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Mr. Alain P.B. Desrosières 1940 - 2013


Alain Desrosières: Statistician, Sociologist and Historian of Statistics

Statistician, sociologist and historian of statistics, Alain Desrosières passed away on 15 February 2013 in Paris. He was born on 18 April 1940 in Lyon, France. He was simultaneously admitted to the Ecole normale supérieure and the Ecole polytechnique, but he opted for the latter (class of 1960).


Very concerned about political and citizenship issues, he subsequently joined ENSAE (Ecole nationale de la statistique et de l'administration économique) and became the Administrator of INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques) in 1965. Desrosières took the social information function that fell to this profession seriously, and resolved to highlight the responsibility of this body towards social actors, including those who are farthest removed from government circles. This orientation was stimulated by the innovative stirrings that reigned for ten years after the May '68 "revolution" at INSEE, where Alain Desrosières, along with other young professionals, refused to consider figures as neutral "raw materials". Indeed, they considered that published figures are only relevant if they are presented along with a reflection on the social and technical conditions of their production. From this time onwards, the analysis of the production of figures and of their use, in particular by the Government, were to become the centre of Alain Desrosières' research. His research focused, first of all, on a matter largely ignored up to then: the influence of nomenclatures on the production of statistical data and, through that, on the structuring of the society (Les Catégories socio-professionnelles, published with Laurent Thévenot in 1988).


Close to Bourdieu
This reflection, between sociology and statistics, was bolstered by the work undertaken in the 70s by a group of researchers led by Pierre Bourdieu. Alain Desrosières became a close collaborator of Bourdieu before going on to do further research at the Groupe de sociologie politique et morale (EHESS-CNRS), established in 1985.


During the following decade, the analysis of the role played by these categorizations was extended to the development of a form of institutional economics called "economics of convention" which vehemently challenged the reduction of economics to supposedly rational individual calculations.


These interests converged into a significant intellectual venture, aimed at describing, based on the history of politics and of science, the joint production of statistics related to the Government and to the economy since the 17th century. A synthesis of this research was published in 1993 in La Politique des grands nombres, histoire de la raison statistique (La Découverte) and translated into several languages. From the year 2000, Alain Desrosières continued his work, with a historical dimension, at the Centre Alexandre-Koyré-Histoire des sciences et des techniques.


During the last decade, his work focused on two issues of global importance, related to the spread of neo-liberal governance practices, that is to say: the mainstreaming into statistical production of the incentive effects of their publication on the concerned audience (benchmarking) on one hand; and on the other hand, the analysis of the impact of new governance techniques aimed at identifying the causal factors on which the action of "decision makers" should be exclusively based, particularly in poverty management. These last studies were published in two issues of L'Argument statistique (Presses de l'Ecole des mines, 2008).


This recall of the favourite topics of this great intellectual far from demonstrates his important contribution to the evolution of the social sciences, not only in France, but also in the Anglo-Saxon world, where his work was broadly discussed. His outstanding erudition, covering a rarely wide scope of fields, his cheerful scientific inventiveness and his political vigilance went hand in hand with a modest charisma whose most striking expression was generosity.


This man had the passion and the art of fostering original relationships between persons and between ideas the impact of which will spread far beyond institutional recognitions.


Luc Boltanski, Directeur d'études à l'EHESS
Emmanuel Didier, Chargé de recherche au CNRS
Laurent Thévenot, Administrateur de l'INSEE, Directeur d'études à l'EHESS
The original article was featured in Le Monde, 19 February 2013.
The ISI thanks Awa Thiongane for the French to English translation.

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