The Sociology of Quantification: Seeing like Numbers

Elizabeth Popp Berman and Dan Hirschman have recently published in Contemporary Sociology a worth reading review essay called “The Sociology of Quantification: Where Are We Now?” In this article, which is definitely more than a ‘regular’ review, they Sociology of Quantificationdo not just discuss several books and depict a genre of researches, but elaborate a series of topical and programmatic questions in respect of what might be perceived as a consolidating subfield — Sociology of Quantification.

“While the sociology of quantification may lack a well-defined object of study, shared theoretical concepts, and an agreed-upon methodological toolkit, studies that touch on quantification nevertheless cluster around four broad questions, which we use to orient our review.. First, what shapes the production of numbers?… Second, when and how do numbers matter?.. Third, how do we govern quantification? How should we govern quantification?.. Fourth and finally, how should scholars study quantification?” (p. 258)

Berman and Hirschman think about these essential questions through observant reading of eight very interesting new books (see their titles at the end of the post).  These books, though, lack a coherent terminology and a shared framework, but all of them grapple with the power of numbers in various contexts and point out “to a vibrant conversation about quantification happening across many different fields”.
Summarizing their illuminating essay, the authors emphasize that:

“Studies of new quantified phenomena help to sharpen our conceptual categories for thinking about what quantification really is. Quantification is not a single, unified process. Work that explores the boundaries of numbers, data, and measurement helps to flesh out our vocabulary—from indicators and rankings, to models and algorithms, and now big data and biosensing, and so on. Indeed, one of the clearest takeaways from these books, read as a group, is the blurriness of “quantification” and the need for conceptual categories that will help us unpack it… The qualitative study of quantification may, at the moment, be producing a significant body of new work. But for producing a coherent sociology of quantification, we have a long way to go.” (p. 266) 

One may find this conclusion disappointing; I find it scholarly encouraging.

Read the full (open-access) essay: Berman, Elizabeth and Daniel Hirschman. 2018. “The Sociology of Quantification: Where Are We Now?” Contemporary Sociology  47: 257-266.

The reviewed books:
— Barman, Emily. 2016. Caring Capitalism: The Meaning and Measure of Social Value. New York: Cambridge University Press.
— Engle Merry, Sally. 2016. The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
— Espeland, Wendy and Michael Sauder. 2016. Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
— Lupton, Deborah. 2016. The Quantified Self. Malden, MA: Polity, 2016.
— Nafus, Dawn, ed. 2016. Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
— Neff, Gina and Dawn Nafus. 2016. Self-Tracking.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
— O’Neil, Cathy. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown.
— Saldin, Robert. 2017. When Bad Policy Makes Good Politics: Running the Numbers on Health Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

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