Fahlbeck, Pontus Erland

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Fahlbeck, Pontus Erland



Pontus Fahlbeck (1850–1923) was one of the cultural leaders of Sweden around the turn of the century. Successful in a career which combined scientific, political, and business interests, he was, at first, professor of history and political science at the University of Lund and, later, professor of political science and statistics at that university. It was largely thanks to his efforts that a chair in statistics, the first in Sweden, was established at Uppsala in 1910. In addition, he endowed a widely known foundation at the University of Lund that supports research in political science.

His scientific and political books and articles reflect, on the one hand, his broad socioeconomic perspectives and, on the other, his keen interest in the political problems of the day. Some influence from German Kathedersozialismus and social-law theory can be traced in his treatment of social problems. He described himself as moderately right wing in political matters and radical in social matters.

Fahlbeck began his academic career in history, concentrating on problems of European medieval history, and then took up political science, dealing with the Swedish constitution and its development in relation to social organization. His involvement deepened as he gradually moved toward general social science, or sociology in a broad sense. His interest focused on human society as a system of classes, the socioeconomic functions of class differentiation, and the transition from feudal society, with its class privileges, to the free groupings of modern society. In modern society, as he saw it, the legal differences between the social strata have been erased.

Fahlbeck’s magnum opus is Sveriges adel (“The Swedish Nobility”; 1897–1902). Volume 1 is a historical study tracing each family from its ennoblement through subsequent generations. Out of a total of 2,735 families, some 25 per cent were extinct by 1898. The statistical analysis focuses on the process of extinction and includes death rates and survival tables, calculated by family. The second part is a demographic-statistical study of the then contemporary nobility. This manY-faceted analysis has been referred to as a pioneering work. Throughout, Fahlbeck developed his argument on two planes–careful statistical analysis and speculative discussion. Notable are his strong emphasis on the importance of social circulation and of the leadership of the upper classes, his resigned attitude toward the deadly dangers resulting from the excessive refinement of the upper classes, and his dissatisfaction with Malthus and, in particular, neo-Malthusianism.

In general, Fahlbeck will be remembered not so much for the concrete results he produced but for the way in which he understood and dealt with some of the key issues which then confronted scientists. Like other brilliant men of his epoch, Fahlbeck was in a frustrating situation. He was aware of rapid socioeconomic developments and their great challenge to the rising social sciences, and he was also vaguely aware that the available scientific methods were inadequate to meet the challenge. At times he seemed to be far ahead of his contemporaries, groping for something that he could not articulate and that has perhaps still not been reached.

Fahlbeck’s attitude toward statistical methods was ambivalent. He set forth his views on statistics, as an independent branch of social science, in two programmatic articles (1897; 1918). In the first he enthusiastically supported the actual and potential use of statistics and the numerical method in the social sciences. By the time he wrote the second article, Fahlbeck’s attitude had changed. During the interval between the appearance of the two articles, the flourishing period of German demographic and social statistics had been cut off by the emergence of a strong, antitheoretical position in official statistics (von Mayr, Zahn). In England, in the meantime, the use of statistics in the biological sciences had begun, leading to a rapid and epochmaking development of advanced statistical methods, especially in the experimental area. In the period between the writing of the two articles, Fahlbeck had himself successfully used statistical methods in his study of the nobility. Yet, in his 1918 article he dismissed the advanced methods of statistics as “higher mathematics” and argued that in the social application of statistics there is room only for simple methods.

Despite the loose arguments and clichés of the 1918 article, Fahlbeck’s position is not without its merits. Although his argument that the study of human behavior and social phenomena is the crucial area for statistical work is extreme, he was right to stress the key importance of studying them statistically. And his untenable view that simple methods suffice for the social sciences may have been an outgrowth of his frustration with the methods then available. His primary goal was the development of appropriate methods, comparable with those of the natural sciences, for dealing with the highest order of phenomena in the scientific hierarchy, that is, with human phenomena.


[see alsoELITES; STRATIFICATION, SOCIAL; and the biography ofGALTON.]


1897 Den statistika typen eller regelbundenheten uti de menskliga foreteelserna: Ett bidrag till statistikens teori (The Statistical Type, or the Regularity of Human Phenomena: A Contribution to the Theory of Statistics). Lund (Sweden): Malstroms Boktryckeri.

1897–1902 Sveriges adel (The Swedish Nobility). 2 vols. Lund (Sweden): Gleerup.

1900 La rêgularite dans les choses humaines ou les types statistiques et leurs variations, Journal de la Sociêtê de Statistique de Paris 41:188–201.

1918 Statistiken och den numeriska kunskapsmetoden: Ett bidrag till frdgan om statistikens stallning som vetenskap (Statistics and the Numerical Method of Knowledge: A Contribution to the Question of the Status of Statistics as a Science). Lunds universitets arsskrift, No. 14. Lund (Sweden): Gleerup.


Festskrift till Pontus Fahlbeck den 15 oktober 1915. 1915 Lund (Sweden): Gleerup.

LAGERROTH, FREDRIK 1924 Minnesord over Pontus Erland Fahlbeck. Humanistika Vetenskapssamfundet i Lund, Arsberdttelse [1923/1924]:20–28. → An obituary.

WALLENGREN, SIGFRID 1923 Pontus Fahlbeck. Statsvetenskaplig tidskrift for politik-statistik-ekonomi 26: 211–228. → An obituary.