C. Statistics and the Social Sciences
1. Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1894) and Andre-Michel Guerry (1802–1866)
Despite the overwhelming complexity of social phenomena, Quetelet and Guerry were convinced that it was possible to apply statistical techniques to the investigation of social behavior. Both men were primarily interested in unraveling the statistical laws underlying social problems such as crime and suicide. This idea was controversial at the time, because it contradicted prevailing belief in free will. Quetelet’s most influential publication was Sur L’Homme et le Développement de ses Facultés, ou Essai de Physique Sociale (Treatise on Man; 1835), in which he described the “average” man, developed from the calculation of mean values to form a normal distribution. Quetelet called this process social physics, a term that Comte had earlier used. Quetelet’s appropriation of the phrase social physics prompted Comte to adopt the term sociology instead.
Guerry is known for developing the idea of moral statistics in an 1829 one-page document containing three maps of France, shaded in terms of crimes against property, crimes against persons, and a proxy for education (school instruction). A subsequent publication, Essay on Moral Statistics of France (1833), expanded on this technique and developed shaded maps to evaluate crime and suicides by age, sex, region, and season. He found that these rates varied by region but remained remarkably stable across the other factors.
This preliminary work emphasized the possibility that social measurements could provide insight into the regularity of human actions, forming a basis for the development of social laws, similar to the physical laws that govern the behavior of other objects and events in nature. Quetelet and Guerry were instrumental in the development of sociology and criminology, illustrating the possibility of measuring, determining the nature of relationships, and identifying patterns and regularities in social situations.