Centre Maurice Halbwachs

Seminar of the Society for the Social Sciences 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.

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 the four SSSQ strands of work:

  • Data deluges throughout history: in what sense is the contemporary « data deluge » a deluge? “call for presentations (February 2022)
  • The new uses of quantification in governance between state and corporate interests
  • The public of quantification and its affects
  • The limits and companions of quantification (visualizations, narratives, humor)

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:

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”