Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the US Census and How to Read Them

Wednesday, September 21, 2022
4:15 pm to 5:30 pm PDT

Dan Bouk

The census isn’t just a data-collection process; it’s a ritual, and a tool, of American democracy. Behind every neat grid of numbers is a collage of messy, human stories — you just have to know how to read them.

In this talk, Dan Bouk, reads with us the 1940 US census uncovering what those numbers both condense and cleverly abstract: a universe of meaning and uncertainty, of cultural negotiation and political struggle. The 1940 census is a crucial entry in American history, a controversial dataset that enabled the creation of New Deal era social programs, but that also, with the advent of World War II, would be weaponized against many of the citizens whom it was supposed to serve.

Drawn from his new book, which the New York Times called “endearingly nerdy,” this lecture tells the story of a massive, open dataset and argues for the importance of understanding the data we rely on to drive our governance.

This lecture will also be live streamed via Zoom.

Join the Zoom live stream

Dan Bouk researches the history of bureaucracies, quantification, and other modern things shrouded in cloaks of boringness. He studied computational mathematics as an undergraduate, before earning a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His work investigates the ways that corporations and states have used, abused, and re-made the categories that structure our daily experiences of being human. His first book, How Our Days Became Numbered (Chicago, 2015), explored the life insurance industry’s methods for quantifying people, discriminating by race, and thinking statistically. He teaches history at Colgate University.

Last updated:

September 7, 2022