Quantification – Affordances and Limits



We live in a world awash in numbers. Tables, graphs, charts, Fitbit readouts, spreadsheets that overflow our screens no matter how large, economic forecasts, climate modeling, weather predictions, journal impact factors, H-indices, and the list could go on and on, still barely scratching the surface. We are measured, surveyed, and subject to constant surveillance, largely through the quantification of a dizzying array of features of ourselves and the world around us. This article draws on work in the history of the quantification and measurement of intelligence and other examples from the history of quantification to suggest that quantification and measurement should be seen not just as technical pursuits, but also as normative ones. Every act of seeing, whether through sight or numbers, is also an act of occlusion, of not-seeing. And every move to make decisions more orderly and rational by translating a question into numerical comparisons is also a move to render irrelevant and often invisible the factors that were not included. The reductions and simplifications quantifications rely on can without question bring great and important clarity, but always at a cost. Among the moral questions for the practitioner is not just whether that cost is justified, but, even more critically, who is being asked to pay it?


  • Year: 2020
  • Volume: 2 Issue: 1
  • Page/Article: 8
  • DOI: 10.29024/sar.24
  • Submitted on 22 Jul 2020
  • Accepted on 23 Jul 2020
  • Published on 7 Aug 2020
  • Peer Reviewed