Quantifying the “National Physique”: Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the British National Anthropometric Survey, 1904



Michelle Spektor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Date and Time

May 12, 2021 11:30 AM - 12:30 PM


RSVP Required.


Virtual Seminar

* Please note all CISAC events are scheduled using the Pacific Time Zone.


Seminar Recording:  https://youtu.be/mz-f4jzKrRI


About the Event: In 1903, the United Kingdom’s War Office announced that up to 60 percent of men who presented for military enlistment were physically unfit for service. Amid growing fears about national decline, the government convened an Inter-departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration to investigate the issue. After consulting anthropologists from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), the Committee’s 1904 Report recommended a National Anthropometric Survey – a large-scale collection and investigation of biometric measurements of British citizens’ bodies – to determine the occurrence of physical deterioration in the population.

Relying on extensive archival research, the presentation shows how the Survey emerged as a solution for these goals and why it was never implemented. It examines how its design was shaped by (1) the Inter- departmental Committee, who hoped to measure the population’s health and develop social reforms, and (2) BAAS anthropologists who wished to advance their eugenic research on racial classification in the UK and promote anti-immigration policies. In the process, these groups imbued the Survey’s methods with varying politics of national inclusion and exclusion.

Drawing on concepts and methods from Science and Technology Studies, the paper presents the Survey as a precursor of contemporary state biometric infrastructures that demonstrates how these systems link measurements of citizens’ bodies with notions of national belonging. The Survey was not simply a tool to collect citizen data. It was also a locus of tensions over industrialization, class, urbanization, immigration, race, and empire – dynamics that resonate in biometric systems today.


About the Speaker: Michelle is a CISAC/HAI Pre-Doctoral Researcher at Stanford University, and a PhD Candidate at MIT in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS). Her research broadly focuses on the ways national biometric identification systems shape state-citizen relationships, and how past biometric infrastructures influence contemporary ones.

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