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 do 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 eight very interesting new books — that 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 here the full (open-access) essay :
Berman, Elizabeth and Daniel Hirschman. 2018. “The Sociology of Quantification: Where Are We Now?” Contemporary Sociology 47 (3): 257 – 266.