The Cultural Logic of Facts and Figures

The Project

The Cultural Logic of Facts and Figures

– Objectification, Measurement and Standardization as Social Processes

1. Aspects relating to the research project

These are some modes of contemporary objectification which demand both in-depth studies and integrative efforts:

  • increased quantification and measurement of social life,
  • standardization undertaken by national and international organizations,
  • commensuration in all forms,
  • the rise of a culture of indicators,
  • financialization of the economy,
  • New Public Management,
  • "the audit society",
  • cognitive and reflexive capitalism,
  • the expansion of medical diagnoses,
  • evidence-based medicine,
  • contemporary construction of scientific objects,
  • patenting and the management of intellectual property rights (including the safeguarding of traditional cultures),
  • the mediatization of reality,
  • the return of religion
  • branding, design and fashion, contemporary forms of celebrity and fame
  • new object strategies in the arts, conceptual art and performance, musical sampling
  • commodification and branding of identities, performativity and citationality
  • objectification and "outsourcing" of emotional life.

Some of these themes will be investigated in depth (see the individual projects below), but always with an integrative purpose in mind. It is our ambition to show that these modes of objectification converge and mold emerging patterns of meaning and morality, and bring new notions of thing- and personhood into being. It is through the study of these effects that we will be able to corroborate our view that these objectifying technologies function as cultural premises and that they cohere in a cultural logic, in spite of the diversity they display on the surface. An important part of the project will be to develop conceptual tools to trace the strands of this coherence.

The topics listed above enter into contemporary political debates about governmentality, management, financial upheaval, education, identity politics, moral reorientation, religious renewal and artistic innovation. In theorizing these matters, we hope to make a contribution to public discourse about these issues as well and to improve our understanding of cultural premises which shape contemporary thought, political strategies and institutional arrangements.

1.1 Background and status of knowledge

A considerable number of researchers (including the ones who are participants in this project) have made important contributions to our understanding of contemporary forms of objectification, including the contemporary expansion of measurement and standardization. But many of them are specialized studies with limited unifying ambitions, a tendency we seek to rectify.

While all epochs and all cultures manifest dominant modes of objectification, some eras more than others display a passion for quantification. The 20th and the present centuries are in the grip of "the will to quantify", perhaps unparalleled since the Renaissance (Crosby, 1997), the Enlightenment (Frängsmyr et a., 1990) and "the statistical 19th century" (see the sub-projects of Porter and Poovey/Brine below). Quantification, measurement, standardization and the rise of a "culture of indicators" (Merry, 2011) are not simply ways of organizing pre-given entities, but are performative and generative technologies. They create institutional objects (Porter, below) and  there is a relationship between statistical systems and modes of governance, between numerical representation and regimes of control and dominance. Not only are numbers a form of representation (along with the forms of narrativity and visualization), but quantification, measurement and standardization give rise to forms of subjectivity (Cañas Bottos, below) and carry with them a range of normativities (Garsten, below).

The project will bring together distinguished scholars from several fields, many of whom have done pioneering work on subjects which enter into the general project, e.g. Porter (1995), Poovey (1998), Rapport (2002), Garsten (2002), Røyrvik (2011), Coombe (1998), Olwig (2002), Larsen (2010).  

In addition to work published by the participants themselves, there is a fund of knowledge and insight upon which we will draw in our concerted efforts to integrate the separate themes and bring out the cultural logic at work in them: general thing theory (e.g. Brown, ed. (2004), Latour and Weibel (eds), 2005, Lash and Lury, 2007), general classification theory (e.g. Jasanoff, 2004, Hacking, 2002, Bowker and Star (1999)), work on quantification and commensuration (Verran, 2011, Espeland, 1998, Povinelli 2001), the generative nature of quantification and entification (Rose, 1999, Ruppert, 2009, Hayden, 2003, Sætnan et al, 2011), the relationship between measurement and governance (Merry, 2011, Rottenburg et al, 2009, Dufour, 2008), the measurement and management of emotional life (Hochschild, 2003, Illouz, 2007), object strategies in the arts (Robinson, 2010, Blom, 2007).

1.2. Approaches, hypotheses and choice of method

The co-investigators represent disciplines like anthropology, anthropology of art, music, comparative literature, history, history of science, sociology, geography, law. These will, naturally, bring the approaches and methods pertaining to their own fields to the project. But the main methods are field work and archival research, sometimes in combination. The non-Norwegian scholars will engage with what they call "the Trondheim conversation" by forging ahead with research already begun or newly undertaken, provided that they receive financial support to do field work and archival work from our project. By "The Trondheim conversation" the participants refer to the fact that NTNU had an active "standardization circle" from the late 1990s until 2005, when we hosted an international conference on identity, globalization and standardization. They also refer to the intellectual energies and interdisciplinary synergies that were unleashed at our first pre-project conference in Trondheim in January 2012.

The sub projects are conveniently divided into five thematic categories, organized in the following five work packages (WP1-5):

  1. Genealogies of some quantifying technologies. Some of these helped produce the scientization of mental disease and the notions of person and morality consonant with that development (Porter); other statistical practices helped bring about the notion of "national economy" (Poovey/Brine).
  2. Blim, Røyrvik and Sørhaug offer analyses of contemporary processes which Porter and Poovey/Brine have described historically. They all address, in different ways, "the calculative turn" and bring out the cultural logic which informs present day economics. This includes the normativity inherent in quantification technologies like standards (Garsten).
  3. The sub projects which examine the emergence of new entities: mediatization of biomedicine (Briggs), transformations of the landscape (Olwig) and the entifying strategies inherent in New Public Management (Almklov).
  4. Standardizing pressures in the arts which foster new cultures of listening (Hui), movement (Ram), and pictorial representation (Rapport)  which in turn influence social life.
  5. Contemporary cultural understandings of identity and subjectivity and their relationship to quantification (Canas Bottos), legal rhetoric and the transformation of "culture" from cognitive horizon to intellectual property (Coombe), standardization and its effect on individuality (Rapport) and the changes in contemporary forms of communication and ethical discourse brought about by measurement and entification (Larsen).

The researchers will meet for a series of workshops and meeting as well as annual conferences. The papers delivered at the annual conferences will be published as anthologies or in special issues of appropriate journals.

In addition to the participants who have committed themselves to submitting papers and books, we have an entourage of equally distinguished scholars who have taken great interest in our project: James Scott (Yale),Veena Das (Johns Hopkins), Arlie Hochschild (Berkeley), Todd Sanders (U of Toronto), Catherine Wilson (U of Aberdeen), Geert Lovink (U of Amsterdam), Eva Illouz (Hebrew University), Elizabeth Hall (U of Toronto), Ina Blom (U of Oslo), Henrik Sinding-Larsen (U of Oslo), Einar Flydal (Telenor), Aud Sissel Hoel (NTNU).They will attend our conferences at their convenience, contribute papers and function as discussants, but they have not committed themselves to writing papers or books under the auspices of the project.

WP1: Genealogies of some quantifying technologies

In his earlier work, Porter has documented the significance of what he calls technologies of quantification for the emergence of new regimes of knowledge and new theoretical entities. In this project he intends to show how the need to harmonize hospital statistics prepares the ground for present day evidence-based medicine. Asylum knowledge in the late 19th century was primarily statistical and represented a wave of quantification corresponding in time and sensibility with the rise of public statistics. Afflictions which at the outset seemed heterogeneous were made commensurable, and the classification of illness was partly a result of how hospital administrators met the challenge of harmonizing statistics. Porter's intention is also to document how these changes were instrumental in relocating mental disease from the domain of moral philosophy to the domain of science, thus redefining the notion of the person and reducing the scope for moral discourse.

Poovey/Brine set out to document how financial modelling has become the paradigmatic mode of producing knowledge and organizing assumptions about value since the 1890s. They argue that the corporatization of US businesses was instrumental in redefining economics from a deductive science to an empirical one, effecting changes in notions of action and agency, and contributing to the formation of "the economy" as a separate province of life. Practices were standardized for statistical purposes and commensuration was achieved  by making comparable different kinds of data:  the prices of commodities, the relative prices of gold and silver, and the purchasing power of money. Statistics became a dominant mode of representation and  the notion of «national economy»  was constructed partly out of the new statistical practices which enabled economists to scale up from the operations of a single corporation to the level of a national aggregate.

WP2: The cultural logic of the calculative turn

Sørhaug: Processes of measurement constitute the very the core of modernization. Financialization of the economy and the New Public Management in the public sector are both evidence of the new "calculative turn", and measurements are in themselves part of the forces of production.  In some influential enterprises, measurement is the force of production. Valuation is inseparable from value creation, and the economy (and organization) is turned into performance. Sørhaug's historical point of departure is 1971 when president Richard Nixon eliminated the gold standard, and the international money system lost a stable referent. In the classical theory of commodification, things appear as creators of value (Marx). In the new economic cosmology, relations and not things are seen as creators of value, and investment in relations replace investment in things as a strategy for profit. The emphasis on relations provides new premises for control and ownership, and it is possible to discuss if that shift will herald a return of referentiality which was lost with the elimination of the gold standard.

Røyrvik: Several commentators have described the globalized economy's present predicament in terms of an enchanted virtual reality (Røyrvik 2011), in which finance capital has achieved a high degree of autonomy from the real economy. Harvey (1994) noted that under conditions of postmodernity capitalism has become dominated by an economy of signs rather than of things, while Clegg (2004) characterized this development as finance capital taking on a hyperreal quality. In his sub project Røyrvik will modify these claims by showing how the current situation sees a move from a "virtual reality economy" to an "economy of real virtuality". He suggests that financialization has invested economic entities and capital goods with differential reality statuses. The financial derivatives market is particularly illustrative of real virtuality: Derivatives create their surface appearance by creatively presupposing social contexts of use, which economistic analysis then (mis)takes as an objective, external and imposed reality.

Blim: In his project: "The Erosion of Stock Market Facts" Blim notes that the most notable trend after the economic crisis of 2008 is yet to be examined closely: the transformation of securities markets into arenas of price arbitrage whereby stock prices signify themselves as prices, rather than as representations of the value of the capital of the firm for which they were historically assumed to stand. His hypothesis is that to the extent that arbitrage has become the normative stock trading activity, stock prices themselves are reflecting no more information than their "dollar" value. Phrased with a linguistic metaphor, prices have become signs of themselves; other "signifieds" related to the firms whose value prices are supposed to reflect, figure much less in their trade. If this is correct that prices in securities markets are reflecting more their value as arithmetic numbers in the securities markets than the value of the capital they are said to represent, this could have a major significance for theories about how capital markets are operating. Blim will explore some of the consequences of this shift and their repercussions on our notions of economic facts.

Garsten: Standards of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) open up new sites of normativity. Standards in general are important forms of coordination and governance, and standards of CSR harmonize norms at the transnational level. The universalist and rationalist way through which standards exert their normative power means that they risk squeezing out local processes of contestation and political articulation. These social concerns and moral values are translated into abstract and transversal standards. The negotiation of values is pivotal to this translation, and the project will contribute to an understanding of these political processes of value negotiation, including the inclusion of morality in an economic calculus or the possibility that morality itself may be contaminated – as it were – by the instrumentalisms of corporate ideology.

WP3: The emergence of new entities

Briggs: The role of mediatizion in biomedicalization is underappreciated. Media do not simply report on entities which are pregiven in medical discourse, but are instrumental in their definition from the outset. "Biomedicalization" is reconfiguring both the human and the nonhuman as new objects. His ethnography (which will be continued under the present project) suggests that mediatization begins before a molecule is tested clinically or a policy is developed. This means that media are never absent from the articulation of medical discourse,  media enter into it from the first moment, spinning a cognitive design on the health issues. Brigg's work has taken him to several countries in Latin America to investigate the media construction of medical affairs. He will continue his work in Latin America in the present project, but also extend it to Hong Kong/China and Norway.

Olwig: The Nordic word Thing is derived from the northern European assembly known as the thing – a concept that has received renewed attention especially through the writings of Martin Heidegger and Bruno Latour.  In modern society the concept of the thing has been reified so that the thing is now largely seen to be an object which can be objectified through measurement and standardization, thereby masking the social component of things, as often occurs in "scientific" discourse. The same kind of reification has occurred with landscape, so that landscape is now largely seen as an object, land or an assemblage of objects constituting the land, which can be mapped, scaled, quantified and categorized. In his empirical research Olwig will focus on the example of Landscape Character Assessments being undertaken in The Lake District of England, a system which precedes the modern conceptualization of landscape as something that is conceptualized through diagraming, mapping, boundary making, scaling, quantification and categorization.  For comparative purposes, Olwig will examine Sami reindeer herding, which makes use of principles similar to the traditional shepherding practices in the Lake district, but which are up against the landscape regulation policies of Norway and Sweden, notable for their drive to standardize and quantify management practices.

Almklov: Previous research has suggested that the control-regimes in NPM strengthens the "contrast" between what is easily objectified, measured and quantified and more diffuse, contextual and relational organizational qualities. Almklov & Antonsen (2010) suggests that what they call "commoditization" of work processes may even actively suppress informal networks, local competence and other qualities of work that are not easily coded into the infrastructures of transparency and accountability. Such commoditization of work, framing work as consisting of atomistic, standardized product-like entities demonstrates how processes of entification/objectification function as cultural premises for the organization of work in modern societies. The proposed activity will specifically look at ICTs (e.g. reporting and documentation systems) as an enabler for ever more fine-grained entification of work, and stronger, more detailed accountability regimes. Their global reach and increasing interconnectedness gives an increasing (spatial and conceptual) mobility to standardized data (Latour, 1987; Bowker & Star 1999; Almklov, 2008). They enable a more fine-grained coding of the world, an entification ad absurdum, where the standardized entities by which we seek to understand and manage the world are getting smaller and simpler and more ubiquitous, while never fully capturing all ("non-entifiable") qualities of situated work. The activity will partly build on previous studies of Norwegian public sectors, as well as a field study in health/social services. It combines insights from Science and Technology Studies and approaches to NPM from organizational/institutional studies.

WP4: Standardizing pressures in the arts

Hui: Will in the course of the project period finish her work on the cultural and intellectual history of environmental music in the 20th century, and initiate a separate project on the sounds of nature. Both projects are about cultures of listening and she examines how such cultures – and indeed our capacity to hear and listen – are shaped by pressures toward standardization and normalization. The first part of her contribution – to be included in a book tentatively completed by 2015 – will examine the role of cognitive and behavioral psychologists in the production of music designed to be consumed and acted upon to reduce anxiety, increase efficiency, encourage consumption. New technologies of recording and efforts by psychologists to design music which affected behavior without being "noticed" fostered  a new culture of listening.  In her new research, which will be initiated in the course of our project, Hui will examine the processes by which the sounds of nature are objectified and normalized through the cultivation and standardization of new forms of listening, arguing that there is a listening equivalent to the Foucauldian gaze.

Ram: Kalpana Ram will examine the place of aesthetics in the making of Indian nationalism in the post-independence era and the tension between standardization/neoliberal rationalization on the one hand and a non-rationalized life-world on the other. Standardization, rationalization as well as other modern imperatives such as market based commercialism have entered the traditional sphere, but they are widely regarded as encroachments on a coherent and valuable non-rationalized life-world. The shift, under neo-liberalism, from state to corporate sponsorship results in the search for independence for artists to keep alive their complex traditions. This project proposes to examine the tensions that ensue as a result of these deliberate attempts at keeping alive a domain of highly elaborated aesthetic practices. Gurus are caught between the non-rationalized unstructured informal version of teaching, and the formal system of standardized curriculum. 

WP5: Contemporary cultural understandings of identity and subjectivity

Rapport's work concerns the ways in which the social processes of objectification, measurement and standardization entail a distortion of identity. On the one hand, these processes are rational and democratic: each member of society, each social situation, is standardised (becoming a statistic) such that equal treatment is anonymously extended throughout a citizenry. On the other hand anonymity and objectification do not do justice to subjectivity: individual difference is misconstrued. My question is whether one can rationally take account of individuality. Rapport's way of approaching the question is through an historical case-study. It concerns the artist Stanley Spencer, one of Britain's foremost twentieth-century painters. Approaching his work and his life—his relations to his paintings, his relations to his domestic circle and wider public—as a social-anthropological topic of investigation, he will examine the ways in which identity and its distortion figured and was treated by Spencer. For Spencer painted distorted figures of the human as part of his oeuvre and his work was, in turn, treated as a disfiguring, ugly distortion of human reality by members of his public. At the same time Spencer felt his ‘distortive' representation to be the truest likeness identity and relationality that he could effect. Rapport's intention is to use this case-study as a lens through which to focus upon wider social issues.

Cañas Bottos: Processes of standardization are at work in the making of national citizens and in their subjectivities, and cases of migration and integration pose challenges to nation making projects. This case study focuses on on the construction of subjectivities in contemporary Argentina, with a focus on the Syro-Lebanese. Particularly, his work will examine how processes of integration and nationalization that follow immigration interact with those of cultural differentiation. Like most "New World" nation states, and previous to the notion of "multiculturalism", Argentina has been constructed following guiding fictions that gave central place to immigration in the construction of a modern nation. However, not all immigrants were considered equal and those from the Middle East were placed at the bottom of the official preference scale. Despite their initial classification as an "undesirable" group for official immigratory policy, a good number of individuals of Syro-Lebanese descent have managed to achieve a high degree of success and integration. This study will focus in the making of a multicultural citizenship, and their related subjectivities. It will focus on the underlying structures of power that articulate labels like, Turks, Syro-Lebanese, Argentines and Argentines of Syro-Lebanese descent. Cañas Bottos' project will respond to the program's call for a study of the impact of multiculturalism on societal development.

Coombe's contribution is in part about the transformation of "culture" from horizon within which we think to intellectual property of which we are in possession. Her study is an examination of how notions of culture enter into legal discourse, partly articulated by international organizations (like UNESCO, Wipo), partly articulated by minorities and aboriginal groups themselves - communities which have come to frame their needs, demands and aspirations culturally. Only little scholarship has been devoted to the relationship between culture claims and rights discourses and the changing legal climate in which new pressures are put upon states to recognize minorities, identify their heritage, and locate and capitalize upon cultural expressions. NGOs that seek to empower local communities, reify traditions as sources of "social capital" and encourage peoples to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude towards the social relations of reproduction that have traditionally sustained them. Foucauldian theories of governmentality suggest that the new emphasis on cultural community in neoliberalism accomplishes a distinctive form of subjectification. Anthropologists do indeed show significant correlations between neoliberalism and the growth of ethnic and indigenous identifications.

Larsen's contribution will in part be an analysis of how contemporary forms of objectification, measurement and standardization have generated changes in vocabularies, forms of legitimation and justification as they can be found in the media (mainly Norwegian print media). It is in the media – and in everyday life - that we can see how these processes insinuate themselves into everyday talk, and shape the way we describe the world, legitimate our actions and justify our practices. This part of his sub project will include an inventory of typical modes of entification, the causalization of interactional language, the invasion of art forms in social life (styling, branding, performance) and the consequent transformation of ethics and communicative styles. This work has been going on for more than a decade (Larsen 2009, 2010) and will be brought to completion in the course of the project period. In addition to doing content analysis of media, he will do a study of the way facts are established in forensic psychiatry (based on document analysis and interviews with psychiatrists and lawyers, 2013) revisit the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia, where he did fieldwork during the early 1970s to investigate how these processes impact the cultural strategies of minorities and lay premises for multicultural interaction in a modern nation state (2014); do a study of the process in which standards are established (field work in one of the committees of Norsk Standard or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), 2015).


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