Theses Doctoral

Making it Count: Statistics and State-Society Relations in the Early People's Republic of China, 1949-1959

Ghosh, Arunabh

This dissertation offers new perspectives on China's transition to socialism by investigating a fundamental question--how did the state build capacity to know the nation through numbers? With the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, jubilant Chinese revolutionaries were confronted by the dual challenge of a nearly nonexistent statistical infrastructure and the pressing need to escape the universalist claims of capitalist statistics. At stake for revolutionary statisticians and economists was a fundamental difficulty: how to accurately ascertain social scientific fact. Resolving this difficulty involved not just epistemological and theoretical debates on the unity or disunity of statistical science but also practical considerations surrounding state-capacity building.

The resultant shift toward a socialist definition of statistics, achieved by explicitly following the Soviet Union's example, was instrumental in shaping new bureaus, designing statistical work, and training personnel. New classificatory schemes and methods of data collection also raised issues of authority and policy, ultimately not just remolding state-society relations but also informing new conceptions of everyday life and work. By the mid-1950s, however, growing disaffection with the efficacy of Soviet methods led the Chinese, in a surprising turn of events, to seek out Indian statisticians in an unprecedented instance of Chinese participation in South-South scientific exchange. At the heart of these exchanges was the desire to learn more about large-scale random sampling, an emergent statistical technology, which, while technically complex, held great practical salience for large countries like China and India.

"Making it Count" engages with and contributes to scholarship on the history of modern China and on the global and Cold War histories of science and social science. While the historiography on statistics and quantification has focused primarily on the early-modern and nineteenth century world, the dissertation brings this history into the twentieth century, when states, multi-national institutions, and private actors, regardless of their ideological hue, mobilized statistics on behalf of positivist social science and statecraft. By examining the collection and deployment of data, a process critical to the ambitions of the revolutionary PRC state but one that has largely been overlooked in the historical literature, the dissertation also provides an alternative account for a decade often portrayed as lurching from one mass campaign to another. Finally, the examination of the Sino-Indian statistical links reveals that pioneering innovation took place in many contexts after 1945 and challenges Cold War paradigms that are predisposed to assume the United States or the Soviet Union as the primary nodes from which scientific and other forms of modern knowledge emanated.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Zelin, Madeleine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 12, 2014