Knowledge of the Unknown. On the Emergence and Functional Logic of the “Dark Figure” in the 19th Century


The term “dark figure” can be said to refer to a statistics of hidden but nevertheless presumably real occurrences. It gives a name to something that tends to both evade general knowledge and induce angst. For two decades, studies on the so-called dark figure have focused on attaining a picture of the scale of actual crimes committed. These research programs, generated by a combined effort of the political sphere and the sciences, include the Periodic Security Reports (Periodische Sicherheitsberichte), the Barometer of Security in Germany (Barometer Sicherheit in Deutschland), and the Victimisation Survey Module.

Despite the current increase in interest and awareness, the history of this “knowledge of the unknown” and its epistemological implications have remained largely in the dark. The object of research is a figure of un/knowing that is interlinked with concrete demands and far-reaching actions. The meaning, significance, and negotiation of this figure of suspicion should be viewed as a constitutive element of the history of science. Using the material available, the way in which the phenomenon of the unknown deed in the course of the 19th century advanced to become a research area of its own, thereby opening new fields of intervention, is to be traced concretely.

Concern over the separation of real events from their factual knowability dates back to the 19th century. Using three case studies, different scopes of approach and procedure can be examined by investigating the following: efforts to capture covert prostitution at the level of the city (Berlin), the search to determine the scale of what were seen as potentially dangerous mental illnesses at the level of the state (Prussia), and attempts to collect and determine a “reality of criminality” at the level of the empire (Deutsches Reich). These case studies include zones of intervention at the interface between criminality studies, public health policy, administration, the police, and poverty and social welfare programs from the perspective of un/knowing.

The goal of this project is to write the history of governance (Durchwaltung) under the omen of danger. The case study analysis follows four, closely related points of focus: First, attention will be paid to this figure of un/knowing, its functional logic and epistemological implications. Second, the contemporary search, which gravitated towards areas at the center of social life that were shrouded in danger, should not be seen as separate from the techniques used in the cartography of unknown territories, which had as its aim a new form of visibility of the ‘being’ or nature of the social collective. Third, given the interdependence of forms of perception and decision-making, attention is paid to the way in which the practices of data collection may have determined the chosen objects of interest. Fourth, the use of uncertain knowledge in an interplay with its related demands and measures will be analyzed.

Principal Investigators
Ledebur, Sophie Dr. (Details) (History of Science Specializing in History of Education and Organisation of Knowledge in the 19th and 20th Century)

Duration of Project
Start date: 03/2019
End date: 02/2023

Research Areas
History of Science, Humanities and Social Sciences

Last updated on 2021-04-01 at 17:49