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"Numbers from the Bottom Up"

6-7 March 2014

In the academic year 2013-14, a focus group of nine Fellows from various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences is studying the rise, spread and power of numbers in economic and social life. They have been convened at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study Berlin) under the leadership of Wendy Espeland, a sociologist from Northwestern University.

Quantification, including accounting, is often associated with objectivity, precision, rationality. It is increasingly also associated with accountability and efficiency. But why do we associate numbers with these qualities? What kinds of expertise and resources are needed in order to make credible numbers? What powers do we attribute to numbers and how do they interact with other kinds of authority, for example law? And in what ways have numbers changed how we engage in politics? In order to examine these questions, this focus group brings together international scholars from different fields such as accounting, anthropology, history, history of science, sociology, statistics to study the production and uses of numbers in different institutional contexts. Andrea Mennicken has joined the group from the Department of Accounting, LSE.

In March, the quantification focus group held a workshop entitled “Numbers from the Bottom Up”.  It was devoted to the study of the motives for making numbers, the authority attributed to numbers, the effects of numbers, and dynamics of their spread. From the LSE, Andrea Mennicken (Accounting), Mary Morgan (Economic History) and Michael Power (Accounting) participated.

Michael Power| (Department of Accounting, LSE) examined the social life of accounting estimates and their transformation into stabilized, trusted organizational and regulatory facts via inscriptions and audit trails in the field of life assurance.

Andrea Mennicken| (Department of Accounting, LSE) analysed attempts aimed at the quantification of decency in the prison service of England and Wales. She raised the question to which quantification, focusing in particular on instruments of rating and performance measurement, can be appealed to as a link connecting a multitude of actors and domains, including disparate values and rationalities, such as security, decency and economy.

Mary Morgan| (Department of Economic History, LSE) investigated problems of aggregation and disaggregation in poverty measurements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She explored the disaggregation work that it takes to provide aggregated numbers, such as the Booth poverty index, with power and political traction in social policy and urban planning.

quantification_wsh_march2014-

Pictured: Michael Power, LSE Department of Accounting (back row, first left), Mary Morgan, LSE Department of Economic History (front row, second left) and Andrea Mennicken, LSE Department of Accounting (front row, third left)  

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