ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Making and Abstracting Numbers: The Culture and Politics of Counting

Contact Convenor: Sarah Green

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL.

Tel. 0161 275-3989

Co-Convenor: Nicole Vitellone 

Panel abstract

Turning things and persons into numbers is a major technology in today's world, and one that has not been given enough ethnographic attention. The tendency to treat numbers as abstractions that can objectively represent things has been critically analysed in recent years, but the way in which numbers become involved in relations and negotiations has not been so closely addressed, with some notable exceptions. In Strathern's terms, numbers are frequently transacted and exchanged in the same way as gifts or other objects, and therefore are involved in making persons, things and knowledge. But in the process, there is often a scalar transition: something seems to come into being which did not exist before, and which is transformable across incompatible and incomparable domains. Within this perspective, numbers are not 'objects' (nor even objective abstractions) because they remain the outcome of a negotiation, and can stand for all the relations and negotiations that went into arriving at a particular number. But more than that: the requirement to make numbers can also reconstitute places and persons as a result - not by turning them into objects, but by eliciting relations. As a technology then, numbers concern issues of individuation and sociality as well as political economy. If numbers are both constitutive and illustrative of persons in this way, where and under what circumstances do they emerge? What are the affects/effects of numbers? How do numbers figure in the cultural imaginary? By examining the making and abstracting of numbers across cultural and spatial contexts, this session explores the way numbers and counting are involved in the constitution of persons, objects, bodies, identities and (trans)nations.

Technology of growth: a historical anthropological analysis of the origins and uses of numerical representations of child development.

Lyubov Gurjeva, University of Manchester

Child development has been represented by means of tabulated numbers since the late nineteenth century.  Measurement and tabulation enabled the creation of norms and "milestones”. Tabulated numbers embodied the vision of stage-by-stage infant development and corresponding child-care routines.  In this paper, I offer a close reading of late nineteenth century documents on human measurement and an analysis of material culture of measurement and tabulation, and show how and where, numbers came to represent development, and how this changed the view of children and relations of child care.  I situate norms and milestones of human development in the middle-class culture in which they originated and argue that this culture spanned the home and the laboratory.  As numbers moved between these locations, relations of identity, authority and objectivity were established.  Numerical representations of childhood, I claim, are best understood in connection with the romantic view of childhood that gained prominence at the same time within the same culture.

Measuring world society

Keith Hart

This paper builds on two published essays: 'World society as an old regime' and 'Studying world society'. The anthropological project of constructing world society depends on the use of numbers as a means of abstraction. Simmel's sociology of modern city life is one major source, Kant's cosmopolitan philosophy another. A brief overview of the principal UN figures emphasizes the role of nominal and ordinal scales in counting the human population. There is a contrast between the statistical assumptions underlying the construction of national society and those allowing us to make sense of the formation of world society. Whereas the former were static and homogeneous, being based on normal distribution and randomness, the new science of scaled networks assumes growth with preferences and a power rule, with a few major hubs and many weakly connected nodes. The world society brought into being by capitalism as networks of buyers and sellers is thus at once both more connected and unequal than ever. The paper concludes by considering money, time and energy -- the three great quantities measuring society today. It draws on a lifetime's engagement with numbers through playing cards, betting, statistics and the study of money.

Sameness by numbers

Catharina Landstrom

This paper discusses how biological control research resolves the paradox of Australian nature being unique and the same as other environments at the same time through the use of numbers. The paradox arises because, on the one hand, biological control researchers figure the Australian environment as unique but on the other hand, similar enough to other habitats for the same dynamics to work.

Biological control of pests is advocated as a green, environmentally friendly, way to address exotic pests that threaten the unique Australian nature. It works with the idea of controlling exotic pests by introducing natural enemies from the pest's habitat of origin. For this to work the Australian pest infested habitat cannot be all that unique because then it would make little sense trying to re-create species relationships from other locations.

Biological control researchers solve this by introducing mathematical models that define similarity. The equivalence of habitats in other locations of the world with the pest infested Australian biotopes is created in computer modelling. Eventually the models produce a certainty that obscures the difficulties of deciding which parameters are relevant and the quality of measurements. However, the expertise in computer modelling has enabled Australian biological control scientists to excel in the production of sameness between locations by numbers.

Conservation, counting and the meaning and morality of rarity in Islay

Andrew Whitehouse, University of St. Andrews

Rarity is an important value to nature conservationists because the prioritisation of rare species directs their actions. The assessment of rarity is achieved through counting and other processes of quantification. This also aids conservationists in assessing which sites are most important for a species and the long-term population trends. They draw on explanations derived from population ecology to explain the rarity, distribution and population trends of a species. In this paper I will examine how nature conservationists on the Scottish island of Islay use counting. For example, they count geese to assess how much money farmers should be paid in compensation for the damage the geese cause to their crops and they count Choughs in order to gauge the long and short-term population trends of this nationally rare species. These counts can have economic implications for farmers but they also provide individuals with a means through which to critique the methods and aims of the conservation organisations. The social use and processing of numbers, from count in the field to incorporation into policy and management, thus engages with a wider discourse concerning the role of conservation organisations in Islay. This gives on to wider questions of what rarity means to different people and of the moral underpinnings of both this supposedly ‘neutral’ quantification and the science of population ecology.

Using statistical data to discount the claim: relationships among St. John's Wort, biomedicine, and herbal medicine in North American media.

Jennifer Cuffe, McGill University

Can numbers overcome the incommensurability of claims based on different kinds of authority?   In North American medicine, health claims variously based on different kinds of authority (including biomedical science, traditions of herbal medicine, and personal experience) are  made commensurable though the statistical data produced from randomized clinical trials. But once commensurable, are these health claims, and the authorities on which they are based, the same as they were prior to the trial? This paper considers the current controversy presented in North American media over the statistical data from randomized clinical trials of St. John's Wort. The statistical data themselves are not the crux of the controversy, as both advocates and non-advocates of the herb use the same statistical data in their arguments. Rather, the debate centres on what relationships these statistical data form and/or reform among St. John's Wort, biomedical science, traditions of herbal medicine, and other cultural tropes of authority. In considering this controversy, this paper explores how statistical data, by virtue of their scalar nature and their particular associations in the North American imaginary, work to re/form these different kinds of authority.

The numbing of number: notes on the circulation and disposal of knowledge

Rolland Munro, Keele University

Number plays an unusual role in the circulation and consumption of cultural realities. Like language, number has often a representational function in that it can be used to point to things and even stand for them. Unlike language, however, it is never mine.

The numbers I use are not in my gift. This is not just to note that I cannot say I am twenty-five, when I am fifty. It is to register that, whereas the words I speak are subject to the fantasy of being taken for my own thoughts, numbers themselves seem ‘to come from somewhere else’. Typically, numbers are regarded as objective, whereas words are thought to be subjective.

The paper begins by focusing on some incipient ideas from Strathern on ‘extension’, particularly over the ‘attachment’ of parts. And, surprisingly, numbers do not quite work as we might expect. For example, as in the sentence ‘there are three apples on the table’, numbers seem to ‘attach’ to objects in terms of relations. Consequently, the object itself – as a thing in itself – almost vanishes.  In contrast, most words (though not all) ‘attach’ to subjects in ways that magnify or diminish their presence as a thing in itself. To call the apple ‘red’ or ‘beautiful’ invests the apple with presence. So much so that the apple sticks. It is no longer in circulation, but becomes – albeit provisionally and partially - solidified in the here and now.