They Constructed an Idea of the State by Data: A Talk with Borbala Zsuzsanna Török

Talk about the global is often concerned with the present, maybe the future. Historians can have a special position as new things are usually not so new to them, and contemporary issues may seem familiar from the past. But a combination of various temporal perspectives may yield unexpected results. Senior Research Fellow PD Dr Borbala Zsuzsanna Török, from the University of Vienna's Department of History, whose stay at the Centre is coming to an end soon, contributed to the Centre's research group on 'Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation' with her research project on 'Critique of the Liberal State, Private Property and Legal Reform: Late 19th Century Experiences and Their Legacies'.

Zsuzsanna's academic career began in the 1990s, when nationalist studies flourished in certain parts of  Eastern European academia. From the start she was interested in the nationalist framing of cultural production. During her postgraduate studies at Central European University, Budapest (now Vienna) she studied the phenomenon extensively with renown scholars of the field, such as Rogers Brubaker and Will Kymlicka. Her PhD thesis dealt with regional learned societies in her home region Transylvania that were the motors of the 'nationalization' of modern scientific knowledge and the humanities.  Since then, Zsuzsanna has been intrigued by the social factors of knowledge creation.

The cultural geography of this multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic situation shaped by the more-or-less intrusive nation-state – this had been a core theme of  my various research projects.

In her second book, which became the basis of her Habilitation, Zsuzsanna applied her insight into the smaller region to the scale of a specific type of state. This was the Habsburg Monarchy, a composite polity put together from loosely integrated parts, which were all different, but which also shared some common features.

The intellectual challenge was now how to deal with – and how to analyse – this variety.

Conglomerates like the Habsburg Monarchy were quite specific political formations, because they functioned like a system of connected, semi-sovereign mini-states. Dealing with such polities requires  multiple scales of analysis that take account of local, regional, and state-level communications. Also, since the Habsburg Monarchy was embedded within the larger European academic and professional circuits, one must consider inter-imperial and global circulations of knowledge as well. This was the topic of one of her co-edited volumes (see right column).

Zsuzsanna’s second book deals with the history of statistics since the end of the 18th century. Initially, this was an encyclopaedic body of empirical knowledge about the state, rooted in the German enlightenment. The university discipline of ‘Statistik’  (the nineteenth century coined the increasingly pejorative-sounding 'Staatenkunde' to distinguish it from numerical administrative statistics), or the application of 'Staatswissenschaft' to a specific state, made part of what one would term today a 'knowledge-based governance,' that is, a way of governing not dependent on the person of ruler, but on science in its modern sense.  

The idea was that Statistik would organize knowledge about all fields of activity of a state in an encyclopaedic manner.

Two insights are remarkable. First, there is an element of imagination.

Practitioners of ‘Statistik’ imagined the state as a territorially defined entity with discrete and controllable borders before such borders and such controls actually existed. They described this space, and its inhabitants as well as they could. For decades it was a kind of sport among statisticians to gauge how large the state was, because the information simply did not exist or if it did, it was not available to the public.

Second, a certain tension developed between the practitioners of Statistik and members of the regional and central administration, because bureaucracies at this time were quite secretive, which was nothing unusual then. Unusual was rather the initiative (articulated in the Habsburg Monarchy in the new legislation of the enlightened rulers Maria Theresia and her son, Joseph II.), to introduce Statistik in higher education and to provide scholars access to the data necessary for compiling statistical textbooks.  

Török, Zsuzsanna B. (2021). ‘Statistik’ as State Building in the Habsburg Monarchy, ca. 1790–1880. Habilitation Manuscript, defended at the University of Vienna, 17.02. accepted for publication by Berghahn Publishers.

Zsuzsanna's historical approach to a regional setting offers possibilities of comparison to today’s transnational settings. Moving from Habsburg Europe to global Europe, Zsuzsanna’s research project at the Centre takes a comparative look at the nineteenth-century critique of the capitalist property regime.

Her starting points were the scientific biographies of two legal experts, the British Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888) and the Austrian Eugen Ehrlich (1862-1922).  Maine, who spent eight years as council of the colonial government of India, studied the local village communities and is regarded as one of the founders of legal anthropology. Ehrlich also counts as a pioneering figure of legal sociology, and he too did ethnographic research on the multi-ethnic rural society of his homeland region in Habsburg Bucovina. Both of them saw capitalist economy as a threat to these societies, and the question emerges if there was an intellectual and political chain of transmission spanning these two figures and other scholars at different historical, geographic, and cultural coordinates of the world. What Maine and Ehrlich also had in common was their influential positions as professors and individuals embedded in the state bureaucracy. They criticized the system from within.

These intellectuals were not part of the political Left, but belonged to the liberal mainstream. They wanted to improve capitalism, not to demolish it.  Particularly Maine had an enormous influence on the legislation and his voice was heard by generations of colonial administrators in India and Africa to come. Besides, after the economic and political crises of the 1770s, there emerged an audience for such internal critical voices, when belief in the blessings of the capitalist market economy and capitalist property was deeply shaken. Legal historians  increasingly turned to alternative regimes of possession, particularly collective forms.

Maine stands at the beginning of a long series of efforts to legitimize collective property as a corrective measure to capitalism’s destructive social impact. As Paolo Grossi showed, Maine had strong resonance in Europe, and his views were at the ground of re-introducing communal land rights as a social protective measure in Italy. The case study suggests that other countries may have introduced  such protective policies too, based on similar arguments! The theme reminds one of current debates about the global commons, but also of the more recent institutionalization of indigenous land rights. The more recent ‘rediscovery’ of Eugen Ehrlich and his vision on peasant societies guided by legal custom, has to do partly with this context.

The way the regulatory apparatus generates information as a basis for political decision depends on what it knows about the (social) environment. But this practice has to do also with contrary phenomena, namely forgetting and ignorance. As a Research Fellow at Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz, Zsuzsanna organized with her colleagues workshops on both of these topics, which turned into publications (with Gunhild Berg and Marcus Twellmann (eds.), Berechnen/Beschreiben. Praktiken statistischen (Nicht-)Wissens 1750-1850, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2015; 'Memory, History, Forgetting, and the Chances of an Interdisciplinary Dialogue on Human Consciousness,' in Giovanni Galizia and David Schulmann (eds.), Forgetting: An Interdisciplinary Conversation. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press 2015, 314–322).

The production of knowledge always takes place regarding what we don't yet know, but we are aware of this hiatus, so we are making an effort to fill it. In other cases we are not aware that we don't know important things. These may be dangerous in calculating risk, for instance.

The field of agnotology addresses this bundle of topics, which Zsuzsanna finds important in the work of statisticians, particularly in the field of probability calculations and making forecasts. Here, the awareness that our knowledge is limited is essential 'so that you know how to position yourself'.

Even the early statisticians at the end of the eighteenth century knew, thanks to their theoretical models, that there were many things they didn't know yet. They constructed an idea of the state by data, even if they didn't have the data.

It's hard not to think of Big Data here, about scenario building and many other contemporary 'burning issues'. Zsuzsanna finally reflects on her experience at the Centre:

I profited immensely from the themes discussed in the research groups, particularly from the world system approach. This is very inspiring for an historian and is broadening my perspective. Not all historians do world-system theory, which is perfectly fine in my discipline. I notice that my colleagues in IR think differently, but I find this cognitive dissonance productive. Another inspiring aspect about GCR21 is that  political scientists are always going for the burning issues. I enjoyed that very much. Of course, as a historian you also have to talk about relevant issues, otherwise nobody will take you seriously. But my discipline has a more distanced take on this.

A Talk with Zsuzsanna Török by Martin Wolf and Andrew Costigan.

Török, Zsuzsana B. with László Kontler, Antonella Romano and Silvia Sebastiani (eds.) (2014). Negotiating Knowledge in Early-Modern Empires: a Decentered View. Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History, New York: Palgrave Publishers.

Research Project at the Centre

Borbala Zsuzsanna Török. Critique of the Liberal State, Private Property and Legal Reform: Late 19th Century Experiences and Their Legacies, project presentation online.