The Potential of Cliometrics

Anyone who reads Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s “Time on the Cross” knows immediately that its claims were bound to cause controversy. A significant part of this controversy, no doubt, stems from the heavy use of numerical data in the analysis of the institution of slavery. The numbers seem cold and barely capture the macabre-colored picture of slavery that we are used to encountering in more traditional, humanistic expositions of slavery. Worse still, at times Fogel and Engerman’s language seems to allude to the “Uncle Tom” image of a pitifully subservient and obedient black when describing the typical slave. The authors did not mean to suggest this (they say they admire black achievement under the adversity of white overlordship), one cannot help but to conjure the image when they speak, for example, of the supposed motivation of slaves to be appointed to “better” roles on the plantation.

Despite the controversy, I think it’s a shame that this study may have caused cliometrics to fade completely into the background of historical research, because it offers some useful tools for historians. In particular, I thought its capabilities as a tool for comparative studies were particularly strong. One relatively non-controversial section of “Time on the Cross” was the first chapter, where Fogel and Engerman discuss some of the differences between slavery in the United States and in the Caribbean. They use comparisons of slave imports into the Caribbean and the U.S., foreign-born slaves with the rest of the U.S. population, and the growth of the actual slave populations in the U.S. and Caribbean to expose very real differences between the slave trades of the U.S. and the Caribbean that are in fact made more explicit numerically. The reader gets a harrowing portrait of slaves being sent to the Caribbean in droves to replace those who have succumbed to tropical diseases, while in the U.S., the slave population became “naturalized,” creating a potentially different dynamic to be further explored by historical study.

Steven Ruggles’ “The Transformation of the American Family Structure” is another example of the use of quantitative comparisons to show intriguing facts. Some scholars claim that the traditional family structure never existed, we learn. Yet Ruggles suggests that although these “extended households” might have been a minority, they were still an ideal that served to direct behavior more often than not. By using life expectancy to calculate a potential percentage of families that could have had the traditional structure of elderly kin living with younger generations, Ruggles shows that a high percentage of those families that could have this structure actually did. By contrast, life expectancy has risen in the 20th century, and yet the traditional family structure is found even less often.

Comparative quantitative studies offer one way to make meaning out of numbers in a way that is detailed and exciting much in the same way as first-hand accounts provide meaningful qualitative data. It would be a shame to push them aside completely.

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