We are still trying to cope with 19th century social changes

I recently heard a talk from historian Heath Carter regarding his new book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago where he drew connections between the Gilded Age and our own current times of inequality. In thinking further about the topic, I was struck by the number of issues that were pertinent then and are still present today. While it is difficult to know exactly when social processes begin and end, here is an incomplete list of concerns from the 1800s that we are still trying to figure out:

-How do we cope with all the people moving from small towns/agricultural areas to big cities?

-How can we have fulfilling lives in an industrialized, mechanized, global, capitalistic economic system? How do we deal with influential corporations as well as the ultra-rich?

-How can welfare states operate effectively with numerous interest groups and big money involved?

-Can science and religion coexist?

-On the whole, does mass culture (through mass media whether newspapers, telegraph, radio, TV, or Internet) help or hinder society?

-Can technological progress solve many of our problems?

-How can society – particularly, nation states – be cohesive and unified given increased levels of heterogeneity and specialization?

-What is the role of the self compared to the shaping and undeniable influence of growing (and often necessary) social institutions?

-What kind of relationship should we have with nature given industrialization and modifications to the environment?

-Under what pretenses and at what costs should major wars and social conflicts be waged?

Put another way, it is little surprise to me that the discipline of sociology emerged when it did: as these large-scale social changes were getting underway, numerous people were interested in explaining the effects. But, these are long-term social processes that may take decades or centuries to play out across a variety of contexts and as they interact with each other.

The first wave of big data – in the early 1800s

Big data may appear to be a recent phenomena but the big data of the 1800s allowed for new questions and discoveries:

Fortunately for Quetelet, his decision to study social behavior came during a propitious moment in history. Europe was awash in the first wave of “big data” in history. As nations started developing large-scale bureaucracies and militaries in the early 19th century, they began tabulating and publishing huge amounts of data about their citizenry, such as the number of births and deaths each month, the number of criminals incarcerated each year, and the number of incidences of disease in each city. This was the inception of modern data collection, but nobody knew how to usefully interpret this hodgepodge of numbers. Most scientists of the time believed that human data was far too messy to analyze—until Quetelet decided to apply the mathematics of astronomy…

In the early 1840s, Quetelet analyzed a data set published in an Edinburgh medical journal that listed the chest circumference, in inches, of 5,738 Scottish soldiers. This was one of the most important, if uncelebrated, studies of human beings in the annals of science. Quetelet added together each of the measurements, then divided the sum by the total number of soldiers. The result came out to just over 39 ¾ inches—the average chest circumference of a Scottish soldier. This number represented one of the very first times a scientist had calculated the average of any human feature. But it was not Quetelet’s arithmetic that was history-making—it was his answer to a rather simple-seeming question: What, precisely, did this average actually mean?

Scholars and thinkers in every field hailed Quetelet as a genius for uncovering the hidden laws governing society. Florence Nightingale adopted his ideas in nursing, declaring that the Average Man embodied “God’s Will.” Karl Marx drew on Quetelet’s ideas to develop his theory of Communism, announcing that the Average Man proved the existence of historical determinism. The physicist James Maxwell was inspired by Quetelet’s mathematics to formulate the classical theory of gas mechanics. The physician John Snow used Quetelet’s ideas to fight cholera in London, marking the start of the field of public health. Wilhelm Wundt, the father of experimental psychology, read Quetelet and proclaimed, “It can be stated without exaggeration that more psychology can be learned from statistical averages than from all philosophers, except Aristotle.”

Is it a surprise then that sociology emerges in the same time period with greater access to data on societies in Europe and around the globe? Many are so used to having data and information at our fingertips that the revolution that this must have been – large-scale data within stable nation-states – opened up all sorts of possibilities.