In 1832, Charles Babbage proposed the collection of “The Constants of Nature and of Art”, a list of diverse phenomena organised into twenty categories to be counted and measured, ranging from atomic weights and the conductive power of electricity, to the quantity of air consumed per hour by humans, and the number of books in public libraries at given dates. During the same period, he was also developing the difference engine, a machine for computing and printing tables of numbers. Babbage’s constants and engines exemplified a rationality which emphasised counting and measurement as essential means for legitimate knowledge production, also evidenced by the Statistical Society of London’s interest in the establishment of regular censuses throughout the 1800s.
Moving to the present, methodological developments in official statistics such as big data analytics have once again led to an interest in making use of data from diverse sources such as social media and mobile phones. Several European National Statistical Institutes have established groups studying big data methods, and started recruiting data scientists.
By reading these two moments in the history of official statistics in parallel, I build on the understanding that methods enact subjectivities and populations. In other words, counting a population does not merely reflect what already exists “out there”, but actively engages in its enactment by bringing it into being. Drawing on material collected through a collaborative ethnography of five European National Statistical Institutes as part of the ARITHMUS project, I argue that changes in official statistics methods have social and political implications for those being counted, and that analyses of past census methodology can help guide social studies of contemporary quantification methods.