Seeing like a state used to see

September 14, 2010 at 4:45 am

| Gabriel |

The Census Bureau website has not only the current edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, but most of the old editions going back to 1878. A lot of the time you just need the basic summary statistics not the raw micro data so this is a great resource.

It’s also just plain interesting, especially if you’re interested in categorical schema. For instance, in the 1930s revenues for the radio industry are in the section on “National Government Finances” (because this is the tax base), whereas the same figure is now in a section on “Information & Communications.” This suggests a very different conception about what the information is there for and who is meant to consume it for what purposes.

What really surprised me though was treating the deaf or blind as commensurable with convicted felons, but there they are in the “Defectives and Delinquents” chapter of editions through the early 1940s. The logic of such a category seems to be based not on a logic of “people who might deserve help vs people who might hurt us” but on a causal model of deviations from normality that assumes a eugenics/phrenology conception of crime as based on a malformed brain. Given that we now use MRI to study the brains of murderers, the main thing that’s really shocking about the category is the casual harshness of the word “defective” rather than applying a materialist etiology to both social deviance and physical disability.

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