The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
The mode of enquiry in African economic history has changed quite radically in recent years. In 1987, Patrick Manning surveyed practices and databases in African economic history and compared empirical strategies of scholars who studied the African past. Current practice, which A. G. Hopkins called “new African economic history,” incorporates econometric methods. The specific methods chosen and the types of source material used have implications for what kind of questions are asked and how they can be answered. The dominant mode of research in current African economic history, responding to some of the new challenges posed by econometric work by economists, is to create new data sets and databases that allow more consistent analysis of economic change over time.