Barely escaping my own bias…

My perception of Time on the Cross initially formed the inklings of hazy mistrust when I read through facts and figures completely devoid of any citations (before I learned of the material presented in the second volume). The density of the authoritatively delivered information, especially the graphic representations, and explicit conclusions populating the book mostly contributed to an uneasy reading (I probably read most of it by skeptical squinting at the page). Then my continued disturbance with what seemed to be an alarming lack of emotional/humanistic weight given to a incidences of whipping was reinforced in Haskell and Gutman, resonating particularly as the statistics were reevaluated and restated to account for the purpose and significance of such violent corporal punishment. This highlighted what I saw as one of the crippling weaknesses of evaluating history with computational scholarship, which was the decontextualization of the data. Arriving at a such a low rate of whippings per slave per year means nothing when the fact that it happened at all was significant to the population as a whole. Clearly however, Time on the Cross was hardly universally accepted as exemplary work by all cliometricians, due to the gaffes they made specific to their computational analysis. Even after looking past the misrepresentation of the number of whippings as a proportion per slave, “…the figure is too low because it is based on an erroneous count both of the number of slaves Barrow owned and the number of times he whipped them”(Haskell). For a discipline so often based on assumptions and inferences to combat a dearth of actual historical data, the inability to correctly utilize what was available seems like a particularly egregious mistake.

Fogel and Engerman lay the claim that historians were “overly preoccupied” with the destruction of slave families on the auction block, and thus this prevented historians from recognizing the “strength and stability that the black family acquired despite the difficult circumstances of slave life” (52). Regardless of the fact that cliometricians have discredited the assumptions used to arrive at the conclusion that slave masters were unwilling to separate families, I fail to see how one can be overly preoccupied with the destruction families, nor how this precludes the ability to recognize the strength of a family through. Fogel and Engerman err when trying to present achievement under adversity by lessening the scope of the adversity and superficially documenting the achievement (crediting slaves with knowledge in the full range of agricultural activities, from planting to harvesting (41)). This admittedly emotionally motivated response to Fogel and Engerman, as opposed to Ruggles, definitely highlights my bias. It is harder to see the merits in their scholarship when they address such a sensitive topic. However, it is clear that quantitative analysis creates many more opportunities to broaden the scope of historic practices. In Ruggles, where some assumptions are qualified and inferences tested, there is an acknowledgment of the limitations of quantitative data in interpreting human activities: “we many never know if people today care more about their families…” However, synthesizing data from IPUMS with the context of social conditions during the time periods analyzed allowed Ruggles to critique sociological theories and develop the body of scholarship regarding the transformation of family life.

I find that Fogel and Engerman, having admitted to shaping the presentation of their work in order to “popularize” cliometrics, subjected themselves to the same pitfalls that traditional historians, through the “fuzzier” work of interpretation, slip into. It’s here that I agree with Abigail, in that working with numbers hardly frees a researcher from errors or bias both in source material and presentation. In attempting to derive numerical values where there is no historical evidence for them to use in calculations of assumed or inferred relationships, there does not seem to be a drastic distinction in the manner through which both quantitative and traditional historians evaluate material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code class="" title="" data-url=""> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <pre class="" title="" data-url=""> <span class="" title="" data-url="">