989), 15.
29. J. W. Nixon, A History of the International Statistical Institute 1885–1960 (The Hague
30. M. H. Geyer, ‘One Language for the World: The Metric System, International Coinage,
Gold Standard, and the Rise of Internationalism, 1850–1900’, in Geyer and Paulmann,
eds, op. cit., 55–92.
31. Huber, op. cit., 470.
32. Die fu
¨nfte Sitzungsperiode des internationalen statistischen Congresses in Berlin vom 4. bis
12. September 1863, II, 97.
33. A. Desrosie
`res, La politique des grands nombres. Histoire de la raison statistique (Paris
34. A. Legoyt, ‘Les congre
`s de statistique et particulie
`rment le congre
`s de statistique de
Berlin’, Journal de la Socie
´de Statistique de Paris, Vol. 4 (1863), 271.
35. I. H. Stamhuis, ‘Cijfers en Aequaties’ en ‘Kennis der Staatskrachten’. Statistiek in
Nederland in de negentiende eeuw (Amsterdam 1989), 207–11.
36. K. Chatzis, ‘ ‘‘Sous les yeux de l’Occident’’. Statistiques et inte
`cles, l’exemple de la Gre
`ce’, Revue Europe
´enne d’Histoire Sociale, no. 21 (2007),
37. V. Huber, op. cit.; W. F. Bynum, ‘Policing Hearts of Darkness: Aspects of the
International Sanitary Conferences’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences,
Vol. 15 (1993), 421–34.
64 European History Quarterly 41(1)
38. G. C. Alter and A. G. Carmichael, ‘Classifying the Dead: Toward a History of
the Registration of Causes of Death’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied
Sciences, Vol. 54 (1999), 114–32, and other articles in this volume; F. van Poppel and
J. P. van Dijk, ‘The Development of Cause-of-Death Registration in the Netherlands,
1865–1955’, Continuity and Change, Vol. 12 (1997), 265–87.
39. It has been suggested that the nineteenth-century knowledge network can be compared
with today’s ‘epistemic communities’, networks of ‘professionals with recognized exper-
tise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant
knowledge within that domain or issue-area’ (P. M. Haas, ‘Introduction: Epistemic
Communities and International Policy Coordination’, in P. M. Haas, ed., Knowledge,
Power, and International Policy Coordination [Colombia, SC, 1992], 3). Part of the lit-
erature in this field is concerned with the question as to under what conditions epistemic
communities can exert influence. Clearly, in this perspective the nineteenth century was
hardly a fertile breeding ground for mobilizing networks of scientific expertise. See
S. Kott, ‘Une ‘‘communaute
´mique’’ du social? Experts de l’OIT et internationa-
lisation des politiques sociales dans l’entre-deux-guerres’, Gene
`ses, Vol. 2, no. 71 (June
2008), 26–46; C. Leonards and N. Randeraad, ‘Transnational Experts in Social Reform,
1840–1880’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 55 (2010), 215–39.
40. Independently, and following a different line of reasoning, Lawrence Goldman came to
similar conclusions, see his unpublished paper on the International Statistical Congress
delivered to the ‘Social Policy Across Borders’ conference, Cambridge 12–13 September
41. There were, for example, two conflicting theories on the origins of cholera, which were
both being propagated and spread through international congresses. Did the ‘right’
theory emerge more rapidly as a result of the increase in communication, or was its
42. E. Brian, ‘Transactions statistiques au xixe sie
Nico Randeraad is lecturer in history and European Studies in the Faculty of Arts
and Social Sciences, Universiteit Maastricht. He studied history at the Free
University Amsterdam and at the European University Institute. He is the
author of States and Statistics in the Nineteenth Century: Europe by Numbers
(Manchester 2010) and editor (with H. Jones and K. O
¨stberg) of Contemporary
History on Trial: Europe since 1989 and the Role of the Expert Historian