Govern by Numbers (AAA), November 16-20. 2011

Back in January when Nicholas and I started thinking about the 4S Session proposal, we also thought about a way to keep the debatte running after 4S. One Idea we came up with was a small series of workshops that could facilitate the discussion on “STS and the State” One of these should focus on how data and data infrastructure is used to shape governance decisions. When searching for a name for this to start applying for a small grant to finance these workshops, we though about “Governing by Data”. We were so happy to have such a nice name for it that we did not notice that we were not the only ones to use a title like that. Bettina Heintz (2008) used “Governance by Numbers” as a title for a paper on science regulation.

And Alison Cool and Jennifer Mack use “Govern by Numbers” for a proposed session for this year´s AAA. We noticed that too late, so now the deadline already passed, but it is good to see likeminded scholars working on similar problems. So if you are planning to go to AAA in Montreal this year, this might interest you

CALL FOR PAPERS: Govern by Numbers: Models, Plans, and the Quantitative in the Welfare State

American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting
Montreal, Canada, November 16-20. 2011

Co-organizers: Alison Cool, PhD Candidate, New York University and Jennifer Mack, PhD Candidate, Harvard University
Please send titles and 250 word paper abstracts to and by March 7, 2011

Statistical and other quantitative techniques form an important means of planning and rationalizing large-scale policy measures in many welfare states. Such “hard facts” are gathered by state-sanctioned actors, such as scientists, urban planners, bureaucrats, and other interested parties, using the data-collecting systems and tools of their trades. Numbers and models produced by such techniques are enlivened through forms of representation and circulated. This panel looks for ethnographic approaches that address questions like: How is the exquisite complexity of everyday life translated into exact figures and “rational” planning methods? What happens when data is represented in graphs, charts, and drawings or embedded within scientific articles, policy reports, and future-oriented blueprints for action? As contexts change and scales shift, what do the numbers mean, and to whom?

While quantitative data is used in tandem with many forms of government, it has been particularly important in the context of welfare states, where the social well being of the citizenry at large may be in tension with concepts of liberty for the autonomous individual. In the welfare state, in other words, the ability to “point to the numbers” has allowed those who govern to provide their publics with empirically-supported reasons for both mundane and radical interventions into everyday life. Yet scientific methods and standardized urban plans work within moral systems of both care and control. Through practices of counting, classifying, and measuring citizens and their spaces, planners, scientists, and bureaucrats act as intermediaries between the welfare state and its citizens in relations that are abstract and intimate at the same time. Actors can also choose not to quantify and call the numbers into question on ethical or methodological grounds. Drawing in part on notions of governmentality, we ask how welfare states make their ideal citizens through measures that are supported by and circulated through such numbers and systems, and how a cult of the quantitative has often become a national project and a topic of everyday discussion for welfare state citizens themselves.

This panel intends to produce an anthropological conversation between built environment and science studies approaches to research in contemporary welfare states. Broadly, we seek ethnographic work focusing on how the planner, scientist, or bureaucrat inhabits his or her official role in practice and how statistics, standardized planning models, and other logics of the state have come to function as truth-making tools, or their foils, in various forms of (welfare) state-making. How do these actors think about (and embody) the relationship between quantitative data and the qualitative opinions and actions of citizens? How do citizens respond to, help to create, and transform the numerical justifications of policy and complicate the mechanisms of the bureaucratic toolbox? We seek papers approaching these topics within the context of any welfare state and focusing on actors working within a number of different fields, including biomedical sciences, demography, urban planning, finance and economics, architecture and housing, engineering, landscape architecture and environmental design, auditing, law and law enforcement, national security, public health, education, and criminal justice.

1 thought on “Govern by Numbers (AAA), November 16-20. 2011

  1. I looked back at our google-chat log and we actually have a "Govern by Number" on our list of possible titles (we liked it because it sounded like those books for children that ask them to "paint by number") … so, alas, we are not unique in any way with our titles. A shame!


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