Social Statisticalization: Number, State, Science

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This dissertation explains why society becomes statisticalized—a form of rationalization that influences society through the production, consumption, and dissemination of statistical numbers. In this general social process, people increasingly depend on statistics to make decisions, justify practices, and update knowledge. As a result, social statistics are able to change human behavior, reconfigure social relations, shape political discourse, and constitute cultural norms. Ultimately, statistical rationality not only reproduces but also reinforces a variety of defining characteristics of modern society such as efficiency, standardization, formalization, calculability, predictability, and the replacement of humans with technologies. In Chapter 1, I ask: Why do modern states routinely keep official statistics on their societies? This chapter presents arguments about how gathering official statistics as a technology of state power facilitate modern states’ engagements in democratic state building, capitalist state building, colonial, and post-colonial state building, and war making in world society. These arguments are illustrated by historical case studies and tested by cross-national longitudinal analyses of the worldwide establishment of National Statistical Systems (NSSes) in 157 countries from 1826 to 2010. The analyses demonstrate that, although there are regional and temporal variations, democratization, capitalist development, aggregate war onsets, colonization, and inter-governmental linkages generally prompt modern states to establish NSSes. To get their hands on societies, modern states need to collect official statistics to keep societies under their watchful eyes. In Chapter 2, I ask: How does the statistics profession become globally institutionalized? This chapter analyzes the worldwide founding of national statistics associations from 1833 to 2011, arguing that the statistics profession emerged in the nineteenth-century West and spread to other parts of the world in the twentieth century. Based on an integrated institutionalist framework, I conduct event history analysis to demonstrate that the process of the global professionalization of statistics is determined by both national characteristics and the world polity. On one hand, democracy and national material capacity generally encourage the establishment of the statistics profession, and the effect of colonialism is in the opposite direction. On the other hand, intergovernmental organizations create a world polity in which the statistics profession is able to be diffused and constructed. Separate analyses for the pre-1945 and post-1945 eras indicate that, while there are regional and temporal variations, the world polity is a robust factor throughout the entire period of analysis. In Chapter 3, I ask: Why does the American state routinely collate statistical data on crime? Suprisingly, the relationship between state and criminal statistics is undertheorized. This chapter develops a theoretical framework that triangulates criminal statistics, criminological knowledge, and state power. It argues that collecting criminal statistics is a political instrument for the state to deploy its symbolic power, biopower, and disciplinary power. This theory is applied to examining the American state’s policy decisions about the institutionalization of systematically collecting criminal statistics. It demonstrates how criminal statistics were seen as useful in constructing a problem of crime, keeping the population under criminal surveillance, and facilitating imposing discipline and punishment for criminals. In Chapter 4, I ask: How does the general public react to statistical numbers? Public opinion polling has been institutionalized in American politics. Although previous research indicates that the American public has been increasingly skeptical about opinion polls, we surprisingly know little about where this skepticism originates socially. To fill this gap, this article mainly examines whether partisanship and ideology shape the American public’s evaluation of the credibility of polling. Analyses of cross-sectional surveys demonstrate that even though most Americans trust polling, Republicans and conservatives are significantly less likely than Democrats and liberals to trust the social impact, value, and accuracy of opinion polls. Moreover, political awareness, measured by college education, also predicts the public’s distrust of polling. Further analysis suggests that public distrust of polling is to varying degrees associated with distrust of science and the news media. These findings are used to discuss broader sociopolitical implications for contemporary American democracy, especially in the context of the rise of right-wing anti-establishment movements.

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Statistics; Knowledge; institution; rationalization; state; Sociology; science


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Strang, David

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Wells, Martin Timothy
Berezin, Mabel M.
Ziewitz, Malte Carsten

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Ph.D., Sociology

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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