Migration Statistics and the Making of an International Point of View in the Interwar Period
In the first week of October 1932, an International Conference on Migration Statistics was held in Geneva. Over the course of five days, some thirty statisticians from twenty-six countries discussed how to produce more reliable international migration statistics. This kind of methodological discussion about statistical standardization was not at all unusual in the new world of international organization. Since 1920, the standardization of statistics had become an ordinary activity in the “Palace” of the International Labour Organization and the League of Nations in the hills above Lake Geneva.
The International Conference on Migration Statistics offers particularly interesting insights into the historical attempt by international organizations to measure the world. On the one hand, “international migration” was not yet a category in scholarship and policy making. It was an international invention intended to bring together the existing categories of “emigration” and “immigration.” Before this time, these last two categories were perceived as two fundamentally separate phenomena. Perhaps more plainly than other objects targeted by statistical analysis, “international migration” was connected to the effort to construct a new international understanding of the world after the Great War.
On the other hand, the discussions among the statisticians at the conference also revealed barriers to and complications for the creation of an international consensus on the subject under consideration. The biggest problem was that the statistical object “international migration” touched on delicate political questions concerning the significance of territories, borders, and belonging in a world organized substantially along colonial lines whose legitimacy faced increasingly serious opposition. Focusing not only on the statistical knowledge itself but also on the context in which it was produced, the discussion of statistical problems in Geneva in 1932 manifested contemporary international political tensions and genuine ambivalence about the role of international organizations and their new international point of view.
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