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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 33 (2001) 86-110
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March to Numbers:
The Statistical Style of Lucien March
Franck Jovanovic and Philippe Le Gall
La réalité n'est qu'un vestige dans l'immense étendue des possibilités. Celles-ci ne forment pourtant point un chaos.
—Lucien March, “Statistique” (1924)
The development of economic thought in France has long been characterized by a local idiosyncrasy: the tradition of ingénieurs économistes. Through their grappling with economic problems that confronted the public sectors and with concrete issues tied to the constructive problems undertaken by the state, engineers have often shown signs of originality and savoir faire—it has even been claimed that they “do economics while others talk about it” (Caquot 1939, quoted in Divisia 1951, x). In any case, these engineers laid the foundations of microeconomics (Ekelund and Hébert 1999), committed themselves in an early mathematization of economic issues (Kurita 1989) and, in a sense, paved the way for econometrics (Hébert 1986).
But these French engineers also developed an indisputable talent for measurement in economics, exemplified by their work on costs. Their involvement in measurement and more generally in statistics became particularly apparent around 1900: the Statistique Générale de la France [End Page 86] (SGF), the main government statistical agency of the time, even became an engineers' fortress. Although the SGF remained small in comparison with other European statistical bureaus, the work it achieved during the early twentieth century remains impressive in two areas: the collection of data and the elaboration of explanations of what had been measured. Lucien March (1859–1933) deserves special attention in the engineers' involvement in statistics and economic measurement. He entered the École Polytechnique in 1878, became an engineer in the Corps des Mines, and was head of the SGF from 1899 to 1920.1 March finds no easy home in our contemporary schemes, in the sense that he breaks with standard classifications. He reshaped the French statistical system, imported the new statistical techniques devised by British biometricians, investigated the field of time-series analysis, contributed to the spread of eugenics in France, promoted lectures in statistics at a time when they remained scarce, and made noteworthy incursions in economics and demography. Last, but not least, he developed a philosophy of science based on measure that—in some respects—illustrates the importance of the state in developing measurement, as the essays in this volume by Theodore Porter, Flavio Comim, and Martin Kohli suggest.
In this essay we will dissect March's methods of statistical research. We were motivated at the outset by the fact that his full contribution to the history of statistics has received scant attention. Our essay originates from two other concerns, both related to his specific approach to statistics. First, we would like to suggest that econo-engineers should be defined not only by their technical innovations but by their “non-mathematical arguments” as well, as Keiko Kurita (1989, 8) suggests. Indeed, their general training and practice sometimes led them to “take a detached view of their field” (Divisia 1951, 141) and to develop epistemological frameworks that remain underappreciated in the contemporary literature. Second, in debates that have recently occurred in the field of macroeconometrics, several protagonists—for instance, Summers (1991)—have questioned the usefulness of contemporary theory and called for more empirical inquiries and epistemological foundations. On this point, past episodes can afford enlightening lessons: several engineers of the nineteenth century and of the first half of the twentieth century based their practice of statistical economics on well-shaped [End Page 87] epistemological arguments—and such arguments, developed by scholars who are reputed to be advocates of mathematization, quantification, and measurement, could certainly be instructive. We found that March directly addressed both concerns. He carefully elaborated new tools for the statistical work in the social sciences and rooted them in an epistemological framework and in worldviews that were at the same time creating the scope and inscribing the limits of statistics. This association of...