This research project, funded by the Swedish Research Council (2019–2022), involves two economic historians, Rasmus Fleischer and Daniel Berg, both at Stockholm University.
Valuations of quality in the Consumer Price Index and its significance for social and economic history
Inflation is measured by a statistic aggregate called the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is not only a highly political measure, but also an essential source for historical research concerning prices and the standard of living. Since goods and services change qualitatively over time, the CPI also involve approximations of quality change in everything from entertainment to pharmaceutics. Today it is widely acknowledged that certain areas of consumption, such as digital services, creates serious problems for the measurement of inflation.
This project will write a social and political history of quality valuations in Sweden’s CPI, over a period of about 100 years, focusing on the everyday practice of price statisticians, down to the particular qualities of different objects of consumption. The available archives have never before been used for comparable research.
A second aim of the project is to further theoretical and methodological reflection on the use of price indexes in economic history. The ”index critique” [indexkritik] called for is not about debunking statistics; it rather encourages the construction of alternative indexes, allowing for economic phenomena to be illuminated from more than one angle.
The project includes two specialized studies, focusing on the digitization and the medicalization of consumption, respectively. These two areas provide particularly interesting examples of the problems in measuring price change ”as if” quality was constant – which is the explicit aim of the CPI.
The project is structured in five main parts:
1. Valuations of quality change in Swedish price statistics over 100 years (Berg & Fleischer)
2. The politics of price indexing (Fleischer)
3. Digitization as a challenge to inflation measurement (Fleischer)
4. Valuations of quality between the medical and the intoxicating (Berg)
5. Towards a new index criticism (Berg & Fleischer)