Quantifying Social Entities: An Historical-Sociological Critique

Article excerpt

In formulating social policy the administrative arm of government relies heavily on number-based significations of knowledge, such as needs indicators and performance measures. Relying on numbers increases administrators' confidence in their decisions and shifts responsibility for error away from the decision-maker and towards the numbers. A close examination of the technology of social quantification reveals instability in many of the definitions and codes that needs analysts and program evaluators adopt when numerically inscribing social entities. To deal with these risks, bureaucracies must establish ways of explicitly assessing the uncertainty, imprecision and social construction that often lies behind the evidence presented as numbers, evidence that can easily be accepted on face value and be turned uncritically into decision-making rationales.

Keywords: numbers, policy, social quantification, needs indicators, evidence, decision-making, statistics


The modern western state applies most public funds to its social programs. The objectives of social programs are determined by the social policy of the state, formulated ideally on sound evidence. In recent years there has been a growing call for policy to be evidence-based. The fundamental elements of this evidence are meaningful descriptions of the characteristics of social entities that represent the needs of the citizens and the priorities of the state concerning those needs, as determined through the political process. Typically these social entities describe the population's health and welfare needs. For example, the state's health administrators seek to know the population's priority needs in health care and how these are likely to change, while regional and social planners seek forecasts of the socio-economic status of sub-populations. This knowledge is invariably captured through numbers, as quantitative significations of one or more social entities. (1) As such it is numbers that are commonly used to signify the social within the welfare policies of the modern western state.

The morphology of the social entity does not sit comfortably with the concept of number. Numbers are ideally constructed from systematic measurement processes that capture predictable properties. Social entities generally are not of this character. As the product of human behaviour, social entities are often unpredictable and possess little of the repeatable, systematic nature of a physical entity such as distance or weight. They can be transient in definition and variable in incidence. Even so, we find that the most common way of signifying social entities is through numbers.

Why Bureaucrats are Attracted to Numbers

Administrative bureaucracies of the modern western state fully embrace the technology of quantification to formulate and implement their governments' welfare policies. Five distinct reasons for this are proposed.

(1) The inevitable avalanche of numbers that arises from government action

The state has evolved with a reliance on a series of technical apparatus that enable governments to govern. These techniques are exercised by the administrative bureaucracy as agent of government. In the exegesis of the 'grand narrative' of the history of modern society, historians and sociologists have developed a range of themes to explain the nature and purpose of administrative bureaucracies, such as Weber's iron cage (1992), Latour's centres of calculation (1987) and Foucault's art of governmentality (1991). A defining role of the bureaucracy is the practice of surveillance. This generates large banks of official statistics about the state and its citizens which, along with other technical apparatus of governmentality, facilitate the purpose of systematisation and control of the state (Dandeker 1990, Dean 1994, Giddens 1990).

Foucault describes the rise of statistics, or knowledge of the state, as a key apparatus of the expanding state in post-Renaissance Europe. …