The Survey and the State: How social science expertise made the Twentieth Century.

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  • The Survey and the State: How social science expertise made the Twentieth Century.

We expect social surveys and other forms of social science research to inform, shape, and critique government and other public policies, but this was not always the case. This workshop brings together scholars from around the world to examine how, when, and why the techniques of social science surveying took on such public prominence, and to consider the effects and legacies of that process.

This workshop will be the first to bring together Australian and international experts to map the transnational history and influence of the social survey, a key tool in the social sciences. The workshop will make social research itself—its theories, methodology, and applications in twentieth-century life—the subject of sustained historical analysis. The resulting scholarship, including an edited collection under discussion at the University of Chicago Press, will examine the development of survey techniques, recover experiences of participation in social surveys, trace the consequences of social research for policy worldwide, and establish Australia’s role in the global development of social science.

It is now commonly accepted that states and other policy-making bodies use surveys to register and analyse populations and to formulate and reshape policy settings. But how did this practice emerge? What explains the form of the modern social survey? And how was it constituted over time?

In the twentieth century, a new technology was devised: the social survey. Such surveys were distinguished by their first-person interviews and evidence-based recommendations, and they initially offered Westerners a new form of knowledge about themselves. Far from being a simple discovery of fact, these acts of social inquiry also conveyed new ideas about the place of research participants within social hierarchies, and about their relationship to the state and its institutions. As many scholars have noted, such research reflected the rise of the social scientific “expert,” especially in the mid-twentieth century. Importantly, however, social research also conferred new status on the opinions and experiences of so-called ordinary people. Researchers then presented that data as scientific evidence, which in turn justified policy recommendations and the changing role of the state in people’s lives.

We are interested in not only what social survey research made possible in terms of policy-making and the changing role of the state, but also in its limits. Who was deemed an acceptable survey respondent? Who was excluded? What were the races, genders, ages, locations of individuals, groups, or communities who were considered surveyable or, importantly, not surveyable? Where were they located? And how did the rise of the social survey affect individual and groups’ sense of themselves?

In order to answer these questions, participants will disaggregate social survey research in order to trace its development with respect to place, people, groups, and techniques. Each of the participants will consider an example or examples of twentieth-century social surveys. Some of these come from national contexts, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Others take regions, such as the work of the League of Nations on human trafficking in the East; UNESCO’s work in Central and South America; or surveys of “race-mixing” in the Pacific. None of these studies existed in a vacuum, of course, and the workshop will interrogate connections between instances of social surveys. These connections were sometimes across national boundaries, and/or between imperial centres and colonies, and between empires themselves.

In addition, the workshop will consider in some detail the limits of participation in twentieth-century survey research, especially on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, class, age, and region. Some groups were considered “unsurveyable,” and that distinction has had significant ramifications in the making of social and government policy, right down to today. Women, for example, and colonised people, were, at different times, considered unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Children likewise have usually been ignored as surveyors of their own lives. Alternatively, those experiences were simply thought to be unimportant – others knew best how to shape policy that would affect such groups. Some people’s voices, in short, are simply not heard at the level of policy-making. Thus several participants in the workshop will examine groups such as Indigenous Australians, who, as colonised people, were more often the subject of ethnographic or anthropological research than of social surveys. In doing so, we will test out the limits of social surveys as a technology of knowledge for the production of policy.

The aim of the workshop are therefore to trace the development of the social survey as a technology of social science research, in order to explore:

  • the joint creation of social scientific knowledge by researchers and their subjects;
  • the use of such survey data on the development of government and institutional social policymaking;
  • the relationship between universities, non-academic centres of social research, governments, and international organisations;
  • the impact of twentieth-century social science on non-professionals and especially ideas of the self;
  • the limits of social science research in the twentieth century, including by asking which groups were the subjects of social surveys, which were the subjects of anthropological study, and how that distinction contributed to national, racial, and imperial policies and practices;
  • the national, transnational, and international networks of which Australian research was an integral part.

To address this ambitious program, we have assembled a group of participants, nationally and internationally, with a range of experience and expertise. Some are experts who have already considered social surveying as a method worthy of historical attention. Other participants, however, have used data generated by social surveys in their research but have responded to our request that they focus in a more substantial way on the social science method. There is also a range of academic levels, from professors and chairs (and ASSA fellows) to ECRs including staff and postdoctoral fellows.

For more information, please contact:
Mr Murray Radcliffe
Deputy Director
murray.radcliffe [at]
+61 .2 62491788

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Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

    ABN: 59 957 839 703
  • Location: 26 Balmain Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601
  • Postal: GPO Box 1956, Canberra, ACT 2601
  • +61 .2 62491788
  • +61 .2 62474335

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