"Quantifying the 'National Physique': Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the Proposed British National Anthropometric Survey of 1904"
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Michelle Spektor, PhD Candidate in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Co-sponsored by Harvard STS and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
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Amidst fears of national decline, the British government convened an Inter-departmental Committee in 1903 to investigate alleged “physical deterioration” in the population. After consulting anthropologists from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), the Inter-departmental Committee recommended a National Anthropometric Survey – a large-scale collection and investigation of British citizens’ body measurements – to assess the “national physique.” This talk examines how the Survey emerged as a solution for these concerns, and how its design was shaped by the Inter-departmental Committee’s aims to measure population health and develop social reforms, and BAAS anthropologists’ aims to advance eugenic research on racial classification and promote anti-immigration policies. These groups also imbued the Survey’s methods with conflicting notions of national belonging. The Survey was never implemented, but its history provides insights into the ways contemporary biometric infrastructures create forms of inclusion and exclusion. Not simply a tool of citizen data collection, the Survey also intervened in politics of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, class, race, and empire – dynamics that resonate in national biometric systems today.