Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Counting the Countless: Statistics on Homelessness and the Spatial Ontology of Political Numbers

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Counting the Countless: Statistics on Homelessness and the Spatial Ontology of Political Numbers

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper focuses on the controversy over nationwide homeless statistics in Germany and uses the conflict as a window through which to explore the spatial and historical ontology of political numbers. Since the 1980s, the German national government's refusal to collect statistical data on homelessness has pushed homeless advocates to fight for quantitative assessments of homelessness as a crucial form of recognition. The conflict has produced a series of studies concerned with the practicability of homeless statistics. These studies offer an insight into the critical relations between space and calculation and the governmental problematizations of calculable territory and populations. Problematizations of space in feasibility studies reflect how the phenomenon of homelessness is not only a social issue ignored by governmental knowledge production, but a real obstacle to conventional ways of data collection on the population. To analyse the controversy and the difficulties of establishing homeless statistics, the paper combines theoretical reflections on the relations between numbers and politics and on spaces of calculation with more recent attempts to highlight the political nature of ignorance. The paper argues that the difficulties to count homeless people represent a case of 'ontological ignorance' connected to modern sedentariness.

Keywords

Ignorance, ontology, calculable space, homelessness, biopower, sedentary metaphysics

Introduction

Much has been written on the relations between statistics and politics, on the power of quantification in modern political culture and on the role numbers play in the constitution of political subjects and the "object domains upon which government is required to operate" (Rose, 1999: 197). By contrast, the absence of numbers, the nonexistence of statistics, the want for and lack of quantification have received considerably less attention. This paper is about such an absence. It focuses on the lack of and on-going struggle for nationwide homeless statistics in Germany and uses the conflict as a window through which to explore the spatial and historical ontology of census statistics and the political nature of nonknowledge. It is however not about the lack per se, but about the ways in which this lack has been produced by and is productive of contemporary formations of political power that depend as much on what they ignore as on what they know.

When statistics are 'the knowledge of the state', then homelessness is a phenomenon the German state does not know. The German national government does not conduct census data on homelessness. On the level of German Federal Lander, only one (North Rhine-Westphalia) out of 16 regional governments conducts a homeless statistic. While a few municipal governments provide local data, these statistics vary greatly. They don't use standardized definitions of homelessness and focus on different forms of temporal accommodation. There also are great variations regarding the currentness and frequency of counting. Some municipalities rely on surveys they conducted years ago, although the findings must be considered outdated. Homeless advocates stress that most of the time governmental responses to homelessness on the municipal level are not based on "any meaningful statistical data" (BAGW, 2012).

There is, however, an on-going struggle for homeless statistics since the early 1980s, when a housing shortage in West German cities highlighted the relations between homelessness, housing markets and unemployment. At that time, homelessness was--for the first time in German history--widely discussed as a structural problem of poverty and no longer solely considered an individual psycho-pathological disposition. The call for quantitative assessments was a political demand emerging from these debates. So far this demand has remained unsuccessful. In the last 30 years, the national government has repeatedly overruled the required legislative changes; only recently in 2012, a draft bill proposing a homeless statistic was again rejected (Deutscher Bundestag, 2012). …

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