Global economic inequality is one of the most hotly debated political issues of our time, and the surge in media attention and political interest in this topic in recent years has demonstrated the importance of statistical knowledge as a key element in academic and public discourse on this and related subjects. Statistical knowledge on income and wealth distribution has shaped and has been shaped by cultural images of society, intellectual ideas about social justice, and redistributive politics.

Statistics represent social constructs that are contingent on changing political contexts, popular perceptions, and methodological choices that can render selected social phenomena or groups more visible in the public eye while obscuring others. The current preoccupation with the wealthiest top one per cent, for example, has often distracted from widening disparities in the middle and elsewhere in the income spectrum. Understanding the making of this knowledge thus offers fresh insights into key contemporary debates about social class divisions, the political economy at large, and questions of global justice. While public discourse on these and other issues have attracted much scholarly attention, historians have seldom delved deeper into the underlying statistical knowledge.

This course aims to historicise the production and circulation of statistical knowledge about poverty, income and wealth distribution and explore its place in modern political culture in the the latter half of the twentieth century. Particular emphasis will be placed on the United Kingdom, but the course will also look at case studies from other world regions and incorporate international organisations as social spaces where transnational concepts and statistics of global inequality have been developed.

The course will draw on a broad range of sources from archival records to the contemporary social science literature and will approach the subject from various disciplinary angles. In particular, it will introduce students to the history of knowledge as an emerging historical sub-discipline and, more specifically, the current interdisciplinary research on poverty and inequality knowledge that has attracted an increasing number of scholars in recent years.

Semester: WiTerm 2020/21