Christoph Lorke Felix Römer (Chair of the panel)

The Global Knowledge of Divided Societies. The Measurement of Economic Inequality in Europe and the World since 1945

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Panel of the GHI London

When present-day readers think of ‘divided societies’, the disparity of incomes and wealth is certain to be among the first associations that come to mind. However, the skyrocketing public interest in economic inequality is a historical phenomenon in itself, which only started to gain more traction in the 1990s/2000s. Similarly, the availability of detailed knowledge seems natural in the modern world, but it was only in the 1960s that most countries started to develop more reliable statistics on the distribution of income and wealth. These statistics have come to play an increasingly important role in modern political culture: they influence debates about distributional issues, societal self-descriptions and perceptions of other societies. They suggest mathematical objectivity, yet, in fact, they represent cultural constructs with a history. The historicisation of income and wealth statistics has long been regarded as a gap in historiography, but recently historians have begun to explore the transnational history of these concepts. The panel aims to make a contribution to the growing field of research on the transnational history of the measurement of economic inequality from the perspective of the history of knowledge. It explores the production, circulation, interpretation and uses of knowledge on income and wealth distribution in different world regions, political systems and welfare regimes. It combines several strands of current historiography (the history of statistics and social sciences; social inequality and societal self-descriptions; the ‘scienticisation’ of politics and society; political languages and the history of concepts). The panel departs from the twofold hypothesis that the global history of inequality knowledge was marked by non-knowledge and non-internationalization over long stretches of the twentieth century. It was not until the 1990s and 2000s that complicated processes of convergence led to increased entanglements and the emergence of a global debate on inequality.

Simone Lässig (Washington)
Maria Bach (Paris)
Measuring Difference? The United Nations' Shift to Measuring Inequalities not Averages
This paper examines how the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) redefined their idea of development over the two decades from 1990, no longer presenting it as a matter of economic progress but instead focussing on the problem of poverty and its reduction. This change of definition was very closely associated with changes in the preferred measurement of development, from average income (based on national income accounting) to the proportion of the population holding certain characteristics of poverty (instantiated in various index number formulations). Measurements of development thus became direct measures of difference, not just between nations, but also within nations. This change was designed to create numbers that would be effective in capturing and communicating difference usable for both policy and public purposes. Those numbers also provided, in the public and political domains, a resource for the audit of success in poverty reduction - though the UNDP had few powers to hold governments to account.
Felix Römer (London)
The Politics of Measurement: Inequality Knowledge in Great Britain and the Western World
The history of statistics on income and wealth in Britain after 1945 offers a prime example of the dynamics of power and knowledge. Controversies surrounding statistics from the 1950s/1960s played a significant part in debates about the welfare state during the post-war era, and advances during the 1970s were partially reversed under Thatcher in the 1980s. Domestically, inequality statistics were linked to discourse on social policies and visions of society, while, internationally, British officials attempted to influence efforts to build a global framework for the measurement of inequality. The present knowledge regime began to crystallize during the 1990s, conditioned both by knowledge politics and technological change.
Poornima Paidipaty (Cambridge)
Disparities and Decolonisation: Statistical Thinking and the Measurement of Inequality in Nehruvian India
India’s nationalist leaders had long argued that the nation’s poverty was a direct consequence of colonial greed, ignorance and mismanagement. The success of decolonisation, from the start, was pegged to postcolonial economic development. However, the Nehruvian state lacked fine-grained income data to estimate the size and capacity of the overall economy. They turned to the Indian Statistical Institute, headed by PC Mahalanobis, for help. The applied mathematicians and economists at the Institute developed a novel technique of large-scale economic sampling to fill in gaps in national income data. This paper examines the tensions and uncertainties of these early experiments in sampling and explores their broader political implications for decolonisation.
Christoph Lorke (Münster)
Beyond Egalitarianism: Statistical Knowledge and Social Inequality in the GDR
The Marxist-Leninist theory left no place for social grievances. In fact, they were even considered as ‘alien’ to Socialism. However, social disparities were constantly present in the ‘advanced socialist societies’. Following the economic and political consolidation of the state, a heightened awareness of domestic social problems characterized the GDR during the 1960s. Consequently, scientists turned to the analysis of certain forms of social inequality. The paper analyzes and contextualizes the modalities of societal self-descriptions, which resulted from the conflicts over the interpretative power to define the socially accepted classification, presentation, and performance of social differences.
Tim Schanetzky (Jena)