Narratives of Reform: Statistics and Suffering

Prof. Cindy Weinstein
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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
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Prof. Cindy Weinstein

Professor of English, Division of Humanities & Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California, USA

My current project pursues the question of numerical representation in American literary and cultural texts. I am especially interested in how the discourse of statistical knowledge presides over works by reformers such as, Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and Walter Wyckoff. On the one hand, statistics lend these texts a degree of authority and fact that they otherwise would not have; however, the writers themselves evince skepticism about the degree to which statistics give a full account of the problem that needs reforming. Thus, Riis relies on statistical data, yet turns to photography to tell a more convincing narrative about the necessity of tenement reform.

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.

Ref: I07P0080