Thomas Feuerstein
The sociographic kick

Social physics

In the early 19th century the astronomer and mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace, with his celestial mechanics and theory of probability, provided the basis for Adolphe Quêtelet, a contemporary, and presumably also student of his, to develop his very own theory of “social physics”. Laplace, who strove to reduce the entire worldly mechanism to mathematical formulae so as to make all future events predictable, inspired Quêtelet to postulate his “l’homme moyen”, the calculable average person. While Laplace started out from the idea that, should we want to determine past and future states, a demon would have to measure the position and the speed of all physical particles present in space at a certain moment in time, Quêtelet based his “mécanique sociale” on human particles. In his treatise “Sur l'homme et le développement de se facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale”, published in 1835, Quêtelet describes the quantitative laws of the social process: “Above all we have to take the single man as an abstract and shall only regard him as a mere fraction of the entire race from now on. By stripping him of his individuality we remove everything that is arbitrary – the individual peculiarities that have no, or little, influence on the mass will then disappear automatically and leave us to arrive at universal results.”[1] Which leads him to the conclusion: “The same applies to moral abilities as does to physical ones, and one can estimate them provided that they stand in relation to their effects.”[2] The insurance industry makes use of Quêtelet’s mathematical mean value methods to this very day and, indirectly, they are also a premise of the modern welfare state. That his socio-statistical methods also influenced James Clerk Maxwell’s gas theory and Ludwig Boltzmann’s thermodynamics could not be proven altogether, but it is regarded as likely – the correspondence between sociology and physics obviously does entail a mutual resonance.

Social geography

By means of graphs and charts Quêtelet collected, correlated, and visualised statistical data. And by mapping crime rates or education standards, for instance, he responded to a passion of his time for using maps as recording surfaces and projection screens for all sorts of purposes. The corresponding interest in geography, from the beginning of the modern era and the early globalisation it brought, meanwhile also underwent significant changes with ever new discoveries and the disappearance of terra incognita. The latter no longer was presumed beyond the oceans, but in the unknown regions of the psyche and of society. From the Baroque era cartography took on certain tasks of explaining existence by superimposing real circumstances with imaginary wishes and goals. Maps of this kind, such as the Tabula Schlaraffia by Johann Baptist Homann, in which equator, tropics, and poles were put to the service of a moralising end, mark a significant change in the role ascribed to geography. From now on, according to Turgot and Kant, geography, like philosophy, historiography, and the legal and economic sciences, had to be counted among the moral sciences.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, just as in previous eras, cartography underwent a revival whenever it disposed of new knowledge and knew how to process it. The conversion of geography into a political-moral science employs the map as an instrument of order, security, surveillance, and transparency, with the help of which the ruling power gains control. By serving not as miniature doubles of reality, but as projection screens and master plans, maps go beyond the mere transformation of world into surface and image, and they mirror a desire fuelled by rationalism and enlightenment. Maps not only put knowledge in order. They subject experience and data to a restructuring. As social construction plans they take on socially normative roles and, in a different guise, become the project of a sociography today entering a new phase through innovations in electronic or biometric technologies.


The term sociography, nowadays used only rarely, was coined by the Dutch sociologist Rudolf Steinmetz in the early 20th century and adopted in Germany by Ferdinand Tönnie who called for the incorporation into systematic sociology, via the establishment of “sociological observatories”, of empirically gathered and statistically processed data. Building on the empirical social research of Quêtelet, among other sources, the idea was to bring together quantitative and qualitative methods for making visible meaningful structures. Quêtelet’s “moral statistics” or the surveys and spot maps in use in Great Britain and the US, that primarily correlate officially gathered data, were supplemented with other methods so as to “close the gap between the bare numbers of the statistics and the arbitrary impressions of the social reportage”.[3] What was needed was an “integral sociology” (Paul Lazarsfeld) that linked the statistical data and techniques of sampling with interviews, descriptions of individual cases, and particular investigations concerning psychological and behavioural parameters such as the speed of walking. The erstwhile epicentre of sociography was the “Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle” (research centre for economic psychology) founded in Vienna in the late 1920s by the mathematician Paul Lazarsfeld and the psychologist Charlotte Bühler. As the name suggests, the institute interwove methods from the fields of statistics and psychology and initially conducted surveys on behaviour patterns and consumer habits in connection with foodstuffs, toiletries, or clothes. According to Lazarsfeld the goal was to prove “that complex socio-psychological terms can be grasped quantitatively – a typical combination of the influence exerted by the Bühlers and of logical positivism, represented by the Vienna Circle”.[4] Which means that sociography, as Hans Zeisel, a collaborator of Lazarsfeld, wrote, follows in the footsteps of “physique sociale”, by “bringing Quêtelet’s idea of a quantifying sociography, encompassing the entirety of the social process, one step closer to its perfection”.[5] In the early 1930s the new mass medium radio, leisure behaviour, and the burning problem of long-term unemployment were added as fields of study. The opinion of the Austrian population on the RAVAG (the new public radio) was investigated by means of tens of thousands of questionnaires[6]distributed at kiosks, and after the closing of a textile mill east of Vienna a study, “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” (The unemployed of Marienthal, frequently quoted to this day), was prepared. The primary focus of the project was the politically explosive question whether mass unemployment results in a radicalisation or instead in resignation. Considering that in this case the entire population of a village was affected, Marienthal seemed ideal for a field study with clearly formulated goals toward the answering of a question hotly debated within social democracy. The sociographic approach of the Viennese institute was interested less in socio-topographical exceptions than in significant examples, meant to be interpreted from a wider historical perspective and placed in a political context. Accordingly the surveys in Marienthal were generalised and reduced to a global common denominator of socio-psychological dynamics. Unemployment, in this light, does not produce revolutionaries but it paralyses subjects. Lazarsfeld speaks of a “tired community”, a “shrinking of the psychological habitat”, or of a “collapse of the structure of time”.[7] The result is not the will to stand up against the social order, but a resignation and apathy corroding the individual psyche and the community as a whole. Lazarsfeld arrives at the conclusion: “The apathy-inducing effect of total unemployment in hindsight helps us understand why the Fuehrer ideology of the emerging National Socialism was so successful.”[8]

When the political situation in Austria turned increasingly threatening for the Austro-Marxist Lazarsfeld, he emigrated to the US, where he took up a grant at the Rockefeller Foundation.[9]


The Rockefeller Foundation in New York was one of the most influential research institutions of its time. With biology taking the lead, physics, chemistry, medicine, but also sociology and psychology were supposed to be integrated in a philanthropic project of improving the human race. Science was called on to hold out the prospect of a new idea of the world and of man, and ultimately of a fundamental renewal of society. A whole generation of scientists, especially bio-chemists and molecular physicians, emerged from this project and left their mark on the 20th century. Alexis Carell, for instance, was the most prominent scientist of the Rockefeller Institute in the 1930s. He accomplished the in vitro cultivation of chicken cells that he purportedly immortalised in order to prove the possibility of eternal, immortal life. In his treatise “Man the Unknown” he suggested that immortal brains should form a council of the wise and advise politicians. These long-living brains could accumulate experience and routinely process different resources and data of social relevance.

Such hopes and ideas of controlling human development through science and technology were inspired by modernist concepts as propounded, for instance, by the British statistician Francis Galton, a nephew of Charles Darwin. Galton’s passion was directed at the correlation of statistical, technical, and social questions. In contrast to his uncle Galton assumed that our genetic make-up was unchangeable and that in the course of reproduction it was distributed, as it were, according to a normal probability curve. For which reason every generation should filter its natural elite and foster it, while at the lower spectrum of the socio-genetic curve sorting out the biologically inferior. Galton envisioned a eugenic utopia he christened Laputa after an island in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. On Laputa no genetic decadence is tolerated, while biology and anthropology form an alliance for the purpose of creating optimised humans. Egalitarian idealism would thus be replaced by biological laws, for which purpose, in 1883, he coined the term eugenics. It was propagated as both a remedy and a weapon against economic recession, intellectual and physical degeneration, alcoholism, and weak morals. The new man, just like a new Hercules, would spring from the eugenic mechanism of selection so that “men like god”, as H.G. Wells, a follower of Francis Galton, wrote in his eponymous utopian story, could live their lives without illness and vice a hundred generations hence.

Eugenics was a project of the future that in many respects corresponded to Francis Bacon’s idea of the New Atlantic knowledge society. The new humans would be of perfect appearance, higher morals, and outstanding intelligence. In a closed biotope they would be reproduced according to a scientific order of genetic selection and to a modern education. Although Galton employed a special composite procedure for the overlapping of personality types, it was not the average man and his needs that took centre stage but the elite man “of higher breeding”. However, the prospect of establishing islands as bio-reactors of socio-biological and socio-political utopias, as it had been painted by William McDougall with his island “Eugenia”, could not be kept within the bounds of the literary domain and was welcome territory to be occupied by Fascist ideology. And so social parameters were formulated depending on eugenic ones, so that the sociographic desire to study the “social anatomy” was extended to comprise the level of the biological construction plan. Eugenics began where sociography ended. It would not be content with describing and analysing social conditions, but envisaged bio-statistical inscriptions in the human race’s genetic make-up so as to breed a new society via a new man.


Sociography diagnosed the body of the people and its analytic gaze mirrored the idea of an instrument panel for the observation and controlling of the social and political machine. To the present day this instrument panel continues to be fitted out with new instruments for analysis and control. Meanwhile Laplace’s dream and Quêtelet’s idea of a universal behavioural positioning of all social particles are moving ever closer.

When a census was planned in the US for 1890, which also undertook to supply to the Congress much more detailed information on the population, an efficient and quick analysing method was looked for. A young engineer at the Central Statistics Office, Hermann Hollerith, developed an electro-mechanical data processing machine, to be fed with paper or punch cards, which arrived at a final result after only two and a half years, i.e. after a third of the time span needed for the manual counting of 1880. The success story of the Tabulating Machine Company, founded by Hollerith in 1896, and renamed International Business Machines (IBM) under Thomas J. Watson in 1924, is common lore. What is crucial here, however, is the fundamental linking of information technology, statistics and demography that has taken a remarkable development ever since. Today machines and their sensors take recordings not only selectively and sporadically. All points within the system strive toward a permanent data control that would entail an a minute-by-minute tracking of the consumer citizen, his work ethic, his whims, or his attention capacity. Telephone conversations, e-mails, payments by credit card, cookies in browser programs, to name but a few, they all record traces of social interaction. All activities within a more and more tightly woven digital network generate data, and an archive is being established for each consumer’s habits. The individual perspectives taken together thus form the input for the sociographic view of electronically networked systems.

Projects such as Steve Mann’s “lifelong log”, “MyLifeBits” by Gordon Bell, or the “LifeLog” by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), since abolished, are egographical pilot schemes going far beyond official and consumer records. Extensive protocols of human behaviour are being generated through video cameras, GPS data, or bio-medical sensors and reach into nearly all aspects of life. The sociographic view is becoming panoptical and it painstakingly is keeping track of all physical, psychological, and economic movements and moods of the individual social corpuscles within the networks of capital and public safety. In times of the “Patriot Act” the “total information awareness” envisaged by DARPA is moving dangerously close to the kind of scenario turning into a nightmare in the movie Minority Report. The geography of the citizen culminates in a psycho-grammatical pattern with the help of which future actions of individuals may be interpolated, and which thus serves both the prevention of the crimes of individuals and, in mutual interference of the individual patterns, also the prognosis of macroscopic developments within societies as a whole. At this stage all events and actions past, present and future can be predicted by the sociographic demon and, in the era of computer simulation, calculated by way of Quêtelet’s “mécanique sociale”.


Yet even in the absence of Orwellian transparency, empirically collected survey data are gaining in significance in connection with mass media. The prospect of being able to measure human behaviour spurs the cravings of politicians, spin doctors, trend scouts, and CEOs and turns opinion polls into the new astrology for those in power. First and foremost, what this is about is the search for a mediocrity based on which contingency, not-knowing, and complexity may be reduced in favour of an allegedly deducible necessity. Planetary events and the fate of humanity shall be deduced from certain constellations, for which purpose opinion polls have formulated prophecies and calculated horoscopes ever since the 1940s. But without mass media feedback loops all these procedures would be useless, and as the focus is on reflux, scientific criteria of verifiability are secondary. The effect depends on belief, which is why for systems theory what is crucial is the auto-correction of an operatively closed system and not so much the evidence of opinions cast in numbers. The complicity between mass media and opinion research instils moods and ambiences constructing common sense much rather than measuring it. Opinion research supplies affiliation concepts to scattered subjects, it offers identities, and ultimately provides, at the same time, a meaning and a confusing white noise to both the contractors of surveys and those asked, to voters and politicians, to consumers and producers. The question as to the validity as well as to the owners and manipulators of opinions moves to the background as the interested parties involved are quick to mutually constitute each other in the spirit of the state to be diagnosed. According to Siegfried J. Schmidt this sets in motion processes of stereotyping: “The fewer areas of our notions of reality are determined by direct and not media-induced experiences, the more important opinions and ideas become that we form of persons, institutions, political parties, cities, countries, and peoples through the use of media. And as we form these opinions and ideas by means of the media, of all things, we insinuate that others form similar opinions and ideas, i.e. that we operate in a socially acceptable way when we regard our own opinions and ideas as collective knowledge. In other words: Stereotypes mediated through the media supply individuals and social groups, in public discourse, with schematised opinions in the shape of fictitiously insinuated, collective knowledge.”[10] Assumptions motivate media statements that, for their part, become a pre-condition for opinions. Media offerings, from cinema and television to theatre and performing arts, are literally well meant, i.e. full of public appeal and successful, as long as they stick by the rules of the average and of mediocrity. This is what characterises the state of mediography, the cooperation between demographic investigation methods and mass media messianism.

Art and sociography

Considering their very nature, in mass media the free will of social corpuscles is reduced to the status of a mere romantic illusion to do good business with in entertainment and commerce. Proposals of self-stylisation containing the promise of being unmistakable and unique are having a heyday, for individualism has become conformism, as even the trend scouts have had to realise. Trends are no more than movements driven by the capital compensating the deficits of unfulfillable life plans. We might say that trends are methadone programmes for the failed addictive behaviour of living. What remains, in the end, is an empty subject serving as an object for sociography to investigate and as a stage for artistic productions.

An interest in subjective states of mind and in individual fates is evident in sociography, for instance in Adolf Levenstein’s investigations into the “labour problem” in which personality and inner life take centre stage. By way of highly idiosyncratic questions psychological moments in the life of the worker, estranged from the industrial culture around 1900, are thus explored: “Do you often walk in the woods? What goes through your head, lying on the ground there, profound solitude all around?” This kind of question may not satisfy scientific criteria, yet it no doubt has a certain poetic quality that appears tailored to a worker of symbols such as Henry David Thoreau. Half a century earlier the latter had provided, with his journal Walden, a corresponding protocol that listed inventory, budget, and subjective emotions of a dropout life. Thoreau’s test arrangement meant to demonstrate how the free evolvement of a personality could be attained with very little effort. He was his own test person and also one of the first writers incorporating sociographic methods into their work. When he lists the costs of boards, nails, or rapeseed, his method reminds us of the concept of the inventory as it had been developed by the French sociologist Frédéric Le Play. In family monographs Le Play who, as a civilisation dropout, lived with peasants or a Carinthian char burner, investigated the simple country life primarily by registering the household budgets. What connects the contemporaries Thoreau and Le Play, however, is the conflict-laden overlay of rationalism and romanticism which, at least for the former, still constituted the alternative between autonomous management and state control. Thoreau served as sociographer on his own account and represents an early example of artistic alternative plans to established ways of living as they were later tried out in 20th century art.

Every art that does not function in a space lacking all social reference operates, reflects or records moments of sociality. Basically it is two perspectives opening up to the sociographic view, the one processing singularity in the footsteps of the subjective view, and the other dealing with social correlations and dynamics according to the modernist principle of the total overview. The first either investigates subjects in certain contexts and life situations or it provides self-portrayals, exposes its own body to extremes, takes the artist figure as an exemplary sample and looks for alternative modes of existence. The latter deals with contiguities and the relations of subjects within certain spaces and structures.

Electronic spaces of digital networking, in particular, constitute a cultural disposition that creates new connections and new barriers at the same time. These systems, standards, but also transformations are potential subjects for a media art bringing sociography up to date, as a kind of mapping, by projecting systemic conditions and the behaviour of users into dia-grammatical picture worlds. From the point of view of art history the great majority of these data works follows modernist paths: they recode information aesthetically, visualise abstract structures, put up for discussion media-immanent aspects. Empirical sociology and data epistemology join forces to become a view of hidden formations of communication conditions. It remains to be seen which form a sociographic view of these systems could take that would enable the artist subject to address the material, economic, political, and semiotic authorities determining the social matrix, so as to envision a networking of singularities that would go far beyond plain interconnections between them.

[1] Adolphe Quêtelet, “Sur l’homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de physique sociale”, quoted and translated from the German edition: Soziale Physik oder Abhandlung über die Entwicklung der Fähigkeiten des Menschen, Jena 1914, p. 103.
[2] Ibid. p. 141.
[3]Translated from Paul F. Lazarsfeld, “Vorspruch zur neuen Auflage”, in: Maria Jahoda, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Hans Zeisel, Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal. Ein soziographischer Versuch, Frankfurt 1975, p. 15.
[4] Ibid., p. 20.
[5] Translated from Hans Zeisel, “Geschichte der Soziographie”, in: Maria Jahoda, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Hans Zeisel, Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal. Ein soziographischer Versuch, Frankfurt 1975, p. 141.
[6] The successful listener survey is regarded as the first scientific investigation of a mess medium. Lazarsfeld developed “coefficients of public opinion trends” which, via “cross-validation”, established mutual connections between various parameters such as profession, place of residence, or listening habits. As the listeners felt irritated by high-culture broadcasts, like symphonies and operas, the number of questionnaires returned was higher than expected. 38,000 of the approximately 400,000 radio subscribers returned the questionnaires.
[7] See footnote 3, p. 17.
[8] Ibid., pp. 22f.
[9] There Lazarsfeld initially analysed questionnaires for Max Horkheimer and from 1937 he was in charge of the first American radio research project for which he enlisted Theodor W. Adorno as a “music director”. In the context of the “Princeton Radio Research Project” he developed basic demoscopic methods which gained him a call to Columbia University where, together with Karl Merton, he founded the New York school of empirical social research.
[10] Translated from Siegfried J. Schmidt, Zwiespältige Begierden. Aspekte der Medienkultur, Freiburg im Breisgau 2004, pp. 62f.

Translation / Übersetzung: Daniel Ostermann