Narratives of Reform: Statistics and Suffering
The authority of statistics is, perhaps, taken for granted today, but in the late nineteenth century when the social sciences first began using statistical knowledge as a method for producing and disseminating knowledge, that authority was only beginning to come into being. I am interested in looking at how reformist texts that used statistics as an authenticating and authorizing discourse, nevertheless, displayed a discomfort with a mode of representation that translated individual suffering into generalized and numerical pain. For example, reformers, like Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Walter Wyckoff, deployed statistics in order to make a factual, numerical case for why tenements needed to be changed or working people's conditions needed to be altered, and yet these same reformers also felt that statistical information was profoundly inadequate as a means of convincingly persuading readers of the need for these very reforms. How best to narrate suffering and effect reform? I explore how these texts vacillate between a commitment to knowledge in its statistical manifestations and a sense that knowledge is more powerfully communicated through photographic and novelistic representation.
Keywords: Reform Narratives, Statistics, Suffering, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Walter Wyckoff
Prof. Cindy Weinstein
Professor of English, Division of Humanities & Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology
I was trained at the University of California, Berkeley. I have written a book on literature and labor, and another book on sentimental novels and the family. This new project is about numbers and narratives.