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Trust in NumbersThe Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life$
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Theodore M. Porter

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780691208411

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691208411.001.0001

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How Social Numbers Are Made Valid

How Social Numbers Are Made Valid

Chapter:
(p.33) Chapter Two How Social Numbers Are Made Valid
Source:
Trust in Numbers
Author(s):

Theodore M. Porter

Publisher:
Princeton University Press
DOI:10.23943/princeton/9780691208411.003.0003

This chapter explains that, as with the methods of natural science, the quantitative technologies used to investigate social and economic life work best if the world they aim to describe can be remade in their image. Numbers alone never provide enough information to make detailed decisions about the operation of a company. Their highest purpose is to instill an ethic. Measures of profitability — measures of achievement in general — succeed to the degree they become “technologies of the soul.” They provide legitimacy for administrative actions, in large part because they provide standards against which people judge themselves. Grades in school, scores on standardized examinations, and the bottom line on an accounting sheet cannot work effectively unless their validity, or at least reasonableness, is accepted by the people whose accomplishments or worth they purport to measure. When it is, the measures succeed by giving direction to the very activities that are being measured. In this way, individuals are made governable; they display what Foucault called governmentality. Numbers create and can be compared with norms, which are among the gentlest and yet most pervasive forms of power in modern democracies.

Keywords:   quantitative technologies, social life, economic life, standards, validity, measurements, governmentality, democracies

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