America by the Numbers

From Infrastructures

America by the Numbers

Quantification, Democracy, and the Birth of National Statistics

By Emmanuel Didier

Translated by Priya Vari Sen

Foreword by Theodore M. Porter

How new techniques of quantification shaped the New Deal and American democracy.





How new techniques of quantification shaped the New Deal and American democracy.

When the Great Depression struck, the US government lacked tools to assess the situation; there was no reliable way to gauge the unemployment rate, the number of unemployed, or how many families had abandoned their farms to become migrants. In America by the Numbers, Emmanuel Didier examines the development in the 1930s of one such tool: representative sampling. Didier describes and analyzes the work of New Deal agricultural economists and statisticians who traveled from farm to farm, in search of information that would be useful for planning by farmers and government agencies. Didier shows that their methods were not just simple enumeration; these new techniques of quantification shaped the New Deal and American democracy even as the New Deal shaped the evolution of statistical surveys.

Didier explains how statisticians had to become detectives and anthropologists, searching for elements that would help them portray America as a whole. Representative surveys were one of the most effective instruments for their task. He examines pre-Depression survey techniques; the invention of the random sampling method and the development of the Master Sample; and the application of random sampling by employment experts to develop the “Trial Census of Unemployment.”


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262538374 432 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 27 b&w illus.


Priya Vari Sen and Theodore M. Porter.


  • 'Know thyself' is no easier for nations than for people. This original book offers a valuable lesson on our present problem of discovering how a nation can learn to know itself.

    Bruno Latour

    Professor and Vice-President for Research, Institut d'études politiques (Sciences Po); author of Down to Earth

  • The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once proposed a map the size of its territory. Emmanuel Didier shows us how American statisticians created such a map and made it readable.

    Lawrence Busch

    Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University; author of Knowledge for Sale

  • This meticulous work of historical sociology leads to a fundamental yet pragmatic reflection: how can the social sciences evade the omnipotence of expertise to serve the public?

    Luc Boltanski

    Professor, L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris; author of The New Spirit of Capitalism

  • With theoretical sophistication and meticulous archival research, Didier traces the fascinating history of the United States' development of random sampling as a way to know, govern, and, ultimately, remake itself. This book is a tour de force.

    Wendy Espeland

    Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University; coauthor of Engines of Anxiety