This is a book that could initially seem tedious because of the subjects it discusses; but it is exactly the opposite. Its reading is quite pleasant and enlightening. Mayer proposes a new view on the history of statistics in Mexico. In the introduction, which becomes essential to understand the rest of the book, the author describes concisely the main ideas of her conceptual frame and the sources she used; she performs a critical review on the studies around this subject and clearly establishes the problems she intends to study.
On this point, the doctor from the Instituto de Investigaciones de Matemáticas Aplicadas y Sistemas [Institute of Applied Mathematics and Systems Research] (UNAM), draws the attention of the readers to the fact that “in this work there are two aspects: first, statistics as a cultural text, in which the veracity of the news is not important, given the fact that what interests is the thought world: what types of data drew the attention of the scientists, how they were interpreted and what usefulness was given to them. […] On the other hand, there is the scientific community that generated and interpreted statistics. From this view we are attracted to the empirical datum –biographical- regarding their everyday life and the values they poured into the academic rituals.” Apparently, both aspects develop as two parallel histories, but in fact there is certain distance between these two texts and the life of their authors; however, several bridges are built through narration and there is a fluent communication between the two aspects.
Using cultural history and anthropology as methodological tools, the author analyzes the evolution of statistics in their symbolic sense along the first half of the XIX century. She details the work of the scientists, who register information, make tables and charts, compare social behavior and natural phenomena, draw “useful” deductions and spread the results by means of various printed means. But Leticia Mayer notes that the authors had a second goal: they were very interested in getting to know the “deviation from the norm”, that is, all those social residues that remained outside the limits of moral and of the “average man” such as delinquents, criminals and prostitutes. From this knowledge, the intention was to “control the deviated groups to straighten them up and protect society.” Therefore, during this historic period, statistics becomes a necessary instrument to design and impose state policies, both corrective and preventive.
From this moment and to this day, statistics penetrates all the areas of our life. For instance, Peter Becker, scholar of moral statistics, has recently published an article about the role of prostitutes in the criminality of XIXth century Germany, in the review Crime, historie et sociétes. [Crime, history and societies]. There he noted that during the first half of the last century, “when fear of moral contagion became dominant, doctors brought to attention the subject of social hygiene and the need to protect oneself before the proliferation of venereal diseases. In this moment, their arguments were still within a narrative in which innocent children and women could become infected and turn into victims.”
We may say that moral statistics were one of our first faces as an independent country. The facultative ones, through numbers, pretended to recognize us. In order to do this, they invented a “scientific” icon that encouraged homogenization, and they identified our deviations to bring them to an end. Statistics, far beyond numbers, represented a yearning of a country, the place that corresponded to it in the concert of civilized nations. Before our new partners, it was necessary to present ourselves with good numbers to appear as and create a healthy and incorruptible representation.
The history of statistics in Mexico begins as in many other parts of the world; everyday gatherings with friends acquire a more serious character and debates provoke greater commitments. Therefore, this type of informal meetings becomes an institution, which was ascribed to various ministries and offices, but which did not find a moment’s rest due to constant political revolts. But after many obstacles, the Geography and Statistics Society was organized, which exists to this day.
A good part of this decade is devoted to reveal the social characteristics of a handful of scholars that promoted research and diffusion of statistics. The biography of these men elapses parallel to Mexico’s own history.
In a careful way, these scientists weave an intricate network. With the support of ten diagrams, each of the possible interactions of fifteen characters was examined, and they had a major role in the reflection and application of their “useful” knowledge. Taking into account the common points and the differences of each of the main characters, the author gathers them in five groups which are: pioneers, important ones, scientific, strong and young. Probably we do not share the criteria with which the statistic data was grouped. However, these data throw light on certain very coherent aspects. By the dates of birth we know we are dealing with two generations. The first came to the world in the middle of the Borbonic reformation and they even enjoyed said stage of progress. The second are the sons of political revolts, of inconformity and economic crisis. The third part (33 percent), are originally from the most prosperous region: the Bajío. Two of the most important ones or “centralizing egos” studied in Europe and the United States respectively; one belonged to the Creole aristocracy and the other was an illegitimate child. The others studied mainly in schools in Mexico City, among which we note the Colegio Nacional de Minería [National School of Mining].
According to the narration of the activities they developed, which is a fundamental aspect, we find that academic, military and political areas were combined. However, something that drew our attention is that intelligence had a political preference of monarchic type. And we do not mention this to censure or because we consider it a disease they suffered, but we think that this point is one more sign that allows us to understand these men and the way they conceived the world. This political preference brought them a series of penalties and marginalized them, mostly as to the restored Republic.
For the study of the academic rituals, the author bases her work on yearbooks of the Colegio Nacional de Minería published between 1845 and 1848. The analysis of these assemblies focuses on speeches that were given. Although in a general way the protocol of this kind of ceremonies is mentioned, we regret the author did not elaborate on these themes, because we think they would have enriched the main thesis of the book, mostly as to its symbolic character. Regarding the speeches, the orators stirred nationalism through historic heroic deeds; they appealed to collective memory looking for a place among the civilized countries. They made reference to classic books and dusted old paintings from the gallery of illustrious men. The first ceremony was of great enthusiasm; in the second there was deep melancholy, but a greater need to reinforce national identity. Between them, Mexico had lost the war, and with it more than half its territory, and it had admitted defeat before the American invasion. The army of the bars and stars profaned the temple of knowledge and turned the Palacio de Minería into its headquarters, where there was “nowhere to set foot, because it had become a disgusting sewer.”
The fifty-one images that accompany the text recover an ancient tradition of illustrating history books, and they provide an important amount of information and not only decoration. In a very discrete way, two plans and four maps are mentioned; the incorporation of images of covers and certain charts are a business card that makes readers come close to the originals. The ambiance of the epoch was created by means of lithographic images of buildings and streets of Mexico City, with which one may take a great tour. The reader must draw his/her own conclusions from the work as a whole and then decipher the codes of the engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of the main characters.
Eduardo Flores Clair
Dirección de Estudios Históricos, INAH.
(Direction of Historic Studies, INAH.]