CE41 - Inégalités, discriminations, migrations

To count in a colonial situation. French Africa (1830-1962) – COCOLE

Counting in a colonial situation. French Africa (1830-1960)

Crossing disciplinary approaches, the project studies the production of statistics in several African territories of the former French empire. It seeks to shed light on the interplay between the actors who produce and use these indicators and the impact of the colonial experience on their production.

The challenges of creating statistical and accounting conventions

By taking a closer look at the raw materials, behind the scenes of the surveys and their production, we intend to show the extent to which figures are structuring, how they classify, hierarchise and exclude, often at the risk of approximations that maintain the illusion of knowledge-power among those in power. The aim of the study is to gain a better understanding of what counting means and to interpret the statistical and accounting conventions involved in the processes of colonisation and, as part of the current project, decolonisation.<br /><br />The research has six objectives: 1) To find out what figures tell us about colonial relations; 2) To specify how they contribute to a certain knowledge of territories, as well as to their organisation, their 'development', the distribution of their wealth and their place in the global economic and financial hierarchy; 3) To detail the role of the producers and prescribers of figures in metropolitan France and in the colonies (administrative levels, colonial companies and banks, supervisory bodies, investigators and 'respondents'), to show how they constructed these data and to explain the issues, tensions and limits of their collaboration; 4) To analyse the impact of the production and dissemination of figures and the classifications they introduced in metropolitan France and colonised Africa; 5) To provide the scientific community with an inventory of the archives and documentation available in France and French-speaking Africa on how to count in a colonial situation; 6) To understand the mechanisms for transmitting information on colonised Africa at different levels (international, federal, state, regional, company, inter-individual). Particular attention will be paid to the contribution of the colonised to the production of data. The aim is to gain a better understanding of what counting means, to interpret statistical and accounting conventions in a colonial situation, to show how and in what way the empire of numbers sheds light on the process of colonisation, how it contributes to it and how it also contributes to the 'colonial gaze', the distorted and deformed view that administrations have of colonised territories, and more broadly of their own power.

Focusing on the French empire in Africa, our approach will contribute to international research on the history of statistics and accounting practices by drawing on the documentation and archives of the former colonies (such as those of the AOF kept at the Archives nationales (AN) du Sénégal and the ANOM, for example, and those of colonial administrations and companies kept in France). The team will be sensitive to cross-disciplinary approaches and to the experiences of other empires, whose specialists will be invited to the consortium's annual seminars, and it will communicate as much as possible at international conferences. Our approach to official statistics (Axis 1) and labour statistics (Axis 3) produced by the administrations of metropolitan France and the colonies, and to private figures, banks and financial institutions (Axis 2) and economic circles (Axis 4) is both multidisciplinary and critical. It will produce a number of case studies (Algeria, AOF and future Senegal, Madagascar, Tunisia), an inventory of all the archival and documentary resources mobilised by the project (Axis 2) and an inventory of the statistical and accounting documentation of the colonial environments (Axis 4) mobilised by the project, a database of the cost prices of two colonial products emblematic of colonial exploitation (rubber and phosphates) (Axis 4), the beginnings of a database of the aggregated balance sheets of the largest banks (Axis 2), and the formation of a network of correspondents, young researchers (masters and doctoral students), archivists and documentalists in France, Europe and French-speaking Africa. This project is a step towards a broader study that remains to be carried out on the figures of empires, from a comparative and transnational perspective.

To date, many colleagues in French-speaking Africa have expressed an interest in the project and are taking part in the International Research Network funded by the CNRS INSHS. Joint events (conferences and seminars, summer and winter schools) are currently being organised.Group events:
1 annual seminar
1 study day at ANOM (Aix-en-Provence)

The project aims to encourage research into the statistics and accounts of other empires and ex-empires and their role in transitions.
A mid-term colloquium in collaboration with IGPDE Paris Bercy September 2024

Counting in a colonial situation.
Crossing disciplinary approaches and scales of analysis, the project studies the production of statistics in the African territories of the French empire, from the beginning of the 19th century to the independence of the 1960s. It provides information on colonial governance and its transformations, as well as on the power relations and inequalities that it conveys; it sheds light on the interplay of public and private actors, colonisers and colonised, who, in metropolitan France and in the territories, use these indicators, participate in their production or refuse to contribute to them. More broadly, and even if it focuses on economic statistics (activity, production, prices, labour), the survey sheds light on both the empire of figures in the colony and the impact of the colonial experience on the production of statistics. By reconstructing the institutional, social and intellectual history of their production, by looking at the raw materials, behind the scenes of the surveys and the construction of statistical categories, we intend to show the extent to which the figure is structuring, how it creates links and how, by classifying, it hierarchises and excludes. The aim is thus to clarify how counting, keeping accounts if one is a producer or making statistics if one is an administrator, is a manifestation of power.
The investigation will provide further information on the specificities of government in a colonial situation, by underlining the forms of autonomy of the actors present in the field, the tensions that oppose them, and by specifying whether - and how - statistics were able to constitute a 'technology of distance'. Our work will also question the inevitable approximations, hidden under the rigour of numbers, which maintain the illusion of a knowledge-power among administrators and in colonial economic circles, participating in the "colonial gaze", the distorted and deformed prism that the administrations have of the colonised territories, and more widely of their own power. In the end, the investigation will allow us to better understand what counting means, to interpret statistical and accounting conventions in a colonial situation, and to show how and in what way the empire of numbers sheds light on the process of colonisation.

Project coordination

Béatrice TOUCHELAY (UMR 8529 - Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Université de Genève Université de Genève / Unité d'histoire contemporaine
CESSMA CESSMA UMR 245 Université de Paris/INALCO/IRD
TELEMMe Temps, espaces, langages europe méridionale méditerranée
Université de Cocody Université de Cocody, département d'histoire
CESDIP CESDIP UMR 8183 Univ. Versailles St-Quentin/ Ministère de la Justice/ CY Cergy Paris Univ.
IDHE.s Paris Nanterre Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l'Economie et de la Société
IRHiS UMR 8529 - Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion
IDHE.s Panthéon Sorbonne Paris 1 Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l'Economie et de la Société
Freie Universität Berlin Freie Universität Berlin Centre Marc Bloch Berlin USR 3130/Pacte (Grenoble) UMR 5194
IMAF IMAF UMR 8171 Aix-en-Provence
DRM DRM UMR 7088 Univ. Paris Dauphine

Help of the ANR 386,263 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: October 2021 - 48 Months

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