Thesis ID: CBB732032065

Counting the Countless: Statistics, Demography, and the Making of the Modern Refugee, 1920s-1950s (2023)


The conventional history of refugees centers on a narrative of increasing legal protection. Counting the Countless upends this story by focusing on the role of statistics and demography in twentieth-century Europe. I argue that the social sciences provided a framework for identifying, classifying, and controlling refugees. Drawing on archives in Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States (US), I show how this framework served as a tool more readily and more efficiently deployed than international law. Well before lawyers, demographers set out to fill the gap of knowledge surrounding refugees, starting with complex methodologies that relied on quantification. Thanks to the generative nature of statistics, they used cross-national data sets to outline refugees as a comprehensive, international category. At the same time, their surveys introduced detailed racial and gendered classifications that produced flawed predictions of future displacement. My investigation highlights how these processes of quantification were directly involved in refugee policy as it was enacted. Across this history, it also reveals several surprises: the colonial fantasies involved in resettling European refugees in order to bolster a majority-white population, the allure that numerical control held for jurists who sought to create a legal class, and not least the ideas of visibility and empowerment the displaced themselves brought to the practice of human accounting. This project is the first to demonstrate the wide-ranging impact of population thought on the history and administration of forced displacement. In so doing, it offers a new vision of the twentieth-century human sciences and their entanglement in national, imperial, and global governance. The case of the refugee illustrates the problematic nature of quantitative methods for sensitive subjects like human mobility, notably because of their fundamental reliance on racial classification. Counting the Countless thus contributes to understanding statistics and demography, and their value for states, from the perspective of their own limitations. A focus on quantitative theories and practices within migration history also explains how social-scientific techniques have condensed complex realities into standard categories—and highlights our own complicity as historians in the present. My work unsettles tacitly accepted national frameworks that have effaced our ability to understand global human mobility in its full historical range.

Citation URI

This citation is part of the Isis database.

Similar Citations

Article Funda Ustek-Spilda; (2020)
Statisticians as Back-office Policy-makers: Counting Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in Europe (/p/isis/citation/CBB669841226/) unapi

Book Emmanuel Didier; (2020)
America by the Numbers: Quantification, Democracy, and the Birth of National Statistics (/p/isis/citation/CBB247797576/) unapi

Article Christopher J. Phillips; (June 2016)
The taste machine: Sense, subjectivity, and statistics in the California wine world (/p/isis/citation/CBB901373382/) unapi

Article Ycart, Bernard; (2013)
Letter Counting (/p/isis/citation/CBB001320482/) unapi

Book Judith Friedlander; (2019)
A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (/p/isis/citation/CBB482003690/) unapi

Article Karafantis, Layne; (June 2014)
Suburban Growth in the Atomic West: The Impact of Sandia Laboratories on Postwar Albuquerque (/p/isis/citation/CBB303368418/) unapi

Book Carole R. (Carole Ruth) McCann; (2017)
Figuring the population bomb: Gender and demography in the mid-twentieth century (/p/isis/citation/CBB656267988/) unapi

Book Nicholas De Genova; (2017)
The borders of "Europe": Autonomy of migration, tactics of bordering (/p/isis/citation/CBB617042023/) unapi

Article Godfrey Baldacchino; (2021)
Forced Immobility: Undocumented Migrants, Boats, Brussels, and Islands (/p/isis/citation/CBB464738879/) unapi

Article Simon Kemp; (2018)
Quantification of Virtue in Late Medieval Europe (/p/isis/citation/CBB663027616/) unapi

Book Glimp, David; Warren, Michelle R.; (2004)
Arts of Calculation: Quantifying Thought in Early Modern Europe (/p/isis/citation/CBB000771864/) unapi

Book Heinrich Hartmann; (2019)
The Body Populace: Military Statistics and Demography in Europe before the First World War (/p/isis/citation/CBB466997778/) unapi

Article David Juste; (2016)
The Impact of Arabic Sources on European Astrology: Some Facts and Numbers (/p/isis/citation/CBB593043980/) unapi

Article Aparna Nair; (2024)
Enumerating Infirmity: Disability, Demography, and Empire, 1820–1950 (/p/isis/citation/CBB148141470/) unapi

Article Lawrence A. Zeidman; Anna von Villiez; Jan-Patrick Stellmann; Hendrik van den Bussche; (2016)
“History Had Taken Such a Large Piece Out of My Life” — Neuroscientist Refugees from Hamburg During National Socialism (/p/isis/citation/CBB216573144/) unapi

Article Wolff, Stefan L.; (2000)
Frederick Lindemanns Rolle bei der Emigration der aus deutschland vertriebenen Physiker (/p/isis/citation/CBB000111873/) unapi

Authors & Contributors
Bussche, Hendrik van den
Canalejo, Carmen González
Cusso, Roser
Didier, Emmanuel
DiMoia, John P.
Glimp, David
Asclepio: Archivo Iberoamericano de Historia de la Medicina
Cold War History
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
Histoire & Mesure
Historiographia Linguistica: International Journal for the History of the Language Sciences
History of Psychology
MIT Press
Columbia University Press
Duke University Press
Palgrave Macmillan
University of Washington Press
Emigration; immigration
Demography; population research
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
Lindemann, Frederick Alexander, 1st Viscount Cherwell
Ehrlich, Paul
Amerine, Maynard A. (Maynard Andrew), 1911-1998
Time Periods
20th century
20th century, early
21st century
19th century
15th century
United States
Great Britain
New Mexico (U.S.)
Sandia National Laboratories (United States)
League of Nations
New School for Social Research
Air Force Research Laboratory (Kirtland Air Force Base)

Be the first to comment!

{{ comment.created_by.username }} on {{ comment.created_on | date:'medium' }}

Log in or register to comment