Centre Maurice Halbwachs

Seminar of the Society for the Social Studies of Quantification (SSSQ)

Set up in March 2021, the open seminar of the SSSQ gathers scholars from all around the globe (presently Europe, North and South America, and Africa) to reflect on the social studies of quantification and disseminate the latest advances of this field on an international level. It fosters the dialogue between long-established scholars and PhD and postdoctoral students.

Mainly made up of sociologists, economists, anthropologists, philosophers, historians, and statisticians interested in this topic, the seminar takes place every six weeks for an in-depth presentation and discussion of one hour and a half.

It takes place from 4.30 pm to 6.00 pm (CET / CEST)

The seminar is co-organized by four young scholars: Maria Bach (Université de Lausanne), Camille Beaurepaire (CMH – CNRS/ENS/EHESS), Merve Burnazoglu (Utrecht University), and Cecilia Lanata-Briones (University of Warwick). It is endorsed by the regular participation of the different founding members of the SSSQ such as: Emmanuel Didier (CMH – CNRS/ENS/PSL), Wendy Espeland (Northwestern University), Mary Morgan (London School of Economics), Ted Porter (UCLA), and Richard Rottenburg (Witts University).

After a series of standalone presentations, the seminar will from now on evolve around thematic cycles:

  • Data deluges throughout history: in what sense is the contemporary « data deluge » a deluge? (call for presentations February 2022)
  • The limits and companions of quantification (call for presentations May 2023)

The SSSQ seminar has a dedicated mail address (sssq.seminar@gmail.com). You can subscribe to our diffusion list by sending us a mail to this address and receive all relevant information regarding its presentations.

Below are the past presentations and their abstracts:

June 2024 (21th, Friday): Christina Laskaridis (University of Oxford) “Constructing international debt statistics in the post war period – a look through the World Bank and the OECD”

May 2024 (13th, Monday): Moisés Kopper (University of Antwerp) “Crafting Good Indicators: Human-Machine Entanglements in Brazil’s 2022 Population Census”

April 2024 (5th, Friday): Choon Hwee Koh (UCLA) : “Quantification and Institutional Drift in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Empire:  The Case of the Relay Postal System”

February  2024 (12th, Monday): Natália Gil (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul) : “The scandal of numbers and the quantification of educational problems”

Abstract: From the 19th century, Brazil began to produce statistics to guide political decisions in education. Despite the precarious conditions of production of statistical works at that time, numbers were widely used to support emphatic conclusions that generally tended to “diagnose” serious problems in education. In the 20th century, technical improvement of statistical work allowed to know the distribution of schools across the territory and the rates of school failure, for example, but did not provide sufficient information about who were the enrolled students and which social groups were still excluded from school. The chapter shows also how the use of statistics in newspapers puts focus on some themes – considered revelators of the educational crisis – and leaves other issues out of the debate. 

January 2024 (5th, Friday): Léa Renard (Universität Heidelberg) : “The colonial administration as a companion of quantification? Examples from German colonial statistics (1890-1910)”

Abstract:I use this season’s thought-provoking overarching theme of the limits and “companions” of quantification to reassess colonial statistics and ask under what specific conditions numbers travel in the colonial context. My main argument is that statistics do not travel particularly well in colonial contexts, and that this may be related to the bad companionship of the colonial administration as statistical producer. I will illustrate this thesis with examples from the German colonial context. In the last part of the presentation, I will turn to more general questions: Are these conditions at all specific to the colonial context? What can the analysis of colonial statistics reveal about general patterns of travel and circulation?

December  2023 (4th, Monday): Keith Breckenridge (Wits University) : “Debt paternalism and the limits of trust in African history”

Abstract: Mistrust – or the generalised absence of trust — has an unusual place in African history and politics. It has been studied by economists, like Nunn, as a product of the Atlantic slave trade, and by anthropologists of witchcraft, like Geschiere, as a consequence of the struggles over resources within extended African families. In both of these cases, and many others, researchers have had success accounting for pervasive mistrust. Identifying practices, and institutions, that foster trust has proven much more difficult. Aside from the dampening powers of the authoritarian state it has proven difficult to find the ingredients of Simmel’s “quasireligious faith,” even in money itself. In this talk, drawing on Carruthers and Porter, I examine the history of debt contracts on the African continent, focusing on the contrasting administrative infrastructures of debt, survey and subsidy that were applied to African and white farmers in South Africa from the 1920s. In these contrasting regimes of trust there is much to be learned about the financial incentives motivating people to “make a ‘bargain with modernity.’”

October  2023 ( 27th, Friday): Dan Hirschman (Cornell University) : “The Stylized Facts of Inequality”

Abstract: Social scientists produce many different kinds of knowledge. Studies of the political power of expertise typically emphasize the role of grand causal theories like Keynesianism and Monetarism or more narrow causal claims produced by experimental methods. In contrast, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the role of social scientists’ descriptions. This talk highlights one influential category of quantitative descriptive claim: stylized facts. Stylized facts are simple empirical regularities in need of explanation. Stylized facts serve as quasi-phenomena for academic research, but also travel directly into political debates. I illustrate these dynamics through the intertwined history of research on the racial wealth gap and political demands for racial justice in the United States. I identify a group of expert “fact entrepreneurs” who have worked since the 1990s to shift conversations about racial inequality from income to wealth. These scholar-activists promoted the racial wealth gap as a narrative to highlight the legacy of past discrimination and challenge colorblind racist explanations of persistent inequality. Beginning in the 2010s, these efforts paid off. Emphasizing the racial wealth gap made space for discussions of policy proposals like reparations, baby bonds, and student loan forgiveness that directly addressed the racialized intergenerational transmission of wealth.

September 2023 (11th, Monday): Poornima Paidipaty (King’s College London) : “Number in the postcolonial imagination: Statistics in India’s midcentury planning regime”

Abstract: This presentation examines the rise of large-scale sampling in India in the postwar period. While random sampling as an instrument in social measurement had been available since the turn of the century, India was the first nation that attempted to use this technique to gather vital economic and social data on the entireity of its population. In the 1950s, following on the heels of war, national independence and Partition, this was no easy task. What emerged was not only a series of important statistical innovations, but also a new relationship between data and governance. Numbers, in the postcolonial imagination, pointed towards a more stochastic form of social knowledge and a probabilistic relationship to India’s postcolonial future.

May 31, 2023 : Andrea Saltelli (Italian National Research Council) : “The Challenge of Quantification: An Interdisciplinary Reading”

Abstract: The talk will address “the multiverse of quantification”, where visible and invisible numbers increasingly permeate all everyday life, reviewing authors who focus on the roles of quantification in society. Several scholars, including economists, jurists, philosophers, sociologists, communication and data scientists, express concerns or identify critical areas of our relationship with new technologies of ‘numericization’. While mindful of the important specificities of the different families of quantification, the talk will aim to draw a holistic canvas to explore possible spaces for a more systematic investigation of incumbent and novel quantifications.  Mathematical modeling will be treated as an example of a field where more systematic efforts are needed to achieve a reciprocal domestication between quantifications and society. 

April 12, 2023 : Federico d’Onofrio (University of Vienna) : “What kind of goods are statistics ?”

Abstract: Statistics contain valuable information and are costly products, but they have been rarely studied as goods. If we adopt the well-known classification of goods into four categories (public, common, economic and club goods) according to their degree of excludability and rivalry, what kind of good are they? In this presentation, I will show different cases in which figures were either sold as economic or club goods are provided freely as public goods. This classification opens the way to a number of relevant questions: under which conditions can statistics be provided as a public good and when is instead possible or necessary to provide them as economic or club goods? The examples discussed will examine the structure of the production and distribution costs for statistics and the market potential for the information.

March 1, 2023 : Anat Leibler (Bar-Ilan University): “The Absence of Numbers : Stepping Toward a Colorblind Society”

Abstract: Indeed, ethnic groups are no longer conceived as communities grounded objectively in primordial origins, but rather as made up by systems of classifications. Yet, counting and classifying people according to racial and ethnic classifications play an important role in the politics of identity of groups and social movements who are using enumeration in order to negotiate over political, social and cultural representation. Interestingly, while the politics of ethnic identity in Israel have been turbulent over the last three decades, demands to have official enumeration of the population’s ethnic distribution in order to be able to count and estimate level of inequalities have not been heard until recently. In the research I trace the origins of a relatively new social movement in Israel, Hakeshet Hademokratit Hamizrahit [“The Eastern Democratic Rainbow”]. This movement was founded in 1996, aimed at unveiling processes that deepen ethnic inequality within Jewish society in Israel. Many members of the movement were social scientists affiliated with Israeli universities, who were using quantitative research methods in their academic work, but whose social campaign did not include a demand for establishing an infrastructure of classifications for measuring ethnic disparities. In the absence of contemporary ethnic classification, updated data on ethnic differences cannot be presented and the public discourse remains argumentative rather than based on “hard facts.” In this paper, I would like to discuss this anomaly in the way politics of ethnic identity is employed in Israel.

January 18, 2023 : Stephen Stigler (University of Chicago) :  Casanova’s Loterie: Some insights on risk from history “

Abstract: From 1758 to 1836 there was a state lottery in France that was similar to modern lotto, but unique in several ways. Surviving data and contemporary accounts give an intimate view of how risk was viewed by the State and by the gamblers, and provide at least tentative answers to several questions. How did the French bet, and was the lottery really a tax on stupidity? What led the State to undertake what they viewed as a risky venture? How were the rules constructed? A common betting strategy was based on what is now known as the law of the maturity of chances, a scheme now regarded as a gamblers’ fallacy – How can that belief have survived in the face of centuries of experience? Is it perhaps defensible?

December 7, 2022 :  Katarzyna Cieslik and Dániel Margocsy (University of Cambridge) :  Datafication, Power and Control in Development: A Historical Perspective on the Perils and Longevity of Data”

Abstract:The collection, processing, storage and circulation of data is a fundamental element of contemporary societies. While the positivistic literature on ‘data revolution’ finds it essential for improving development delivery, critical data studies stresses the threats of datafication. In this paper, we demonstrate that datafication has been happening continuously through history, driven by political and economic pressures. We use historical examples to show how resource and personal data were extracted, accumulated and commodified by colonial empires, national governments and trade organizations, and argue that similar extractive processes are a present-day threat in the Global South. We argue that the decoupling of earlier and current datafication processes obscures the underlying, complex power dynamics of datafication. Our historical perspective shows how, once aggregated, data may become imperishable and can be appropriated for problematic purposes in the long run by both public and private entities. Using historical case studies, we challenge the current regulatory approaches that view data as a commodity and frame it instead as a mobile, non-perishable, yet ideally inalienable right of people.

October 12, 2022 : Emily Klancher Merchant (University of California, Davis) : “The Deluge of Genomic Data in the Social Sciences”

Abstract: Over the past fifteen years, a tidal wave of genomic data has washed over the quantitative social sciences. From economics to sociology to psychology, social scientists are learning to work with a new kind of information — genotypes — that is becoming ubiquitous in the sources of data traditionally relied upon in these fields. Long-running social scientific surveys — such as the Health and Retirement Study, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics — have genotyped their participants, and new sources of social genomic data — such as the UK Biobank — are entering the scene every year.

The proposed presentation provides a historical overview of this deluge of genomic data, contextualizing it in the longer history of the quantitative social sciences. While arguing that this deluge is in no way a natural or inevitable phenomenon, it explores three ways in which it is, in fact, a deluge. First, the massive quantity of available social genomic data provides users with enormous statistical power, facilitating the identification of very small effects that can make even decidedly social phenomena — such as educational attainment and sexual activity — appear to have genomic causes, providing apparent scientific support for genetic determinism. Second, the increasing availability of such data put increased pressure (especially from funders) on quantitative social scientists to use them, reorienting research agendas. Third, these data have been championed by vocal cheerleaders who utilize public-facing publications to generate a popular sense of genetic determinism, even though social genomic research has not invalidated any pre-existing social scientific paradigms. Overall, the presentation argues that this deluge of genomic data in the social sciences is reshaping entire fields without contributing materially to our knowledge of the social world.

September 7, 2022 : Jonathan Gray (King’s College London): “Doing Participation with Data? Configuring Engagement in Open Data, Data Activism and Data Journalism Projects”

Abstract: How and to what extent can public data practices and infrastructures serve as sites of democratic participation around societal issues? What are the prospects of re- imagining the progressive and democratic capacities of public data infrastructures in an age of “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff. 2018), “platform capitalism” (Srnicek, 2016) and “data colonialism” (Couldry and Mejías, 2019)? While recent literature explores how official data initiatives promote “modes of authorised seeing” (Jasanoff, 2017) and auditorial and entrepreneurial forms of citizenship (Ruppert, 2015), how and to what extent can data infrastructures serve as sites of other alternative forms of sociality, solidarity, knowledge and experience? Can data infrastructures not only amplify and facilitate innovation around the fruits of official practices of quantification (e.g. through open data initiatives), but also create space for new forms of democratic participation around how data is made, what is counted, and how? Given the levels of expertise and specialised knowledge often involved in making data, how might we re-envisage meaningful and substantive public participation and democratic experimentation around data? Drawing on empirical work on a variety of open data, data activism and data journalism projects associated with the author’s forthcoming Data Worlds book, this talk surveys and compares different varieties of participation around the creation and use of public data – from social media engagement, hackdays and interactive websites to codesign, prototyping, platforms, portals, indexes and labs. It examines a variety of different styles of configuring participation with data and associated methods, devices and infrastructures for assembling “data publics” (Ruppert, 2015) – including crowdsourcing, citizen generated data and civic data infrastructures. By examining tensions between conventionalisation towards common formats and structures and receptivity to issues, tensions and differences within these projects, the paper aims to contribute to the theorisation of participation around digital technologies (Fish et al, 2011; Kelty, 2017; Marres, 2012) and how it is given shape around public data infrastructures.

July 6, 2022 : Hanna Sahlin (Lund University) : ” The fear of crime « data deluge »

Abstract: The issue of fear of crime, or “otrygghet”, has gained increased political prominence in recent years, and the research has expanded into the governmental sector in Sweden. The extensive methodological criticism has neither hindered expansion, nor affected used methods in any substantial way. My research indicates that the results of governmental and municipal fear of crime surveys is mainly explained by how fear of crime is operationalized, and how the results are commensurated; how binary percentages of fearful/not fearful participants are produced through collapsing scales for example. The results are then further (mis)interpreted by politicians in order to be able to argue for harsher criminal policy by referring to supposedly scientific measurements of a fearful electorate (Sahlin Lilja, 2021). The research is generally removed from the academic sector and has the characteristics of “science light”; aesthetics of science (Espeland & Stevens, 2008) and methods of quantification are used with very little interpretive, analytic and theoretical work involved.

I argue that the “data deluge” of fear of crime research, the rapid expansion, is actually partly explained by the low quality of the data production. The subject of criminology provided the regime with an easy-to-interpret concept that supposedly measured fear of crime and could be used as a legitimizing mechanism for the kind of criminal policy that was already perceived as politically attractive. Fear of crime research helped frame crime as a matter of order maintenance, rather than a structural issue. I argue that fear of crime is indicative of the “conditional welcome” criminological knowledge has received in Swedish governance more generally (Sahlin Lilja, 2021).

May 25, 2022 : Maria Bach (University of Lausanne) and Wilhelm Aminoff (American University of Paris) : ” What Counts in the Periphery? Evidence from Indian and Nigerian National Accounts

Abstract: The long history from the first forms of national accounting to what we consume in the form of the Gross Domestic Product and various other figures is multifaceted and spread across the globe. The literature on the history of national accounting has largely, however, focused on national accounts in, or by intellectuals from, the core. We thus wanted to investigate two measurements of national accounting based on and produced by natives of the periphery. The core here refers to a part of the world that is generally thought to be developed, notably industrialised. The periphery, in contrast, refers to the part of the world that is generally thought of as less developed that depends on the core for trade and even governance in periods of imperialism. These terms, the core and periphery, emerged in the second half of the 20th century to explain how the world exchange system had evolved in a manner that benefited more developed nations at the expense of less developed ones by trapping them in perpetually unfavourable terms of trade and a resulting asymmetrical core-ward flow of resources (Ahiakpor, 1985, p.536).

Our two case studies, one in 1860s India and the other in 1950s Nigeria, expose the specific socio-economic and political context within which these measurements took place. We show how counting necessarily happened on the local level, making the figures produced specific to a country’s context. At the same, however, we find that it also happened on the international level. There are global debates of how an economy should be counted that transcend political boundaries and contextual differences. In other words, we challenge the tendency to continuously emphasize how specific and different the periphery is from the core. The periphery often shares things with the core, including how they count their economies. We thus also shall show how the estimates of Naoroji in India and Okigbo in Nigeria and their methodological discussions around why we should count the economy, and what and how it should be counted, took part in a global project on national accounting standards that necessarily generalised the economy to produce estimates that are comparable over time and space. Finally, we analyse how the idea of ‘data deluge,’ which often describes the history of quantification in the core, could also apply to the periphery.

April 20, 2022 : Thor Olav Iversen (University of Bergen) : “the history of hunger measurement: making global undernutrition legible

Abstract: “While playing a prominent role in the global development discourse, the history of hunger measurement has received scant scholarly attention. This article chronicles the development of the most used indicator of global food insecurity, the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) indicator developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Drawing on James Scott’s concept of legibility, the article shows that the PoU has been configured by the political economy that FAO is situated in, serving as a vital advocacy resource to legitimize and justify the ambitions of the FAO, the UN and broader development movement. 

At its inception, the model-based indicator opened a global frontier of legibility for states, international agencies, and civil society, enabling the measurement of hunger on an international level with scientific authority. It serves as a powerful example of how global numbers and indicators emerged in an era of and contributed to nascent global conceptualizations of political and economic problems. By serving as a legitimating tool for industrial and commercial modernization of agriculture, the map provided by the PoU has also shaped terrain it seeks to represent and contributed to make it easier to register, quantify and control. The PoU’s measurements have however been profoundly insecure and vague. The significant instability observed in historical measurements demands much greater in the transparency in the data and modelling basis for the measurements of the PoU.”

February 23, 2022 : Jean-Pierre Beaud (UQAM), “Statistics, Health and Pandemic in Canada”

Abstract: I will attempt to account for how Canada has established, since the 19th century,  an apparatus for collecting data relating to public health and will see that pandemics have generally led authorities to attempt to improve its efficiency. I will also propose a model in which the two major features of Canada will play, in a way, the role of explanatory variables: 1. The political formula adopted, namely a specific federalism (different from that implemented in the US, for example). 2. The cultural formula that has prevailed since the early 1970s, namely multiculturalism.

January 5, 2022 : Cecilia Lanata-Briones (University of Warwick) (in co-authorship with Claudia Jorgelina Daniel and Andrés Estefane), Socio-political history of Latin American statistics

Abstract: This presentation scrutinises the existing academic research that focuses on the socio-political history of Latin American statistics. The novel aim of this presentation is to produce an account, a report, or inventory that assesses the contribution that since the end of the twentieth century the study of Latin America has made to the global knowledge of the history of quantification as well as to the role of statistical reasoning in the development of representations about the social and economic world. This assessment makes visible the thematic and methodological diversity of the studies on Latin American countries, with special emphasis on the research on the social and political history of statistics.

December 1, 2021 : Ludvig Goldschmidt Pedersen (Aarhus University), The acceleration of quantification in times of crisis – statistical publications in Denmark 1914-1919

Abstract: Great crises such as wars or pandemics often lead to experiments with new types of official statistics and a general expansion of the state’s institutional capacity to quantify. But as crises wane interim statistical capacity seldomly get disassembled as well. On the contrary, interim statistical capacity designed to quantify a particular crisis – or even provide the solution to it – often outlive this original purpose. A long-term consequence of a crisis can thus be that it leaves a changed statistical infrastructure behind, affecting the politics of the following post-crisis years. In this talk I will explore this simple historical dynamic through looking at how World War One completely rewired official statistics in Denmark. I will make two interrelated arguments: firstly, that the temporality of official Danish statistics changed during World War One. From having conducted itself as an archive of the past, the rationale of the Statistical Department became to record the present in near real-time. Secondly, I will look at the construction of the first Danish consumer price index during the war and the subsequent application of this index to automatically adjust civil servant wages for inflation. Both arguments point to how the crisis of war changed the role of statistics in the Danish state, expanding its use in many stages of the policymaking process.

November 3, 2021 : Pauline Hervois (Ined),The nonsense of counting the insane : the enumeration of the infirm in France in the 19th century

Abstract: The enumeration of the infirm in France in the 19th century had several objectives: to map their geographical distribution, in order to better understand the causes of these disabilities and to provide suitable facilities (asylums, educational institutions), but also to track trends in view to potentially control and decrease the size of this group. This study addresses the quantification of disability through two data sources: the five-year censuses (1851-1876) and the reports of army recruitment (published from 1818 onwards). We study how these figures were constructed, from their initial implementation until they started being challenged. To do so, we also explore the place of the disabled in society, and the role of the State in their care. We deal with the interactions between scientists (gathered in learned societies or in conferences to share their research) and various governance bodies (mayors, prefects, ministries). The former studied this population for scientific reasons, while the latter for administrative purposes. Comparing these divergent interests highlights however a common anxiety: that they were observing a degeneration of the population. Because of the regularity of data outputs, time trends, which until then had not been available, could now be constructed. Statisticians and doctors could therefore use these new statistical figures to demonstrate the exaggeration of these fears.

September 8, 2021 : Quentin Dufour (CSI Mines ParisTech), “Arbitrating to Quantify. National Accountants and the Narration of the Economy”

Abstract: The measurement of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the main representation of the national economy, is carried out in France by the National Accounts Department of the French statistical institute, through two separate calculation processes. Far from ending the quantification work, these calculations create problems: they result in two different amounts of GDP and make the representation of the national economy incoherent. To recover a coherent picture, national accountants intervene on the numbers during what they call arbitration. At the crossroads of the sociology of quantification and workplace studies, this presentation focuses on the way arbitration is done in practice. It investigates the singular form of activity that makes it possible to quantify the national economy despite the calculation problems. My analysis is based on a nine-month ethnographic fieldwork within the National Accounts Department. It shows that the measurement of GDP is never a simple implementation of mathematical operations, but involves an interpretative work on numbers, as they convey economic narratives. It is the meticulous and collective evaluation of the quality of those narratives that ultimately makes it possible to build a unique and quantified representation of the national economy.

July 7, 2021 : Gerardo Serra (Manchester University), “Marching with the Times: Planning, Auditing and Temporalities in 1960s Ghana”

Abstract: An important part of the discourse built by the first generation of African postcolonial leaders revolved around the ‘acceleration of history’. As the first colony in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from British rule, on 6th March 1957, Ghana came to incarnate the whole continent’s hopes of economic, political and social transformation. This presentation looks at how numbers accompanied and shaped the new nation’s ‘march with the times’. It does so by interrogating the role of planning and financial auditing in shaping the political iconography of 1960s Ghana. In particular, I suggest that these tools (and the numbers contained in them) did not simply inform and support practices of economic management. Instead, they contributed to the construction of alternative versions of postcolonial utopianism. The focus is on the last six years of Nkrumah’s government, until he was overthrown by a military coup d’état in 1966, and on the brief experience of the National Liberation Council, the military junta that ruled over Ghana between 1966 and 1969.

June 2, 2021: Harro Maas (Université de Lausanne), “The Social Crusades of Florence Kelley and Ellen Richards: Crossing the Doorsteps for Social Reform”

Abstract: Different methods of data-collection are not only tied to different research methods, but also to different programs of social reform. In this presentation, we examine this thesis by looking at the work of two women reform scientists in the American Progressive Era, Florence Kelley and Ellen Richards, who used the social survey, and the research experiment as means for their respective ends. Florence Kelley is probably best-known as one of the driving forces of the social survey movement in the American Progressive Era who used the social survey to provide lawmakers with evidence in support of legal reform. In contrast, Ellen Richards and the Home Economics Movement she started, focused on an improvement of American social conditions by targeting its smallest unit, the family and its supposed director the housewife. We examine how the different research methods of Kelley and Richards not only entailed different visions about how to change society for the common good, but also different visions about the root causes of social harm and its remedies.

 April 21, 2021: Margo Anderson (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Speaking Truth to Power: The Historians’ Amicus Briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2020 Census Citizenship Cases”