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After Numbers? Innovations in Science and Technology Studies' Analytics of Numbers and Numbering


Abstract and Figures

Number studies have featured often in past STS scholarship. We offer six papers each of which we see as broaching a novel issue in STS number studies. They attend to a very wide range of sociotechnical situations where numbers and/or algorithms feature. Contributors reflect on the analytic framing they have been using to make their STS number study and to comparatively articulate the analytic affordances it offered. This SI, then, is concerned to find out how contemporary number studies have been deploying new analytics that are emerging in STS.
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After Numbers? Innovations in Science and
Technology Studies’ Analytics of Numbers and
Ingmar Lippert
Bureau for Troubles: Post-natural histories and futures, Museum for Natural History Berlin, Germany/
Helen Verran
College of Indigenous Futures, Arts and Societies, Charles Darwin University,Australia/
Locating studies of numbers
in STS – and the proposed
position of this SI
Number studies have featured often in past STS
scholarship. Indeed, one might articulate a his-
tory of STS analy tic concepts and theories by
tracking number studies. One might begin such
an undertaking by pointing out that studies in
STS followed anthropology in proposing num-
bers as social entities, noting that in anthropology
number studies have featured since the end of
the nineteenth century. When STS studies gener-
ally were focussing on epistemology, the analytic
framings of number scholarship in STS reected
that. From the 1970s until the end of the century
number studies proliferated. In line with other
areas of STS, a focus on ontology began to appear
in number studies in the mid 1990s, albeit at rst
hesitantly (Watson, 1990; Watson-Verran, 1995).
But it was not the STS past with its range of num-
ber studies that interested us when we set out to
assemble this special issue of Science & Technology
Studies. We were more interested to show how
contemporary number studies were deploying
new analytics that are emerging in STS. To this
end we were concerned to have contributors
reect on the analytic framing they were using
to make their STS number study and to compara-
tively articulate the analytic aordances it oered.
In beginning we register our delighted surprise
at how this special issue turned out, noting how
much we learned along the way from the authors
who have contributed.
We oer six papers each of which we see as
broaching a novel issue in STS number studies.
They attend to a very wide range of sociotech-
nical situations where numbers and/or algorithms
feature. The nexus numbers and/as algorithms
is puzzlingly relevant to taking on numbers.
Recognising that numbers both are and are not
algorithms (and vice versa) we begin by making
clear how we see relations between numbers and
algorithms. While algorithms mobilise a protocol
that elaborates how to work relations between
numbers, e.g. embedded in a database, numbers
express a protocol that lays out how to work
relations embedded within a number as it comes
into being in the banal routines of enumeration,
as for example in Watson (1990). Seeing things
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)Editorial
Lippert & Verran
this way algorithming is a form of numbering
and vice versa, albeit that dierent sociotechnical
means are mobilised. There are of course interest-
ingly dierent sociotechnical characteristics asso-
ciated with utilising analogue means (cognitive,
linguistic and graphic resources) in banal enumer-
ation, and in contriving enumerated value using
digital computation. As we see it, whether analysis
assumes in beginning that algorithms and
numbers are the same, or that they are dierent,
is contingent on analytic method and questions
being asked. This nexus serves as a guide into and
beyond this collection. Here it is a preface to our
contributions’ take on numbers; and in the penul-
timate section this nexus leads to the notion of
‘after’ numbers.
A commitment to what might be called
‘practices theory’ unites the contributions in our
collection, we propose, although not necessarily
identied as such by our authors. Narration of
numbering processes, a strategy common to
the papers collected here, expresses this. We see
practices theory as particularising, relational, and
monistic, and include actor-network theory (ANT)
and material semiotics, along with other onto-
logically focussed empirical studies in this. While
many social scientists might consider ‘practices
theory’ as a subset of ‘practice theory’, we do
not go along with that. Rather we see ‘practices
theory’ and ‘practice theory’ as ends of an analytic
continuum expressing differing notions of
practices: as achieved empirical regularities on the
one hand, and as prescriptively normative on the
other (Rouse, 2001). Specifying this sort of separa-
tion helps to articulate what we see our collection
of papers oers. But whilst we suspect STS would
prot from exploring its relations to approaches
along this continuum, we turn to recent develop-
ments in STS numbers studies. First, we note that
ours is the fth social sciences collection, inter-
secting with STS, with a focus on numbers and
numbering to emerge in this decade. We briey
survey the others to oer an overview of number
studies in the social sciences, and to locate our
collection within that landscape.
In 2010, Anthropological Theory published
a wide ranging collection of papers that had
originally been presented to a workshop with
the title ‘Number as Inventive Frontier: Equiva-
lence, Accounting, Calculation’ facilitated by Jane
Guyer et al. (2010). Noting that despite “number
be[ing] seen as a foundational cognitive process, a
component of all of social life, a convergent and/or
transcendent human phenomenon […] by 1990s
socio-cultural anthropology [of numbers] boasted
only one major book (Guyer et al., 2010: 36), the
collection set out to attend to at least some of the
world’s “number-grammars [and] current number
regimes” noting that these “do not necessarily
have the same properties as each other nor work
according to established mathematical theory
nor resonate similarly across meaning domains”
(Guyer et al., 2010: 37). Given the “complexity of
numbers-in-practice” it was seen as “an extraor-
dinarily difficult challenge to meet ethno-
graphically”, so it was seen as important to not
underestimate “the magnitude of the intellectual
challenge of thinking about multiplicity, conver-
gence and divergence in number usage and its
grammars” (Guyer et al., 2010: 38-39).
Sociologists Lisa Adkins and Celia Lury gathered
numbers studies together under the title ‘Measure
and Value’ in a volume published by Sociological
Review Monographs in 2012. Among the eight
papers were studies of valuation, data, and metri-
cisation, and perhaps giving a clue about the
origins of the volume, nally a paper concerned
about ‘Measure, Value, and Current Crises of
Sociology’ (Gane, 2012). Shortly afterwards, Celia
Lury, teaming up with Sophie Day and Nina
Wakeford, published ‘Number ecologies: numbers
and numbering practices’ in Distinktion: Scandi-
navian Journal of Social Theory (Day et al., 2014).
This collection set out from the reading of earlier
studies “consider[ing] numbers in terms of what
numbering does, rather than what numbering
is (Day et al., 2014: 123). To approach the latter,
they asked “how we live with or in numbers” (Day
et al., 2014: 123). To organise the contributions to
their issue, they turned to ecologising numbers
and analysing them as composed, recognising
that dierent ways of participating in numbers
are possible. In short, the issues addresses, “how
numbers participate in ecologies (Day et al., 2014:
127). The specic contributions address percent-
ages, dierent ways of multiplying, reasoning via
algorithms, algorithms of an evaluation score,
sensors, arts’ engagement with number.
Most recently a collection of number studies
published in Science in Culture, under the title
‘Counting on Nature’, edited by Kristoer Whitney
and Melanie Kiechle (2017), sought to investigate
the role of numbers in society. These authors saw
themselves as asking a new set of questions, and
as eschewing hopes that the collected papers
might answer deep questions about the quanti-
cation of humans and their environments, they
sought to make available some answers regarding
the shifting constellations of authority, expertise,
and narratives in contemporary culture. Among
other questions they asked
Who quanties, and to what purpose? Are numbers
merely fact and/or rhetoric, or are they available
as meaningful bodily experiences and stories
about the past, present, and future? How do
conicting social forces attempt to make dierent
meanings from numbers? How does the practice
of quantifying nature dier between corporate,
state, and non-state actors? How do narratives
and bodies challenge or reinforce the centrality
of numbers in understanding, representing, and
regulating environments? (Whitney and Kiechle,
2017: 4)
In contrast, as we already stated, in our project
we were concerned to nd out how contempo-
rary number studies were deploying new analyt-
ics that are emerging in STS. Our purpose was to
make an investigation of our discipline rather than
attend to ‘a gap in the disciplineas the anthro-
pologists had sought to do. We did not see our-
selves as attending to crises in the discipline, nor
as showing the contemporary roles and eects of
numbers in society. Further, in making our inves-
tigation we had no wish to specify beforehand
what we saw as the new analytics emerging in
STS. What we oered in our call for papers was a
rather vague typology of approaches associated
with four analytic clusters. We do not repeat them
here, for as it turned out our imagined continuum
of approaches was indeed just that. We received a
large number of submissions which proposed to
evidence the many and varied eects that num-
bers and numbering have in society. Winnowing
out those that actually engaged with simultane-
ously interrogating numbers and the analytics of
that interrogation left us with the six papers that
follow. We relate and introduce these papers rst,
and subsequently turn back to numbers, algo-
rithms and what STS has to gain from simultane-
ously interrogating numbers and analytics.
Empirical and Analytical Relations
We cluster this special issue’s contributions in
two sets and identify that one paper (Ingmar Lip-
pert’s) connects these two clusters in its pointing
to each of the phenomena foregrounded. As we
read them, the rst two papers, Daniel Neyland’s
and Martina Klausner’s, with their narratives of
algorithmic processes, focus upon scenarios that
we characterise as ‘after numbers’. The phenom-
enon we point to with this characterisation con-
cerns managing incompatibilities. As ontological
phenomena, gaps, non-ts, and mathematically
non-cohering processes are glossed over using
the aura that hangs about numbers in modern
society. Such is the status of pursuits mobilising
enumerated entities that something like ‘the smell
of numbers’ can be used to eect clunky connec-
tions and work-arounds. This is a form of connect-
ing eected in ignoring. Participants agree to go
on as if things connect up, so in the actual hap-
penings of particular times and places they are
connected. In Neyland’s paper we see an algo-
rithm that does not quite do what it is meant to do
sent to the market nevertheless. Klausner reveals
how emoji kittens on a smart phone screen con-
nect the actions of reluctant children and an algo-
rithm calculating therapeutic eect.
The papers of Tjitske Holtrop, Radhika Gorur,
and Catelijne Coopmans work with ‘found’
numbers. By narrating the ‘lives’ of their found
numbers in various situations, they propose
these found numbers, concepts which have been
subject to processes of enumeration, as ontologi-
cally multiple. In much the same way, Annemarie
Mol (2002) proposed the concept of the disease
atherosclerosis as found in various corners of a
Dutch hospital as bearing an ontological multi-
plicity. In oscillations of singularity and multiplicity
things hold together. Lippert’s paper, compara-
tively juxtaposes two analytic instruments that fall
within actor network theory. He shows that Callon
and Law oer particular possibilities and Verran
oers others. He shows they are not equivalent in
what they reveal, but rather are complementary.
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)
therapeutic strategy. The critical empirical contri-
bution concerns the different modes of calcu-
lating and measuring these time periods – where
Klausner contrasts patients’ practical ways of
meaning making and the device’s learning algo-
rithms’ situated ways of inferring and calculating.
Her analysis adds onto Neyland’s market a clinical
case of performing commensurability.
To di erentiate dierent modes and types of
inferences and numbers’ relating, Klausner draws
on Helen Verran’s (2001) and Paul Kockelman’s
(2017) work. She nds in Verran the capacity to
engage numbers’ performative properties and
their alternative modes of ordering as well as
generalising. Kockelman’s work serves in Klaus-
ner’s analysis to consider chains of inferences in
computer-generated meaning. Klausner recom-
bines both their capacities to focus on the accom-
plishment of numbers as robust and durable.
Where Kockelman specically is helpful to dier-
entiate types and modes of inferences, Verran
allows Klausner to spell out microworlds that
generate numbers and are generated by numbers.
Klausner’s contribution urges us to detail concrete
practices without assuming specic mathematical
Opening up the mathematical presumptions
of a seemingly routine calculation, Ingmar Lippert
(2018) leads us into the world-making of an
equation. The latter consists merely of one division
and one multiplication. However, the situated use
and performance of these operations connect
dierent universes, Lippert argues. Commensu-
rability between these is established by bringing
into being a hitherto non-existing data-point. To
zoom into this performative equation, Lippert
utilises the genre of mathematics itself and the
reader is guided through the equation’s unfolding
both with ethnographic detail and with math-
ematical formula. That the formula is not mathe-
matically coherent is not Lippert’s point, but rather
it illustrates his investment in tracing the situated
logic of the calculation within the oce context
and what the number was for. Empirically, this
number was part and parcel to the construction
of a corporate carbon footprint. The calculator’s
accomplishment is reconstructed as managing
incompatibility by ignorance that produces
comfort in the face of the mathematical tensions
In the process of revealing dierential strengths
of the techniques Lippert shows that ontological
multiplicity of numbered entities offers unex-
pected exibilities in carbon accounting practices.
As a way into the study of numbers and incom-
patibilities within numbers, we introduce Daniel
Neyland’s (2018) study rst. Empirically, he focuses
on a process of research and development for
a privacy technology. The project he followed
attempted to construct an algorithm that would
go through CCTV data and automatically delete
data, a version of smart CCTV (see also Möllers,
2017). To sell this technology as a privacy tech-
nology within the wider security market, the tech-
nology needed to be demonstrated as an eective
technology. At least this is what we might assume.
Deletion, as Neyland shows, is not straightforward,
neither technically not analytically for the STS
scholar. The resolution of that tension, in his story,
is provided by the market: it performs commen-
surability between dierent ontotechnical orders,
which the algorithmic logic resisted to.
To analyse the making of a technology for
deletion, Neyland draws on Michel Callon
and John Law’s (2005) notion of qualculation,
which they drew from Franck Cochoy (2009).
This analytics allows Neyland to reconstruct the
judgements inscribed in the deletion algorithm,
separate out objects, classify them and operate
on them. Algorithm building turns into qualcula-
tive work. However, Neyland argues that qualcu-
lation cannot well handle the disruptive gure
of deletion and so he turns to Hetherington and
Lee (2000) who provide him with the notions of
the blank gure and motility. These notions, he
concludes, provide useful analytical means to
study dissonance within the project of account-
ably performing deletion.
Commensurability is an overarching theme
in Martina Klausner’s (2018) contribution, too.
Empirically complementing Langstrup et al.’s
(2013) paper in Science & Technology Studies on
the relations between numbers and patients,
Klausner is interested in how numbers partici-
pate in inferring from and interfering in patients’
lives. Klausner’s analysis builds on a study of the
development of an e-Health technology, a moni-
toring device that would help patients note the
duration of their implementing a prescribed
Lippert & Verran
within the enactment of nature. This links into
Science & Technology Studies trajectory of critically
exploring numbers and data in constructions of
or for neoliberal environments (e.g. Granjou and
Walker, 2016; Sullivan, 2018).
To analyse the calculation, Lippert compara-
tively reads two analytics, Callon and Law (2005)
on the one hand qualculation, and Verran (2001)
on the other. He coined the phrase ‘ontologising
troubles’ to name Verran’s technique. Lippert’s
analysis performs empirical philosophy as a
method in this contribution as a means to present
three narrations, of the calculation, of analysing
the calculation as a qualculation and of the calcu-
lation as ontologising and troubling. By comparing
the two analytic narrations, Lippert shows how
both are clearly connected, in that they express
an actor-network analytic sensibility, but also that
they are also usefully dierentiated. He identies
in qualculation analytics the capacity to recon-
struct a teleologically oriented calculative process
that is mathematically agnostic. Lippert charac-
terises the technique of ‘ontologising troubles’ as
enabling to identify how within a number multiple
versions of certainty and coherence are achieved
despite the mathematical troubles.
Continuing the theme of the simultaneous
eects of singularity and multiplicity of a number,
Tjitske Holtrop (2018) focuses on the number
6.15%. This number was at the centre in Dutch
engagement with the enrolment rate of girls in
Afghan schools, specically international inter-
vention in Uruzgan, a region well known for its
links to the Taliban. Holtrop, however, turns to
counting and accountability as part of mediating
what happens on the Afghan ground and various
levels of administration. A spreadsheet emerges
as a central device for representing education;
yet in turning to the singular number, Holtrop
also explores its multiple references. With her
analysis of work going into the spreadsheet and
work based on it, Holtrop’s account contributes
to Science & Technology Studiesattention to the
spreadsheet as a central device for organising and
transforming data (see also Goëta and Davis, 2016;
Lippert, 2018).
Focusing on 6.15%, Holtrop explores how the
number relates to various environments. She
proposes the notion interface for the character
of a number to relate to an environment in which
it is used in some way. This reects the thrust
of work by Verran (2001) and Day et al. (2014),
addressing numbers as participants in ecologies
of social worlds. Using Callon and Law’s (2005)
qualculation, she suggests that when numbers
relate to an environment, they also transform.
However, she returns to Verran (2001) to engage
with how numbers’ inside contribute and shape
the practical engagement with the number.
With Verran, Holtrop develops a second level of
meaning of interface: Also internally, the number
is multiple, Holtrop suggests. She identies an
“oscillation between doubt and certainty, towards
stability and chaos” (Holtrop, 2018: 79).
Radhika Gorur (2018) turns to Australia’s
‘Education Revolution’. With this, like Holtrop,
she engages in empirically analysing schools,
education and their governance trough numbers
extending earlier work in Science & Technology
Studies’ broad focus on higher education (e.g.
Tuunainen and Kantasalmi, 2017). Gorur’s focus
is on a public website that the state administra-
tion deployed to achieve transparency about
schools’ performance. She is interested in how
the numbers presented are calculated and how
they recongure other parties, including parents
and schools. She uses the concept of ‘informed
publics’ by Callon et al. (2009) to address how the
government provision of simple calculations to
the, thus, recongured public enabled the latter to
not simply heed the numbers but also to question
This questioning of numbers is analytically
of central interest to Gorur. She employs speci-
cally Kristin Asdal’s (2011) work on the produc-
tion of non-authority to attend to this mode of
relating to numbers. Where Asdal points to the
role of intimacy in accounting whereby control
was not exercised from the distance but inserted
intimately within the controlled office, Gorur
indicates how intimate accounting was enabled
from the distance, allowing both the govern-
mental numbers to recongure intimate relations
in schools and families. She shows, too, however,
that the informed publics were not relating to
these numbers in a singular way, but multiply:
publics subverted and refused numbers. She
conceptualises these ways of relating as a form of
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)
achieving non-qualculability, with Callon and Law
Intimately engaging with numbers is also a
theme in Catelijne Coopmans’ (2018) analysis of
multiple ways of respecting numbers in a meeting.
Whilst often in a meeting, numbers are presented
(e.g. on a screen in a control room, Silvast and
Virtanen, 2014) and action is taken based on
these, in Coopmans’ focus is the question of how
accountably presenting, and engaging with,
numbers is accomplished. She explores a series
of meetings in a Singaporean medical centre in
which diagnostic results were presented as part
of project that sought to innovate a diagnostic
infrastructure. In these meetings, she repeat-
edly encountered various actors who were quite
obviously not satised with each other’s ways of
relating to numbers.
Thus, Coopmans explores how numbers
are dierently brought to life. She approaches
numbers’ liveliness specifically through Helen
Verran’s (2012), Dawn Nafus’ (2014) and Tjitske
Holtrop’s (2018: 75-88) work and uses them
to posit “numbers’ relational agency in knowl-
edge-practices” (Coopmans, 2018: 112). She
then deploys her case as a ‘comparison engine’
(Beaulieu et al., 2007) to learn about her case as
and simultaneously contrast Helen Verran’s (2001)
take on numbers as unity/plurality, John Law’s
(1994) ‘modes of ordering’ and Steve Woolgar and
Daniel Neyland’s (2013) ‘accomplished ontology of
entities’. She shows how each of these achieves a
dierent symmetrical analyses of the competing
commitments to respecting numbers. To think
about this, she suggests the metaphor of the
kaleidoscope. Coopmans’ analysis concludes,
thus, in terms of the kaleidoscope of analytics
that organise symmetrical descriptions shaped by
dierent concerns. And these analytics are dier-
ently generative of results, revealing different
nuances about the analysed material.
Collectively Contributing
to Number, Algorithm
and Data Studies
The kaleidoscopes employed within this spe-
cial issue indicate the range of capacities in
recent STS analytics of numbers to analyse pro-
cesses and practices involving numbers. Based
on our authors’ selection and use of analytical
approaches, we identify a core contribution of the
SI to STS: Even though many of the approaches
share f amily resemblance, the contributions
assembled here, indicate that the approaches
eect dierent analyses. As a retrospective map,
we indicate in Figure 1 which contributions to the
SI deployed, tested or compared which analytics
whilst interrogating numbers.
We suggest, STS has much to gain from papers
that simultaneously interrogate a phenomenon,
in this case numbers, and analytics. This is a dual
interrogation. Whilst STS is well equipped with
studies of technoscientic phenomena (rst inter-
rogation), being explicit that and how we interpret
and reconfigure analytics when producing a
narration of the genre ‘analysis’ (second interroga-
tion) generates three contributions. First, we learn
Figure 1. Map of use of core analytical approaches in SI contributions.
Lippert & Verran
about the epistemic conguration of the phenom-
enon. Second, we learn about the limits and
capacities of the analytic. And, third, we render
ourselves, our practices of analysing, accountable
to the reader, and to ourselves (see Kenney, 2015).
For this special issue we assembled contri-
butions to comparatively interrogate several
analytics. By contrasting the capacities and limits
of two analytics, a paper can reveal and discuss
nuances in STS’s own knowledge-making. We
assembled papers that show this contrast (Gorur,
Holtrop, Neyland) and that discuss the contrast
(Coopmans, Klausner, Lippert). The collection of
these papers indicates that dierent modalities
within a broad community, like actor-network
theorising, produce dierent results.
Producing accounts that perform not only the
dual interrogation – of analysing the phenomena
but also the analytics but also interrogate
the dierences between several analytics – not
as abstract theories or tools but as they are
performed in analytic practice – is demanding
much of authors as well as of readers. As stories
of multiple interrogations, to be generative, the
story-telling needs in-built patience that allows
for sensing and explicating nuances through
which dierences, compatibilities or equivalences
between specic components and relations built
into analytics are accomplished. This multiply
interrogative strategy then opens the black boxes
of STS’s own analytics.
One development, originally surprising us – us
being invested in post-ANT analytics of numbers
– was that authors used these analytics not only
to study numbers, but data and algorithms, too.
So we return to the nexus of numbers/algorithms,
and extend it to include data.
We recognised early on that it is a common
perception among STS scholars that numbers and
numbering studies includes algorithm studies
as well as data studies. In contemporary techno-
sciences numbers and algorithms and data come
tightly knitted nowadays. Each of the projects
that have excited the interest of our contribu-
tors involved working the relation between these
forms. Let us pause and reconsider that seemingly
obvious point.
Whilst Helen Verran’s (2001) work is concerned
with and disconcerted by basic arithmetic
practices (e.g. enumerating tomatoes, measuring
length), many STS projects engage with with
numbers and data within socio-technical
contexts that include the processing of a range
of data-points or even infrastructures. Consider
Paul Edward’s (2010: 92–96) presentation of the
computers orchestrated to solve an differen-
tial equation in 1922: 64,000 human computers
were to conduct ordered steps of arithmetics,
i.e. perform an algorithm. Whether performed
by human or silicon computers, at each step, we
are concerned with an algorithm-con-computing
entities (multiply by 2), calculating with variables
(qualities) and their contents (quantities), step by
Two k ilogra m of tomatoes, when dataed, could
be represented as x = 2. Where x equals “kilogram
of tomatoe”. The rst step’s nding, it’s results, the
content for the specic variable, is 4. 4 is given as
input to the next step, as data. Though, the data
storage ideally stores the 4 as the content for the
variable x. So, data includes not just the quantita-
tive meaning, but the qualitative, too. Decisive for
the semantic load of the variable, Ingmar Lippert
(2013, 2018) points out, two qualities are involved,
the standardised unit kilogram and the qualita-
tive category of tomatoes. Helen Verran’s (2012)
chapter ‘Number’ engages this semantic complex
with the term ‘number’. Lippert (2013: 93) illus-
trates the (un)certainty potential of such a number
with a triangle, indicating that for mathematical
coherence all of the three components and their
relations need to be under control. Managing this
control is labour (Coopmans, Lippert).
In technoscience, corporate or political
contexts, performing data, and big data, comes
with a risk; a risk also for STS analyses: ignoring
relevant issues within these semantic knots. Inside
numbers we might nd mathematical non-coher-
ence, or more complex socio-cultural investments.
The contributions to this special issue can
be read as showing multiplicity both within the
doing of numbers (Klausner, Lippert), outside
(Gorur, Neyland) and where the inside and outside
collapses (Coopmans, Holtrop). So, numbers can
be studied as networks, their inside explored,
what is behind them. This implies analysing
number as relational practice. And we can study
how numbers are used, contested, including the
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)
contestation of how numbers should be engaged
with. Therefore we suggest numbers as sites of
the political that precedes numbers’ social eects
social eects that STS and related elds have
proven already to be worth of scrutiny.
This special issue shows, too, that human actors,
and potentially articial actors, too, are partially
well aware of tensions and frictions within their
numbers, data or algorithms (Lippert, Neyland).
To be sure, this implies specic ontologies and
analytics, held by members ‘in the eld’ them-
selves, are employed by members to evaluate their
numbers, data or algorithms.1 We consider it a task
for the STS scholar to analyse the actual material
and epistemic practices that shape numbers
and stories of numbers. This then includes inter-
rogating both members’ and scholars’ analytics
through which numbers’ harmonies, tensions and
frictions are established. In parallel to insisting
of the vitality of carefully interrogating our own
analytics, we insist on exploring the politics of
real-worldly numbers, including of numbers
with in-built incompatibilities. Ignorance is only
one form of managing incompatibilities, others
are corrections and mislead attempts of correc-
tion. We identify in the contributions an amazing
variety of how numbers, too, are also employed as
a guise. Performing numberliness eects relations
and connectibility; numbers appear as ready
plug-ins (see Latour, 2005). However, we must
not forget that numbers can be practically, even if
mathematically invalidly, processed in algorithms;
recent big data enthusiasm risks multiplying such
risks. These may fail science, engineering, markets
and democracy (e.g. Lippert, 2016).
After numbers!
Analysing numbers leads us to considering how
we analyse numbers. This is a sideways move-
ment. When analysing numbers we are making
the analytics work and pass it along. In passing it
along, ‘it’ changes, it is remodalised. This implies
that an analytics, a theory, is never isolated or
‘pure’. Instead, the analytics is situated – e.g. in
a textbook or in a research paper that performs
‘applying’ it. So we invite attention to how we can
exercise care in using and making analytics work.
What does it mean to do ‘good work’ with STS
number analytics, through or on them? We regis-
ter a value in simultaneously interrogating num-
bers and the STS number analytics: this mutual
interrogation qualifies the relations between
numbers, analytics and, then necessarily, the ana-
lyst. Some of the papers in this collection provide
situated responses to these concerns, and we read
these as particularly generative for understanding
the nuances of analytics and how their interpreta-
tive exibility comes to matter in STS analyses of
numbers. In short: going after numbers requires
thinking through how we go after them.
‘After numbers’ captures seven points we like to
end this editorial with.
First of all, being somewhat humble, we
recognise that the quantitative value of numbers
may not be at stake, numbers may be ignored (see
also Lampland, 2010). But still, the numberly guise
of numbers here can be expected to be decisive.
Second, recognising the signicant tradition
of studying the social effects of numbers, we
suggest that after the fact, after a number has
been produced, many relevant phenomena can
be studied. Phenomena that employ the number:
nth order calculations.
Third, once we encounter a number, we
can turn to what happened behind, before, it.
Thus, after identifying a number, we turn to its
emergence, its becoming-number. Within this
process of becoming, signicant commitments to
the expected number may be invested.
Fourth, from a temporal perspective, engaging
with the two prior points gets us onto the track
for a study of the life-cycle of the number or a
narrative diary of what happens on its multiple
and lively ways.
Fifth, numbers are often invoked in discourses
of accountability and rational, calculable, action or
evidence. Addressing these matters, politically.
Sixth, we can employ STS number analytics
in studies of data and algorithms, too. And more
conversation, specifically mutual interroga-
tion, between number studies, data studies and
algorithm studies may prove valuable.
After Numbers! This is a call to employ, further
develop, interrogate STS number analytics and
study numbers.
Lippert & Verran
We thank the authors and reviewers for engaging
with us and each other’s work over the process to
this special issue. We are grateful for having had
the opportunity to initiate the process at the Asia-
Pacic STS Network conference 2013, Singapore,
with a panel ‘After Numbers: Doing and Undo-
ing Calculative Practices’. And we are glad we
could engage with the theme in 2018 at 4S Syd-
ney within a panel ‘How Do STS Studies Translate
Numbers’? The journal Science & Technology Stud-
ies has been great to work with from the inception
of the special issue to its production – thank you
Salla Sariola, Sampsa Hyysalo, Estrid Sørensen and
Heta Tarkkala!
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)
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1 Mathematics establishes the extreme case, in itself deserving STS attention (Rotman 1999; Heintz, 2000;
Barany and MacKenzie, 2014).
Science & Technology Studies 31(4)
... Focussing on descriptive problematisation of STS methods-in-action, Lippert and Verran's (2018) special issue in the EASST Journal Science & Technologies Studies highlights how different modalities of performing an analytics produce different accounts. Such contemporary scholarship increasingly calls for more detailed engagement with how STS researchers do and interpret speci�c methods, research designs and analytics. ...
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published at ___ How does STS ethnography meet what it researches? Not prescriptive methodology-we were interested in methodography, describing and problematising how methods shape data. 2018 saw three research events that focused on data infrastructures and practices in participant observation and in collaborating with other actants in & around the field. With this focus, we turned back and looked at our own research practices. This meant exploring what kind of per-formative relations arise between STS and our topics of research and how these relations were materially and otherwise shaped.
... Anthropologists and qualitative social scientists have long raised concerns about data-driven techniques on epistemological, ethical and political grounds (Iliadis and Russo, 2016;Manovich, 2012), arguing that they fail to capture the nuance of situated practice (boyd and Crawford, 2012) or lead us toward simplistic research questions (Uprichard, 2013), that they exacerbate existing asymmetries of access and visibility (Benjamin, 2019) and that they remain largely unaccountable (Pasquale, 2015) to the people whose lives they affect. STS scholars in Moats particular have examined how algorithms and data analytics achieve their performed neutrality, commensurability of different types of data (Slota et al., 2020) and gloss over gaps and silences (Coopmans, 2014;Leonelli et al., 2017;Lippert and Verran, 2018;Neyland, 2016). ...
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It is often claimed that the rise of so called 'big data' and computationally advanced methods may exacerbate tensions between disciplines like data science and anthropology. This paper is an attempt to reflect on these possible tensions and their resolution, empirically. It contributes to a growing body of literature which observes interdisciplinary collabrations around new methods and digital infrastructures in practice but argues that many existing arrangements for interdisciplinary collaboration enforce a separation between disciplines in which identities are not really put at risk. In order to disrupt these standard roles and routines we put on a series of workshops in which mainly self-identified qualitative or non-technical researchers were encouraged to use digital tools (scrapers, automated text analysis and data visualisations). The paper focuses on three empirical examples from the workshops in which tensions, both between disciplines and between methods, flared up and how they were ultimately managed or settled. In order to characterise both these tensions and negotiating strategies I draw on Woolgar and Stengers' use of the concepts humour and irony to describe how disciplines relate to each others' truth claims. I conclude that while there is great potential in more open-ended collaborative settings, qualitative social scientists may need to confront some of their own disciplinary baggage in order for better dialogue and more radical mixings between disciplines to occur.
... 3 This paper's methodology takes the form of empirical philosophy, rather than of systematic qualitative data analysis. Following the purpose of the present special issue-interrogating recent innovations in STS analytics of numbers and numbering (Lippert and Verran, 2018)for my analysis I have constructed an empirical story that serves to interrogate STS analytics. The narration, or story, here is not shaped to meet specific sociological and ethnographic criteria. ...
Full-text available
Calculating and making public carbon footprints is becoming self-evident for multinational corporations. Drawing on ethnographic data I narrate of the calculative routine practices involved in that process. The narration shows how routine yet sophisticated mathematical transformations are involved in retrieving salient information, and second that mathematical consistency is readily interrupted by 'dirty data'. Such interruptions call for opportunistic data management in devising work-arounds, which effect enough mathematical coherence for the number to hold together. Foregrounding an episode of calculative data retrieval, interruption and work-around contrivance, I employ it to make a comparative reading of two STS analytics, arguing: whereas Callon and Law's (2005) analytic technique of qualculation reveals the episode of data management and work around contrivance as a teleologically oriented process that manages to bridge mathematical inconsistency, Verran's technique of ontologising troubles enables us to recognise how a number-as-network configures its particular kind of certainty and coherence, how it sticks.
... 3 This paper's methodology takes the form of empirical philosophy, rather than of systematic qualitative data analysis. Following the purpose of the present special issue-interrogating recent innovations in STS analytics of numbers and numbering (Lippert and Verran, 2018)for my analysis I have constructed an empirical story that serves to interrogate STS analytics. The narration, or story, here is not shaped to meet specific sociological and ethnographic criteria. ...
This article examines digital data use within three Australian secondary schools, drawing on in-depth interviews with 50 school staff to explore tensions between: (i) established logics of “data-driven” schooling; and (ii) emerging “datafied” practices associated with digital systems, platforms and devices. Using sociological theorisation of institutional logics, the article examines how promises of digital “dataism” are thwarted by the entrenched temporal organisation of schooling, and teacher-centred understandings of students as coerced subjects. As such, prevailing logics of state bureaucracy and professionalism combine in ways that temper the prospect of individualism, self-regulation, continuous feedback, and other implicit promises of digital data. The paper considers the extent to which school data logics can endure amid the increased digitisation of K-12 education.
This paper considers the subjectivation of students in light of the increasing amounts of digital data that are now being produced within schools. Taking a lead from critical data studies and the sociology of numbers, the paper draws on staff interviews in three Australian secondary schools to explore the various types of student data being generated, and the forms of student subjectivities that result. In particular, the paper contrasts the ‘holistic’ possibilities that some school leaders and administrators ascribe to data in terms of expanding the capacity to ‘know’ students, against the limited ways that data is actually being used within the schools. Most notably, the paper details how digital data appears to be configured within schools’ official data procedures and practices to build student subjectivities and position students in narrow terms of performance and attendance. The paper also highlights how teachers make practical use of these limited data ‘profiles’ in a relational manner – as a way of stimulating dialogue with students to know them better, rather than a source of precise calculation. In this sense, the paper considers how ‘data’ might be reframed in educational discourse as a practical starting-point for teacher inquiry and professional judgment rather than an imagined source of all-encompassing knowledge.
Contemporary schooling is seen to be altering significantly in light of a combined ‘digitisation’ and ‘datafication’ of key processes. This paper examines the nature and conditions of the datafied school by exploring how a relatively prosaic and longstanding school metric (student attendance data) is being produced and used in digital form. Drawing on empirical data taken from in-depth qualitative studies in three contrasting Australian secondary schools, the paper considers ‘anticipatory’, ‘analytical’ and ‘administrative’ aspects of how digitally-mediated attendance data is produced, used and imagined by school staff. Our findings foreground a number of constraints, compromises and inconsistencies that are usually glossed-over in enthusiasms for ‘data-driven’ education. It is argued that these findings highlight the messy realities of schools’ current relationships with digital data, and the broader logics of school datafications.
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Helen Verran is a postcolonial historian and philosopher of science at Charles Darwin University in Australia. Her contributions, addressing concepts’ performances and effects, are groundbreaking in the study of generalising logics, difference, and ontological politics. This analysis of how concepts get enacted responds to key challenges of social sciences and humanities inquiry. Verran’s ‘relational empiricism’ analyses the many and various practices of conceptualising and their effects. Making relations is a central practice in conceptualising and, thus, part of her analysis. Her approach is relational in that the concepts she analyses are understood as doing something: They relate and separate entities. It is empirical as Verran analyses embodied experiences of worlds/worldings. Central in relational empiricism is the inquiry into tensions and overlaps between concepts as doing differences. Verran is best known for her ethnographic work, particularly on the concept of ‘number’ (Lippert & Verran, 2018; Verran, 2001). For Verran, concepts are not merely an intellectual category. Rather, concepts are also embodied and lived, collectively shared and performed in ‘repeated routine performances’ (Verran, 2001, p. 157). In Verran’s material-semiotic analysis, concepts have a realness and are performed or reperformed in situations. This renders concepts as particular in time and place.
Schools now face considerable pressure to be using educational data to inform decision-making and become more efficient. Key to this rise of the ‘data-driven’ school is the increased use of digital technologies – with computer-based data processing fuelling hopes for the technology-driven ‘smart schooling’ and a general ‘datafication’ of education. Against this background, the present paper explores the realities how data-work is taking place within individual schools with the aid of digital technologies. In particular, it draws on empirical data generated from in-depth ethnographic studies of digital data practices within three secondary schools in the Australian state of Victoria. Using concepts from the sociology of numbers, the paper takers these empirical findings to develop productive and relational accounts of the predominant ways that data work was being carried out within these schools. In contrast to the idea of ‘Big Data’, schools were most often found to be engaging in small-scale, improvised forms of spreadsheet work. The paper considers the social, cultural and political reasons underpinning schools’ reliance on such forms of ‘small data’ – particularly in contrast to the more sophisticated, automated and continuous forms of data analysis that are now available.
This paper draws on a three year ethnographic study of the development of an algorithmic surveillance system. It explores ways of understanding the doing and undoing, something and nothing of algorithmic video analytics. The paper pursues a means for engaging with something and nothing by initially drawing on treatments of calculation and qualculation to explore doing. It then seeks to broaden out qualculation by drawing in distinct provocations - blank figures and motility - to engage with forms of undoing. The paper uses the ethnographic study of the algorithmic surveillance system as a means to reflect on the analytic utility of this approach. The conclusion considers three points on something and nothing that this project generated and that could be developed further in future research. © 2018 Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies. All rights reserved.
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Recent decades have seen a significant rise in the use of numeric evidence in education policy and governance. Using the case of the Education Revolution in Australia, this paper explores the processes by which both 'distant accounting' and 'intimate accounting' were made possible by new national assessments and a public website which published comparative information about schools' performance on these assessments. Building on concepts proposed by Kristin Asdal (2011) on intimate actions in accounting, the paper elaborates how Australian regulating authorities created new intimacies by compelling schools to reveal details they might have preferred to keep private. Parents, and the public in general, came to be seen as deserving of such intimate information, and as capable of using such information appropriately. The resulting 'informed publics' then played a significant role in the productions of authority and non-authority. Various efforts unfolded to challenge the authority of numbers and to escape being governed by them, by subverting the efforts of quantification and refusing the numbers that were produced. Tracing the story of the Education Revolution affords an opportunity to elaborate the processes of 'accounting intimacy' suggested by Asdal (2011) and to examine the relationship between 'the production of non-authority' that she described, the production of 'non-calculation' suggested by Callon and Law (2005), and the concept of 'informed publics' conceptualised by Callon et al. (2009). The paper proposes that 'distant' and 'intimate' forms of accounting are not mutually exclusive, but can operate simultaneously and even reinforce each other, and it describes how this was achieved in the Education Revolution.
Full-text available
Calculating and making public carbon footprints is becoming self-evident for multinational corporations. Drawing on ethnographic data I narrate of the calculative routine practices involved in that process. The narration shows how routine yet sophisticated mathematical transformations are involved in retrieving salient information, and second that mathematical consistency is readily interrupted by 'dirty data'. Such interruptions call for opportunistic data management in devising work-arounds, which effect enough mathematical coherence for the number to hold together. Foregrounding an episode of calculative data retrieval, interruption and work-around contrivance, I employ it to make a comparative reading of two STS analytics, arguing: whereas Callon and Law's (2005) analytic technique of qualculation reveals the episode of data management and work around contrivance as a teleologically oriented process that manages to bridge mathematical inconsistency, Verran's technique of ontologising troubles enables us to recognise how a number-as-network configures its particular kind of certainty and coherence, how it sticks.
Full-text available
This paper explores an episode of numbers appearing on a screen and being read/spoken, looked at and received as numbers, by people who work together to achieve a particular goal. The events happened in Singapore, in 2012-2013, as part of periodic reporting on diabetic retinopathy screening in the context of efforts to innovate such screening. I tell of two parties at odds over how to engage numbers accountably. This question of 'engagement', of what can and should be done with numbers to secure their participation in organizational affairs, is worked out in how numerical forms are performed and sustained as working numbers. Using three STS analytics to analyse the episode - Helen Verran's (2001) work on number as a relation of unity/plurality, John Law's (1994) work on modes of ordering, and Steve Woolgar and Daniel Neyland's (2013) work on mundaneity and accountability - I argue that numbers are brought to life in very different ways, each mobilizing a certain recognition of what numbers are and what it takes to respect this. In the conclusion, I comment on the article's use and juxtaposition of these STS analytics, using the metaphor of a kaleidoscope.
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This paper explores the ways that qualities and quantities can be enacted, bringing realities into being and how qualities and quantities might also be undone, and sometimes in order to do realities better. In particular, undoing has become a focus for accountably resisting quantification. Utilising the neologism of the qualculation, the paper begins by exploring a particular kind of undoing: deletion. Questions are raised regarding the legal, technical and organisational aspects of deletion and then how we might bring ideas from Science and Technology Studies (STS) together to pose questions of deletion and accountability. Subsequently, data from a study of the development of an algorithmic deletion system is presented to explore qualculation, undoing, deletion, accountability and market value in action. The paper will conclude with a discussion of the nature of undoing qualculations, of how undoing is a constitutive action in itself.
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In response to perceived valuation problems giving rise to global environmental crisis, ‘nature’ is being qualified, quantified and materialised as the new external(ised) ‘Nature-whole’ of ‘natural capital’. This paper problematises the increasing legibility, through numbering and (ac)counting practices, of natural capital as an apparently exterior ‘matter of fact’ that can be leveraged financially. Interconnected policy and technical texts, combined with observation as an academic participant in recent international environmental policy meetings, form the basis for a delineation of four connected and intensifying dimensions of articulation in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’: discursive, numerical-economic, material and institutional. Performative economic sociology approaches are drawn on to clarify the numbering and calculative practices making and performing indicators of nature health and harm as formally economic. These institutionalised fabrications are interpreted as attempts to enrol previously uncosted ‘standing natures’ in the forward-driving movement of capital.
This paper draws on a three year ethnographic study of the development of an algorithmic surveillance system. It explores ways of understanding the doing and undoing, something and nothing of algorithmic video analytics. The paper pursues a means for engaging with something and nothing by initially drawing on treatments of calculation and qualculation to explore doing. It then seeks to broaden out qualculation by drawing in distinct provocations - blank figures and motility - to engage with forms of undoing. The paper uses the ethnographic study of the algorithmic surveillance system as a means to reflect on the analytic utility of this approach. The conclusion considers three points on something and nothing that this project generated and that could be developed further in future research. © 2018 Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies. All rights reserved.
This article discusses a number, 6.15%, as it comes into being in the course of an evaluation study of education in a southern Afghan province. This number indicates that out of 100 school-aged girls 6.15 go to school. While this kind of number may invite refl ections on its epistemic accuracy, more often it draws attention to its inherent negative — the girls that do not go to school — substantiating a need for sustained international commitment. As this article will show, numbers work to establish girls as research entities, as part of populations, and as a concern for the Afghan government and the international intervention. This interfacing work of numbers — between girls, states, interventions, and research protocols — is often absent from academic work that takes numbers to be stable and passive tools with which the world can be known. This article, instead, takes numbers to have an internally complex multiplicity and to actively engage with their environments. In this article, I use the interface between numbers and environment as a space for ethnographic exploration of world-making. By describing three moments in the lifecycle of the number — data cleaning, analysis and presentation — I describe three distinct moments of interfacing in which the number comes to act in three capacities: effecting reference, constituting proportional comparison, and evoking doubt and certainty. Detailed understanding of numbering practices provides an opportunity to not just critically assess numbers as end products but to carefully assess the worlds that emerge alongside numbering practices and the ways in which numbers contribute in processes of governance.
Since the late 20th century, Germany's federal science policy has shifted towards an emphasis on commercialization and/or applicability of academic research. University researchers working within such strategic funding schemes then have to balance commitments to their government commission, their research, and their academic careers, which can often be at odds with each other. Drawing on an ethnographic study of the development of a 'smart' video surveillance system, I analyze some of the strategies which have helped a government-funded, transdisciplinary group of researchers to navigate confl icting expectations from their government, academia, and the wider public in their everyday work. To varying degrees, they managed to align confl icting expectations from the government and their departments by tailoring research problems which were able to travel across diff erent social worlds. By drawing attention to work practices on the ground', this article contributes ethnographic detail to the question of how researchers construct scientifi c problems under pressures to make their work relevant for societal and commercial purposes.