Dan Bouk’s trains of thought led to a fascinating journey through the human landscape behind the dry data of the U.S. census

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It’s the rare academic who professes to specialize in boringness.

“Many things that are considered boring — what bureaucrats, lawyers, and accountants do — are actually really important decisions that happen outside of public view,” says Dan Bouk, associate professor of history and university studies. “I like pulling back that veil, that cloak. I like the privilege and pleasure of hanging out in those corners where no one is watching and finding the interesting stories that no one else has bothered to look for.”

The computational-mathematician-turned-historian did so to great acclaim with his first book, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago, 2015). He took a storyteller’s approach to explain how the U.S. life insurance industry’s numerical methods for quantifying the risk of American individuals and groups came to “change the very futures they purported to divine.” The book won the Philip J. Pauly Prize, awarded to junior scholars for the best first book on the history of science in the Americas.

Bouk is now applying both his formidable narrative and analytical skills to a similarly data-intense subject that happens to be very much in the news right now: the U.S. census. It is a destination he arrived at by accident.

While collaborating on a project through the prestigious Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, he started researching an obscure female census mathematician named Elbertie Foudray, who became one of the most important American actuaries from 1920 to 1945. “Here was this woman who was in regular communication with important scientists, but whom I’d never heard of,” Bouk recalls. “I went into the census archives looking for her, and I did find interesting things. But as I was looking through the records, I came to discover the census, to see a larger story about broad cultural trends, fights over who counts, and economic and political machinations to win power.”

That larger story is now a book in progress, titled Democracy’s Data and How to Read It, to be published by MCD Books. As Bouk has progressed, he has shared his discoveries as blog posts on his website censusstories.us. There, he describes the book as “the stories that census records can tell about Americans, their families and the nation. It is about learning to read data in a new way, almost the way one reads a novel, or learns to interpret architecture.”

As in any good novel, Bouk’s blog posts feature memorable and colorful characters. Readers meet Agnes Parrott, a census enumerator for the 1940 territorial census of Alaska. The intrepid Parrott walked five miles and rowed three miles each way in order to reach the remote settlement of Killisnoo. (She included her commute time in her hours.) Her extraordinary tale services a larger narrative in Bouk’s work. She represents how enumerators often, literally, went to great lengths to count as many people as possible. Bouk also draws a comparison between Parrott’s journey and his own forays into the bowels of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. There, he and countless genealogists and scholars can delve into census records from 1790 to 1940, the most recent data available due to a 72-year moratorium on census data.

Bouk followed a train of thought to another compelling character: Lily Furedi, a Hungarian-born painter whose work “Subway” hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Bouk took breaks from his census research. Furedi was Bouk’s entry point for his post, “Paths to 87 Hamilton Place,” the address in Harlem where enumerator Lucile Kenn documented 221 people — including Furedi — for the 1940 census. “You start to see in this building all these different immigration patterns that were reshaping the population of New York,” Bouk says. “There was an older form of migration from Europe that mixed with a new wave of migration coming from parts of the American empire, especially Puerto Rico.”

Bouk found that this year’s debate over whether to include a question on immigration status in the 2020 Census was not the first time a new question caused an uproar. When the 1940 census asked individuals to divulge their wages, the new question was denounced on the senate floor as well as in handbills distributed to encourage people to boycott the question.

Even when he must venture into the statistical weeds, Bouk never loses his narrative path. For example, an argument among Ivy League scientists over census calculation methods may seem material best suited for math wonks. (Among the combatants was Foudray, the census mathematician whose paper trail led Bouk to begin his book in the first place.) But Bouk explains that the methods debate is important for all readers — not just the statistically inclined — because it helped lead to the passage of the 1929 Apportionment Act, which instituted a permanent method for apportioning a constant 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives according to each census.

While most modern conversations around the census focus on its two primary practical purposes — determining the allocation of representatives among the states as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funds — Bouk instead celebrates its romantic raisons d’être. As he sums up in his post “Why a Census Matters,” the census “plays a key role in crafting the nation’s identity and, for much of its existence, it provided a basis for tracking the United States’ progress … The census provided data to highlight problems and possibilities … The census records and valorizes each individual and preserves them for posterity.”