Using examples (criminal justice statistics, diagnosis codes, fetal measurements) from the recent project “For Whom the Bell Curves”, I will show how turning meanings into categories and categories into numbers fails to “freeze” them into stability. They do not fully become what Bruno Latour (1987) called “immutable mobiles”, although they are often treated as such. They continue to change over time and place as they are read out of and reinterpreted back into changing political and social contexts. This poses challenges for longitudinal and cross-cultural comparisons. The numbers themselves cannot form a metaphorical fulcrum point for such comparisons, with computational tools serving as the metaphorical lever and the resulting relational distributions revealing the movements of the social worlds. Instead, we must manage without a fulcrum point, sensitizing ourselves to the shifting meanings underlying the numbers even as we compute relational distributions which interact with those meanings.
Keywords: Social contingency of statistics; Challenges to comparability
Biography: Ann Rudinow Sætnan is a professor of Sociology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. She was head of the recently completed project “For Whom the Bell Curves”, which was a qualitative study of the roles of statistics in late-modern society. The project culminated in the edited volume The Mutual Construction of Statistics and Society (editors: Ann Rudinow Sætnan, Heidi Mork Lomell, and Svein Hammer. Routledge, 2010).