Demography, Statistics, and the Cultural Historian

These days if I’m forced to put myself in a sub-disciplinary box, I usually say that I’m a cultural historian.  This is less because I’m an adherent of the Burkean New Cultural History (or any other theoretical agenda, for that matter) than because it seems to offer a comfortable basket into which I can fit my interests in intellectual history, material culture, literature, and the history of scholarship.  It also nicely serves to distinguish the kind of qualitative, example-driven work I do from the more quantitative, statistical work that one might (in an oversimplifying sort of way) associate with an economic or social historian.

Needless to say, I now find myself deep within the territory of economic and social history, doing my best to say something useful and not be too much of an idiot while doing so.  Over the past year I’ve been working on the readership of early Enlightenment Scottish texts (you can see an example here and some commentary on the data-crunching underlying this work here).  This part of my book project has now reached a point where I have a sprawling, unwieldy spreadsheet recording the names, residences, and occupations of 3,575 subscribers to historical works published in Scotland between 1707 and 1744.

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 12.17.56

A sample few lines from the database: some Stirling-based subscribers.

Now comes the challenge of deriving meaning from all of this data.  Historical demography is not a field I’ve ever explored in any depth, but I’m now finding it absolutely imperative to understand if I’m going to do anything useful with my spreadsheet of readers.  Take the basic question: what percentage of the population subscribed to these books?  The population of Scotland in the early eighteenth century was probably somewhere in the ballpark of one million, which would seem to suggest that my subscribers represent only a tiny fraction, something on the order of 0.35% of the total population.  But what if you consider them as a fraction of the adult population?  Of the literate population?  On a more fine-grained level, what can I say about the relative percentages of subscribers from different parts of the country?  Or the presence or absence of different professions and social classes?

Some of these questions will probably be insoluble, but others will, with effort, be resolved.  It’s a sobering reminder, though, that different corners of the field use very different forms of scholarship to produce their results and that we should be wary of trespassing without understanding in our interdisciplinary travels.  I for one will certainly be asking friends more familiar with demography and statistics to comment on the resulting chapter when it eventually takes shape.  In the mean time, I’ll be trying to make sense of historical demography and thinking hard about what that can teach me about the shape of the Scottish Enlightenment . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

One thought on “Demography, Statistics, and the Cultural Historian

  1. Stravaiging around Scotland says:

    With these records imported from your spreadsheet into a database (another honourable mention for the Pods plugin) you may find it easier to reach conclusions. For example one thing that would be relatively easy to do would be to use the database to plot the location of the subscribers on a map.


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