In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

214 THE CANADIAN HISTORICAL REVIEW tivelyuseless index,anda tendency toexcessive repetition of certain conclusions, thisisa workthatdeserves tobewidelyread. LORING B. PRIEST LycomingCollege The Plain Peopleo[ Boston,•83o-•86o: A Studyin City Growth.PETER R. KNm•ITS.New York, OxfordUniversityPress, •97x. Pp.xx, •o4, maps.$8.75. PeterKnights'traceanalysis of thegeographic andsocial mobilityof individual 'plainpeople'in ante-bellum Boston isa pioneering, thoughfaltering,attempt at 'quantitativehistory,'or what StephenThemstromhas dubbedthe 'new urbanhistory.'Sincemosthistorical writingaboutdrieshasbeenbasedupon traditional literarysources, it hasbeenelitist in bias;theinarticulate lowerclasses havebeenignored.Thesecouldonlybe tracedby tappingnewsources, which posed enormous problems because ofthequantityandcomplexity of theinformation .It wasnotpossible to masterthismaterialmerelythroughreadingit and allowingit to percolate throughthe mind; new techniques werenecessary to copewith suchdata.It isfittingthat Knightsshould choose Boston, whichhas received moreattentionfrom the traditionalhistorian than almostany other city,for hisstudy'fromthebottomup.' Knightsdrew385 headsof households randomlyfrom eachof the federal censuses of •83o , •84o, •85o,and i86o, thusgivinghim a totalsample of •54o people, mostly marriedmales.He sought their addresses andoccupations from citydirectories, and tracedthemfurtherthroughcitypropertyassessment records , citydeathrecords, statebirth,death,andmarriagerecords, cemetery interment indices,manuscript federalcensus returnsfor I28 Massachusetts towns, andthepublished Vital Records of •52 towns. The productof thismassive effort isindeed quantitative history - thereare62tables in 124pages of text,andseven morein theappendices. Through the census returnshe followsthe growth of Bostonfrom 61,4oo people in I830 to •77,8ooin I860, bywhichrimeIrish immigrants andtheir childrenhad become numerically dominant.But the censuses showonly net population gains, whichdisregard thetotal]lowof peopleinto,within,andout of thecity.On plottingthemovements of hissamplemembers, Knightsargues that therewasan annualpopulation turnoverof 3ø per centduringthe •83os, andthatthisrose to4øpercentintheI85OS. Moreover, since hissample neglected thesingle, andthedirectories wereless reliablein listing themoreunsettled lower classes andcounted at mostonemoveperheadper year,hisestimate of the rate ofmobility islowratherthanhigh. Knightsdivides the cityintocentre(the ward containing the CBD and those wardscontiguous to it) and periphery,andmapsthe flow of population into, out of, between,and within thesesections; he plotsthe mobilityof different groups overtime;he divides thesample ninewaysaccording to socio-economic status, and argues against the traditionalviewthat the poorweretrappedin slums andghettoes onthegrounds that theyweremoregeographically mobile REVIEWS 215 than themorewealthy.Finally,in what mustsurelyhavebeenthe mosttedious ofoperations, Knightsseeks to tracethepersons whomovedoutof thecity,and issuccessful in locating'34 of the 497 cases. He compares the fortunesof outmigrants andpersisters, andattempts to establish a relationbetween success and persistence in Boston. The mostimportantcontribution of Knights'work is the mannerin which hehasbeenabletoadvance beyond thenetgainsoutlinedin thecensus to reveal theextentof thepopulation flow- a delineation of theprocess of geographical mobilityin and throughBoston. But unfortunately right herethereis a flaw in Knights'case.When he concludes that in eachof the threedecades studied'at leasttwoto sixtimesasmanyfamilies passed throughthe cityaslivedthereat the startof the decade,' and that for mostof the sample members Boston was merely'a waystationon their trip throughlife,' he forgetsthat hisformulais baseduponthe level of residential mobilitywhich the compilers of the city directories derived fromtherateof changes in theirlistings. He states in another contextthat 54.2percentof themoves of hissample werecirculatory - that is, withinthecentreorperiphery; tothese mustbeaddedthemoves between centre andperiphery. Thus,abouttwo-thirds of themoves werewithinBoston. His own figures showthat of hissample of '540 people,only497 movedout of Boston duringthisthirty-year period.Thisdoes notdestroy thesignificance of Knights' findingsconcerning the extentof residental mobility;however,it doesmean thathisestimate of theflowratethroughBoston isconsiderably exaggerated. Indeed,Knights' fascination withhisstatistics, whichheclearly enjoys manipulating ,goes toofar, andtheiruseisnot always significant or appropriate. This isparticularlyreprehensible in Chaptersv and vr, wherehe bases hiscaseon subdivisions of subsamples (status groups, orevenstatus groups aslocated among tracedout-migrants)sothat the numberof cases he uses becomes too smallto affordreliability.It isludicrous whenhe goes into detailin suchcircumstances orattempts to explaina sudden 'change' between twoperiods. Because the studyisbasedalmostwhollyon statistical analysis, the readeris often left unsatisfied. Where the statistical inference is valid the fact found is oftenimportant;but explanation requires othersources aswell.And soKnights isforcedtobevague(for example, duringperiods of movement fromperiphery to centrenewcomers enteredat the periphery,where presumablyrentswere lower;somesamplemembers movedfrom centreto peripheryand then back again-maybe because commutation provedtooarduous) or,alternatively, tobase sweeping 'interpretations' on scanty evidence(aswhenhe bases the conclusion that 'changingresidential patternswere tendingto divide Bostoninto subcommunities ' uponthe findingthat duringthe ,85osmovementwithin Boston waswithincentreor periphery ratherthan between them). In addition,while muchis madeof the central-peripheral division,the boundaries are not at all clearfromthemaps. To sumthen: in the styleof muchinferiorsocialresearch Knightshascommittedtwogrievous errors for whichhe mustbe castigated. First,he presents pageuponpageof statistical tables,merelydescribing their content,offering 216 THE CANADIAN HISTORICAL REVIEW littleinterpretation. Thisfaultiscompounded byanunfortunate limitednumber of cases whichfrequentlycauses him...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 214-216
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.