Quantitative Literacy

Quantitative literacy is a basic skill that allows historians to convey ideas not always best or most easily explained with words. It also represents the ability to appreciate or understand quantitative methods in historical research. Quantitatively literate historians do not shy away from numbers, charts, or graphs—they use their critical minds and historiographical training to contextualize the numeric information in front of them and interpret it.

Numbers can help historians test long-held assumptions and provide a solid basis for histories of representation and discourse. Many historians, in fact, already use numbers and data in their research. Tax rolls, census data, electoral records, business ledgers all constitute examples of numeric primary sources that historians use regularly and that can influence the kinds of research questions they ask. Numbers can also facilitate cross-discipline discussions and collaborations with political scientists, economists, and sociologists, among others. And while numbers need not always drive the narrative, they can serve it by making it more illuminating and more compelling.

Even beyond the use of numbers in research and public engagement, graduate students would be well served to think of quantitative literacy as a precious career diversity skill. Be it in writing grant applications, critically analyzing student evaluations, creating budgets, conducting program assessments, analyzing web traffic, or managing databases, command over numbers is an increasingly valuable skill for historians to possess, and one that potential employers look for.

How does one learn to be quantitatively literate? Understanding numbers is primarily about being able to read quantitative sources in a productive way. It is about understanding what those numbers describe and how they create categories and concepts. Historians seeking more advanced skills could take a basic statistics course or attend dedicated boot camps. Unless your research requires you to learn statistics, however, the most crucial thing to do would be to simply not shy away from numbers and to take them head-on.

Becoming familiar with numbers, and including more quantitative based methods in qualitative research, is a way to expand the realm of possibilities for the historian. Quantitative literacy is a crucial skill to many extra-academic careers, but it will serve you well as a historian no matter which career path you select.

This intro was adapted from the post for AHA Today, "Quantitative Literacy for Historians: Who's Afraid of Numbers?" by Nicholas Mulder and Madeline Woker. For resources on collaboration for grad students, see below. For resources for faculty, see Faculty Resources for Developing Quantitative Literacy.

Articles and Blog Posts from the American Historical Association

From History to Logistics: How My Degree in History Helps My STEM Career

By Jonathan Lewis, AHA Today, 2 November 2015

Jonathan Lewis explains how the skills he developed as a history major at Stony Brook University, including a familiarity with Excel and manipulating data and graphs, equipped him for a career in logistics and supply-chain management.

"A Social Historian Retools and Reframes"

By Beverly Bunch-Lyons, Perspectives on History, April 2015

Beverly Bunch-Lyons, associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, describes how a summer spent learning statistics and other quantitative research methods transformed her scholarship and teaching in ways she could not have imagined.

Contributed by Lindsey Martin

Other Resources

Méthodes quantitatives pour l’historien

By Claire Lemercier and Claire Zalc, (Paris : Collection Repères, 2008). In French; to be read in conjunction with dedicated website: http://www.quanti.ihmc.ens.fr/

Making History Count: A primer in quantitative methods for historians

By Charles H. Feinstein and Mark Thomas (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2002)

History by Numbers: An introduction to quantitative approaches

By Pat Hudson, (London: Arnold Publishers, 2000)

How I Came to Hate Math

Documentary by Olivier Peyon with Cedric Villani
Trailer on YouTube

What Is Quantitative History?

By George Mason University

Syllabus for course on "Quantitative Methods for Historical Research"

By Stephen Ruggles at the University of Minnesota

Statistical Appendix and Data

By Thomas Piketty, who described his project in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as an exercise in histoire sérielle, or "serial history."

Summer Schools

History of Capitalism Summer School

The History of Capitalism Summer School at Cornell teaches historians to read numerical and data-heavy sources (everything from regressions to balance sheets) in different registers as a way of expanding their methodological toolkit.

Contributed by Nicholas Mulder and Madeline Woker.