4. How do you teach students to analyze census data?
Students look at a report like this particular report on disease and death in the Austrian Empire in 1910 and roll their eyes because it looks very boring. It is a series of categories or columns.
One of the skills that I try to teach my students is how to work with numbers. Their life is pervaded by data. One of the things that students need to learn is how to manipulate that kind of data. But they also need to learn how that data was collected and then pulled together into some form thats given to them. Often its given to them in very problematic ways in the news media. So its a useful skill both as a historian, but as an educated citizen.
If were trying to figure out about what the lives of women were like and these women are largely invisible, we can turn to data like these to try answer some of those questions. So, for instance, the report that Im looking at is from the year 1910 and its a report on the causes of death in the population. And these causes of death include those who were born with crippling illnesses, those who had tuberculosis or other lung disorders. Those who had diphtheria, typhus, cholera. Those who died in childbirth, as a result of suicide, those who were killed in some sort of a criminal activity, those who died as a result of heart disease. So there are 25 different categories of death in this table.
The state has [a] very important interest in death because death occurs for a whole variety of reasons which dictate social policy. If death was by murder in increasing numbers, the state needs to do something about that because theres a crime problem. In late-Hapsburg Austria one of the things that the state was especially concerned about was a growing suicide rate among the population.
In the city of Prague in 1910, 599 women died of tuberculosis as compared to 723 men. Women constituted 53% of the population of the city and so women were significantly less likely to die of tuberculosis than men. This is not especially surprising because tuberculosis is a disease that you acquire out in public. Its communicated through coughing and other forms of human contact, especially by people who are in close proximity to one another. Men were engaged in the kind of labor in greater numbers that brought them into close proximity with one another. They spent a lot more time in the pub than women did. And women tended to stay home in larger numbers and so were less likely to acquire tuberculosis.
But if we compare that to, for instance, the district of Böhmisch-Leipa, 103 women died of tuberculosis as compared to 90 men. And in the same district, women constituted 54% of the population. And so somethings different there. And this is the kind of question that you can ask students to then try to figure out. What do we know about Prague? Its a big city, so we know a lot about Prague and students can find this fairly easily. Böhmisch-Leipa, first they have to find it on a map. Its not that hard to do and the first thing that they notice is that its a rural area. This, then, causes them to ask questions about why in an industrial center like Prague, women would be less likely to acquire tuberculosis where in a rural area like Böhmisch-Leipa, they would be more likely to acquire tuberculosis.
And so then they have to start investigating rural hygiene and the spread of tuberculosis in rural areas. And they have to do this through many other different kinds of sources. But the data start them with a question and then they go off and try to answer that question.
The limitations of this data, of course, are many. We know that in this district of Böhmisch-Leipa, women were more likely to die of tuberculosis. It doesnt tell us why. It doesnt tell us how the data were collected. It doesnt tell us who were responsible for issuing those death certificates and determining that it was tuberculosis as opposed to a case of the flu which had a cough also. They werent doing blood tests for tuberculosis.
I ask students all the time because they often look at numbers and say, Oh, these are facts. These are real facts or authentic facts or indisputable facts. And so I let them first start building some set of questions out of the numbers. And then once theyve built that set of questions, then I make those numbers the problem. And then they start thinking, Oh, well, we cant really know anything from this. And then you kind of negotiate between their idea that these are facts and their concern that maybe none of these numbers are very accurate. And somewhere in the middle is a very interesting set of questions that they can then work from.