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A brief introduction to state information gathering

Edward Higgs

The collection of information on individuals by the state is a topic of heated contemporary debate. Issues of data protection and freedom of information have problematised the official collection of personal data, whilst the attack of terrorist on New York and Washington DC in 2001 have made the identification and tracking of individuals a top priority for nation states engaged in the 'War on Terror'. Such data collection has also encouraged some social theorists to elaborate over-arching theories to explain the development of this state activity.

For the sociologist Anthony Giddens, at least in his two-volume Contemporary critique of historical materialism first published in the 1980s (Giddens, 1987, 179–81; Giddens, 1995, 218), the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the transition from absolutist forms of government to the nation state. Prior to this period the state was not interested in its subjects, who were left to remain in obscurity in local communities. During the Industrial Revolution, however, the state reaches out and penetrates all aspects of social life, just as capitalist production and the market permeate all economic activity. Surveillance, in terms of the state collection of information on members of the population that enables them to be kept within the sights of the state, is part of that process of 'internal pacification' that Giddens holds as central to the development of a modern industrial society. Such information gathering both enables the detection of those committing acts that threaten the dominant rules of that society, and also the planning of social settings that constrain such deviancy. This replaces communal forms of social control, which are seen as having collapsed during the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. He sees the development of the systematic collection of official statistics as an index of this process. Amongst such statistical forms he includes the results of the centralised collation of information created in the process of the registration of births, marriages and deaths; census-taking; and the collection and analysis of data pertaining to residence, ethnic background and occupation. Giddens also includes here the creation of what came to be called 'moral statistics' by Victorian statists, relating to suicide, delinquency, divorce, and so on.

Similarly, Michel Foucault maintained that there have been two major revolutions in the technologies of power since the seventeenth century — the development of techniques aimed at inculcating the self-discipline of the individual body, in matters of sexuality, for example, and the development of bio-political techniques aimed at the collective or 'social body'. Rule as a 'mentality' of government, as a particular way of problematising social relations, emerged historically, in this account, with the break up of feudalism and the appearance of a new order of competition and conflict among European states. Such conflict made it imperative both to know about, and to work to increase, the internal forces of states, and thus gave rise to the new state rationality. In Foucault's account, this rationality was embodied in two major sets of technologies of knowledge and politics: a diplomatic-military technology involving a set of inter-state alliances and the construction of military might; and the technology of police, designed to augment the forces of the state from within. The attempts to expand the 'life force' of the population through welfare and public health measures, is thus linked to the duty of all citizens to sacrifice their lives in war for the state — biopower implies the ability both to create life and take it away (e.g. Foucault, 1982; Foucault, 1991).

As statesmen and savants began to think in terms of acting upon the 'population' as a whole, the latter became an entity to be measured and manipulated in the interests of the state. This implied the need to know and understand the contours of the population, or rather to recreate society as a 'population' through which power could be exercised. Hence, the rise of the census, health statistics and the like, which involved reducing the complexity of existing populations to a framework of known administrative units, and of individuals with fixed characteristics and predictable life-courses. Bruce Curtis sees such activities in terms of an attempt "to tie individuals to places within an administrative grid and then to hold them steady so that they may become objects of knowledge and government" (Curtis, 26).

Still others have seen the collection of information on individuals in terms of nation-building in the aftermath of revolution via the creation of a picture of a cohesive 'imagined community' (Anderson, 1983). The classical example of such strategies was found in France, where in the early nineteenth century various revolutionary, Napoleonic and republican central state bureaux amassed national statistics by which, according to Perrot and Woolf, "France one and indivisible" was to be constructed through the very act of cataloguing the innumerable variations bequeathed by environment and history within the national boundaries. Unity was construed as uniformity, to be achieved by identifying and gradually limiting local differences (Perrot and Woolf, 89).

Similarly, Silvana Patriarca has put forward related arguments with respect to the attempts to create an identity for a unified Italy during the nineteenth century (Patriarca, 1996).

These are very interesting and provocative theories but how far they can be applied consistently to specific nation states is perhaps in doubt. In the case of England, for example, Higgs has recently put forward a rather different set of arguments for the rise of central information collection on individuals (Higgs, 2004). He points out that Giddens' belief that the state was not interested in collecting information on people prior to the late eighteenth century is only true if one speaks of the central state. However, much information collection went on in the local state, presided over by officers under the Crown such as JPs and overseers of the poor. Similarly, it is unlikely that the state could use data gathering to identify and track individuals since it lacked the necessary data processing technology until the twentieth century. But the British state certainly did develop personal nominal databases for this purpose from the Edwardian period onwards. Again, the equation of 'population thinking' with military preparedness is difficult to make in the case of a country such as England which did not have a standing army until the twentieth century. It is only in the twentieth century that the British state began to concern itself directly with pro-natalist strategies, and then intermittently. Also, England did not have a revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and did not require nation-building in the same manner as some continental states.

In the case of England, Higgs argues, activities such as census-taking and civil registration in the nineteenth century are better seen in terms of developing a certain set of individual rights and liberties — the protection of property; protection from disease through providing information on unhealthy places and occupations, or local sanitary reform; local democratic activity through the provision of information on local conditions, and the maintenance of local electoral boundaries; and so on. In the twentieth century, imperial decline, the undermining of the economic underpinnings of local elites, and the need to incorporate the working classes into the political system, all lead to the expansion of the central provision of goods and services, and of taxation to pay for them. This in turn requires increased information gathering for the purposes of preventing fraud, planning provision, and identifying taxable wealth.

This thesis can be linked with Foucault's concept of 'governmentality', which he defines as "the manner in which the conduct of a mass of individuals comes to be implicated, in an increasingly marked manner, in the exercise of sovereign power". That is, people increasingly internalise roles — citizen, householder, property owner, etc. — that bed them into the on-going reproduction of systems of power and authority within society (see, for example, Joyce). But it is difficult to see such economic, political and social rights purely in terms of Foucault's 'technologies of power', since they have a positive, if limited, quality. There are also other ways of conceptualising the genesis of roles in society (e.g., Parsons, 1951), and of the 'bounded' nature of pluralism in modern society (e.g., Mann, 1993).


Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London, 1983).

Bruce Curtis, The politics of population. State formation, statistics and the census of Canada, 1840–1875 (Toronto, 2001).

Michel Foucault, 'The subject and power', in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds, Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics, with an afterward by Michel Foucault (Brighton, 1982), 208–26.

Michel Foucault, 'Governmentality', in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds, The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality (London, 1991), 87–104.

Anthony Giddens, The nation-state and violence: volume two of a contemporary critique of historical materialism (Cambridge, 1987).

Anthony Giddens, A contemporary critique of historical materialism (London, 1995).

Edward Higgs, The information state in England: the central collection of information on citizens, 1500–2000 (London, 2004).

Patrick Joyce, The rule of freedom; liberalism and the modern city (London, 2003).

Michael Mann, The sources of social power. Vol. II The rise of classes and nation-states (Cambridge, 1993).

Talcott Parsons, The social system (London, 1951).

Silvana Patriarca, Numbers and nationhood. Writing statistics in nineteenth-century Italy (Cambridge, 1996).

Jean-Claude Perrot & Stuart J. Woolf, State and statistics in France 1789–1815 (New York, 1984).