The making of a category of economic understanding in Great Britain (1880–1931): ‘the unemployed’

Paul Lagneau-Ymonet & Bénédicte Reynaud (2020)

Cambridge Journal of Economics. Online first

Abstract. Evidence-based policy relies on measurement to trigger actions and to manage and evaluate programmes. Yet measurement requires classification: the making of categories of understanding that approximate or represent collective phenomena. In 1931, two decades after implementing the first compulsory unemployment benefits in 1911, the British Government began to carry out a census of out-of-work individuals. Why such an inversion, at odds with the exercise of rational-legal authority, and unlike to its French or German counterparts? To solve this puzzle, we document the making of ‘the unemployed’ as a category of scientific analysis and of public policy in nineteenth-century Great Britain. Our circumscribed contribution to the history of economic thought and methodology informs today’s controversies on the future of work, the weakening of wage labour through the rise in the number of part-time contracts and self-employed workers, as well as the rivalry between the welfare state and private charities with regard to providing impove rished people with some kind of relief.

Excerpt. “Third, the realist/constructivist divide among social scientists (Hacking, 2000) should not be overplayed. Statistics approximate the regularities that organise existing entities or represent abstractions that contribute to the analysis of social phenomena. If what is revealed by the observation apparatus is not dependent on it, then the ‘realist’view on statistics may be valid. On the other hand, if measurement conventions tend to establish what is to be measured, then a ‘constructivist’ perspective may be fruitful. For instance, during the period of time we investigated, numerous working-class people found themselves out of work, before public statisticians, economists and social reformers conceived the category—of analysis and of practice—to grasp the scale of the social problem that these ‘unemployed’ represented for the British society. As Porter puts it: ‘The invention of […] unemployment rates around 1900 hinted at a different sort of phenomenon, a condition of society involving collective responsibility rather than an unfortunate or reprehensible condition of individual persons’ (Porter, 1995, p. 37).” (p. 3)

Link to the review