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Social Policy and Development Programme Paper 3: Empirical Inquiries and the Assessment of Social Progress in Western Europe: A Historical Perspective

29 Aug 2000

  • Author(s): Jean-Michel Collette


The idea that good government should be based on precise information has a long history in Europe—a history that extends over more than three centuries. It originated in England when individuals of varied backgrounds tried to apply techniques of quantitative analysis to the study of social phenomena, starting with vital statistics and moving to the more complex issues of income and wealth estimates.

In this paper, Jean-Michel Collette paints a clear, rigorous and highly entertaining panorama of this facet of Western Europe's intellectual history. It is the story of those who understood that it would be intellectually rewarding and politically useful to observe and measure the living conditions of people. The great human beings evoked by the author include Petty, Le Play, King, Lavoisier, Eden, Davies, Villermé, Ducpétiaux, Colquhoun, Baxter, Leroy-Beaulieu, Colson, Coste, Helfferich, Lowe, McCulloch, Moreau de Jonnès, Giffen, Bowley, Booth and Rowntree. These clergymen, physicians, self-made social scientists, wealthy merchants and prominent academics worked very hard, with patience and steadiness, and with enthusiasm. For they were convinced that it was necessary and possible to improve the human condition. Neither detached nor cynical, they studied and learned, measured and published to make a difference in their societies.

The intellectual curiosity and innovative spirit that was required in the seventeenth century to measure the levels of living of "temporal and spiritual lords", as well as of "cottagers", "paupers", "common soldiers" and "vagrants", is now required to understand and measure such phenomena as the process of economic and financial globalization, the apparent concentration of power in the hands of a new international class, and the living conditions of the unemployed and marginalized in different cities of the world. There is certainly much work to be done. The world community as a whole, and notably the United Nations system, would benefit from the same kind of service and comparable pressure from intellectuals and scientists concerned with the common good.

Jean-Michel Collette prepared this essay for the 1999 Copenhagen Seminar for Social Progress, organized by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The topic of this seminar was "defining, measuring and monitoring social progress and social regress".

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