International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Statistics, poll and surveys
Statistics are a popular source in examination papers. Whether primary sources produced in the past e.g. census returns, or secondary sources produced after some serious hard work by historians, statistics can provide important scientific support for general conclusions we may wish to make.

The study of history which places particular emphasis on statistical or quantitative methods is known as cliometrics.

Strengths   Limitations
Statistics are often the end result of a lot of hard work, serious research and counting. They can summarize very accurately and with great precision very complex factors. Rather than vague suggestions that there was a ‘big increase’ or ‘many casualties’ it is far better to have an exact figure. For example, how many newspapers, schools or libraries in a town can tell us something about literacy levels, especially when we compare one town with another or the same over a period of time. Statistics are therefore great for making comparisons over time and space.

From numbers we can generate graphs that demonstrate correlation, patterns and trends. From these we can propose reasons for historical causes and consequences or relative significance. For example, I think that unemployment was an important factor in the rise to power of the Nazi party in Germany. My conclusion is supported by the statistical evidence that shows a correlation between numbers unemployed and the number of people who voted for the Nazis.

  The American writer Mark Twain famously said ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Because they improve the power of argument, it is tempting use statistics selectively in order to make a point. To say that ‘most statistics are made up’ is less impressive than ‘51.73% of statistics are made up’! Somehow, numbers just seem more 'scientific'.

Because statistics are only the end result of research, we are not always aware of the methods that were used to arrive at the figures. It is very important to know who conducted the research and how. In totalitarian regimes, with strict control over information, statistics are notoriously unreliable. And even in more liberal regimes, surveys can be conducted with the intention of arriving at a particular conclusion. The official surveys of child labour in 19th century England asked children ‘leading’ questions in order to demonstrate how awful conditions were. (see below)

Other than accuracy, the main issue with statistics is the question of how representative they are. This is particularly true of percentages. ‘33% of history teachers in my school are Welsh’ sounds like a lot, but are hardly representative if I’m the only one. Typically on an exam paper a source of statistics only provide information for an aspect of the question– one time or one place - where as the question invariably is more general.

In the end statistics are just numbers and not everything important about the past can be conveyed by numbers.
Statistics for dead in World War II - Source: BBC 

Statistics for World War Two casualties are difficult to verify and vary from source to source. These figures are taken from a BBC website and the author acknowledges that they can only be approximate.

Discussion Points: Why is it difficult for historians to agree on accurate statistics of World War Two casualties?
What do the statistics tell you about War as experienced in Eastern and Western Europe?

 How are statistics generated? Looking behind the numbers.

Report of the Select Committee of Factory Children's Labour, 1831-32. Interview with Charles Burns, a 14 year old textile worker in Leeds.

At what age did you begin work in the mills? I was nearly eight years old.
What were your hours of working? From half past five in the morning till eight at night. How often were you allowed to make water [go to the toilet]? Three times a day. Could you hold your water [urine] all that time? No. We were forced to let it go.
Did you spoil and wet your clothes constantly? Every noon and every night.
Did you ever hear of that hurting anybody? Yes, there was a boy died.
Did he go home ill with attempting to suppress his urine? Yes, and after he had been home a bit, he died.
Were you beaten at your work? If we looked off our work or spoke to one another we were beaten. What time of day was it you were most beaten? In the morning.
And when you were sleepy? Yes. Was the mill very dusty? Yes.
What effect did it produce? When we went home at night and went to bed we spit up blood. Had you a cough with inhaling the dust? Yes, I had a cough and spit blood.

This survey provides good examples of 'leading questions', where those conducting the survey ask questions designed to produce certain kinds of answer.


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