Who made life risky? In his dynamic new book, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual(University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian Dan Bouk argues that starting in the late nineteenth century, the life-insurance industry embedded risk-making within American society and American psyches. Bouk is assistant professor of history at Colgate University, and his new book shows how insurers categorized individuals and grouped social classes in ways that assigned monetary value to race, class, lifestyles, and bodies. With lively prose, Bouk gives historical context and character to the rise of the “statistical individual” from the Guided Age to the New Deal. Bouk’s primary argument is that risks did not always already exist, nor was risk invented by the medical establishment. Instead, the threat (and reality) of economic crisis helped insurers to create risk as a commodity, and eventually to control the lives it measured. As Bouk phrases it in the interview, “Insurers improved their bottom line by improving Americans’ bottom lines.” Bouk invites readers critically to reflect upon how we have come to see ourselves through a statistical lens in our daily lives– an issue of continued relevance in the age of big data and vast analytical capabilities.
The Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences has just been released online. The issue features articles on the role of psychologist William McDougall (left) in the professionalization of psychical research, an investigation of the early twentieth century connections (or the lack thereof) between intitutionalist economics and psychology, as well as the relationship between rational decision making and measurement in the post war years. A further article explores the early critiques of sociologist Talcott Parson’s social theory. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“A nice arrangement of heterodoxies: William McDougall and the professionalization of psychical research,” by Egil Asprem. No abstract provided. Asprem provides the following overview of the article’s aims:
Seeing that there was a growing dissatisfaction with the staunch behaviorism that had swept the American psychology community since Watson’s breakthrough in the 1910s, McDougall would appear as its most vociferous opponent in America. This opposition he would link closely with psychical research. By seeking such entanglements McDougall attempted to heighten the prestige of psychical research and urge its professionalization as a part of the university system. Continue reading Measurement, Psychical Research & More in JHBS→