Experimenting with Victorian anthropometrics: What can we learn from past scientific practices?

Descriptive poster of Francis Galton’s anthropometric laboratory. From Karl Pearson’s The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914-1930), vol. 2, p. 358. Reproduced by permission of the Wellcome Library, London UK.

By Efram Sera-Shriar

Imagine yourself as a nineteenth-century naturalist living in Britain. You are working on a project that seeks to examine differences (both cultural and physical) between the various peoples of the world. You want to collect information from distant locations scattered throughout the globe, but you are unable to travel abroad because of vocational and familial obligations at work and at home. To compensate for your inability to travel afar you send instructive questionnaires to people living in different regions asking them for their help. Your hope is that by using a complex network of informants to collect your data you will be able to use the material for substantiating your research claims.

For much of the nineteenth-century this was one of the most effective ways to collect data for scientific research. There is a lost art to creating and maintaining these informant networks, and Victorian researchers worked tirelessly at building strong rapports with their correspondents. In my new research project I aim to recreate a scheme to collect anthropometric information on people living throughout the world. By using some of the practices of nineteenth-century naturalists, it is my hope that I will better understand the strengths and weaknesses of their research programmes.  I am interested to see what historians can learn by doing a kind of Victorian experiment. At the crux of this project is a desire to see if historians will be better situated to understand the kinds of problems these nineteenth-century researchers experienced as they attempted to collect their data.

An important feature of this project is that it affords me an opportunity to invite non-specialists to participate in history of science. As was the case with my Victorian counterparts, the success of this project is reliant on the contributions of both scholars and the public at large. It is a chance for people from various interest groups and backgrounds to engage in historical research and help shape and define its results. In order to standardize my data sets and make them more manageable for cross-comparative analysis it is essential that I provide a set of guidelines for my participants to follow. The structure and format of these instructions are based on various British questionnaires from the middle of the nineteenth century. I have called my questionnaire ‘A Guidebook for Participants’ and a copy of it is included below.

In an effort to shift away from the exploitative practices of nineteenth-century anthropometric studies I have made some important changes to the instructions. For instance, all participants should be volunteers and not forced to contribute. All photographs that are submitted to the project should depict fully-clothed individuals.  Finally, instead of attempting to classify my participants into clearly-defined racial groupings – as was the case with many Victorian studies – I am organising my subjects into groupings based on nationality.  In doing so, I will shift away from biologically-determined arguments about human variation and discuss cultural differences instead. The physical attributes that are included in this study are mainly superficial qualities that survived from the original Victorian classification systems. This will help shed some light on the strengths and weaknesses of nineteenth-century research practices. Once participants follow the guidelines and collect their materials they can send the information and photographs to the following email address: anthropometricphotos@gmail.com. More information about this project can be found at the following website: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/2022.

A Guidebook for Participants

Please answer the following questions in their order and include as much relevant detail as possible. The participants should be volunteers and freely willing to provide the information contained in the responses. Once the responses are submitted to the email address (anthropometricphotos@gmail.com) they will be used for cross-comparative analysis.

  1. Name:  What is the first name of the participant? To ensure some degree of anonymity do not provide any surnames. If the first name comprises of two names please include both (i.e. John Paul). If the name has an accent please include it (i.e. René). Please provide information about the name’s linguistic origin  (i.e. Lars “Swedish”).  Does the name hold any meaning? If so provide a brief explanation (i.e. Emma is a name derived from the German word ermen meaning whole or universal). If the participant does not want to provide their real first name it is acceptable to use an alias. However, please indicate in the response that the name is a pseudonym by writing “alias” next to the name (i.e. Peter “alias”). Does the alias hold any meaning? If so, provide a brief explanation (i.e. Horatio was the name of my beloved childhood teddy bear).
  2. Age:  What is the age of the participant? Please record this information in years (i.e. 25 years old). It is not necessary to include the participant’s full birthday (i.e. 15 June 1987).
  3. Height:  Using a tape measurer please provide the height measurements of the participant. Please record the results in either centimetres or inches.
  4. Weight:  Using a scale please weigh the participant. Make sure to check whether the scale is at zero before the participant stands on it. In an effort to standardize the results as much as possible, participants should wear jeans and a t-shirt while determining their weight. Please record the results in either kilograms or pounds.
  5. Eyes:  Describe the eye colour of the participant. It is important to include information about the colour tone of the eye (i.e. dark brown). If the eye exhibits multiple colours record all of them in the description (i.e. blue/green). If the participant is using coloured contact lenses please include this information (i.e. Sophia is wearing blue tinted contact lenses but her natural eye colour is hazel).
  6. Hair:  What colour is the participant’s hair? It is important to include information about the hair tone (i.e. red-orange hue). What kind of texture does the hair exhibit? Please be as descriptive as possible in describing the texture (i.e. the hair is soft and frizzy with a full body on the top of the head but drops down at the bottom). Does the hair exhibit any discolouration? This should include information about aging (i.e. the hair is greying). If the participant is suffering from hair loss this information should be recorded. If the participant has altered the colour of their hair please include this information (i.e. the participant has dyed their hair pink, but their natural colour is flaxen).
  7. Nationality:  What is the nationality of the participant? If the participant has multiple nationalities this information should be included in the response (i.e. the participant is a Canadian citizen but was born in the Netherlands). How does the participant self-describe their nationality? If they choose to identify themselves as having multiple nationalities please include this information (i.e. Dutch-Canadian).
  8. Languages:  What languages does the participant speak? Please identify their level of competency in these languages (i.e. Spanish “fluent”, Portuguese “oral only”). What is their preferred language of verbal and written communication?
  9. Occupation:  What is the participant’s occupation? Be as specific as possible (i.e. “neurosurgeon” instead of “surgeon”). If the participant has multiple jobs please list them all (i.e. tax lawyer and lecturer in law department). When relevant, the participant can list their occupation as retired or as student. Does the participant work full time or part time?
  10. Relationship status:  What is the participant’s relationship status? Please select one of the following options: “single”, “open relationship”, “short-term relationship”, “long-term relationship”, “common law”, “civil partnership”, “married”, or “divorced”.

Instructions for photographing faces

Please follow the guidelines as closely as possible. By standardizing the method by which the photographs are taken it will allow for better cross-comparative analysis. The photographs that accompany the responses to the questions above should be of the participant. It is important that all photographs are taken using a digital camera. There is no set requirement for an image’s resolution, although images that have a minimum of 600 dpi are preferred. All photographs should be taken in a bright room using a flash. Please make sure that the photographs are taken in colour. Participants should stand against a white background. The photographer should stand two meters from the participant. Please provide two headshots of the participant’s face from the shoulders up. All participants should be fully clothed. Please ensure that the participant’s mouth is fully closed and their eyes are open. If the participant has long hair it should be tied back in a ponytail. The first headshot should be a front facing portrait with a relaxed neutral expression. The second headshot should be a side profile portrait of the participant facing right with a relaxed neutral expression.

Please send the photographs along with detailed responses to the ten questions to the following email address: anthropometricphotos@gmail.com. Results from this study will be published later in due course.

Efram Sera-Shriar is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Science and Technology Studies Programme at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the forthcoming monograph The Making of British Anthropology, 1813-1871, which is being published in the Science and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century series through Pickering & Chatto.

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