The History of Madness and Psychiatry at the History of Science Society Conference (3-6 November 2011) – ter

At our first post on HSS-Conference we forgot a paper that may also interest readers of h-madness. In the section “Defending Science Against Standardization”, Theodore Porter presents a paper entitled “Cases and Statistics in the Nineteenth-Century Asylum”. The abstract reads:

Nineteenth-century asylum patients had all the characteristics of a population yearning to be quantified, and the alienists were happy to oblige. Yet they also complained often that the numbers didn’t seem to prove anything. The prevailing response, internationally approved, was to pursue standards. This meant uniform categories, so that numbers from Illenau, Charenton, and Worcester would be compatible with Bedlam, and could be combined into much bigger numbers that would reveal answers to pressing questions. It also meant standardizing the collection of patient data to make the numbers reliable. But this would presume that hospitals were or could be made almost identical, and there were abundant reasons that the asylum could not be standardized. At least this was the argument of F. W. Hagen, who offered his asylum in Erlangen as the model of different kind of statistics that would amass numbers over time as well as space and would incorporate local knowledge of the patients in a particular place. In practice, the standardization project was only marginally successful, and asylum statistics took shape in relation to disparate institutional cultures and to the typical medical genre of (somewhat) individualized case histories.

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