Quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it!

Interview with Emmanuel Didier

Walter Bartl (University of Halle)

Emmanuel Didier is a full professor (directeur de recherche CNRS) at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (École Normale Supérieure, Paris) and a member of the Center for the Study of Invention and Social Process (Goldsmiths University of London). He taught at the University of Chicago and at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and now teaches at Ecole Normale Supérieure and Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique (ENSAE), both in Paris and Ecole Polytechnique in Paris-Saclay. He is a member of the French National Advisory Council on Ethics.

Originally trained as a statistician, Emmanuel Didier very soon specialized in the study of statistics as a tool of government. His first book – revised and updated for the recent English edition – entitled America by the Numbers. Quantification, Democracy and the Birth of National Statistics, bore on the relationship between the invention of random sampling in the US and State interventionism and State planning during the New Deal. His second book, written with Isabelle Bruno, is on Benchmarking. The book shows how management by number, imported in government from private companies, changed the meaning and practice of the French State. His third book, Statactivisme, is an edited volume (with Isabelle Bruno and Julien Prévieux), dedicated to analyze ways in which ordinary people use statistics to enhance their power against institutions. Furthermore, he edited the last book of the late Alain Desrosières, entitled Prouver et gouverner, une analyse politique des statistiques publiques, who deceased before he had a chance to finish it. Recently he has been working on a project on big data in the domain of health and especially in genomics.

WB: How did you get in touch with the economics or sociology of convention?

ED: Well, it depends what you call economics or sociology of convention. When I was a student at ENSAE (Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique) to become a statistician – this was in the first half of the 1990s – I happened to read Luc Boltanski’s book Les Cadres (Boltanski 1982; engl. Boltanski 1987). I became literally enthusiastic for the book. As a socio-history of a social category, I immediately saw that it was a way to think reflexively about statistics. I remember that I was particularly struck by the experiments of social psychologist Eleanor Rosch about the category of dogs, described in the book, showing that some examples of dogs were more typical to the category than others. And I remember that I was also completely convinced by the way the author (Luc Boltanski) was totally reflexive and paid attention to the consequences of his own findings for the very text he was writing. I wrote a letter to Luc – at that time, letters were handwritten – telling him about my enthusiasm and asking if I could work with him. And he said yes! I worked under his supervision on the notion of “social exclusion”. I showed that the originality of the notion is, that, contrary to “the poor” or “the destitute”, it is not a social category, it invites to action but without clearly delineating the individuals that should benefit from it (Didier 1996). Meanwhile, he introduced me first to Alain Desrosières and then to Bruno Latour, who the year after became my PhD supervisor.
At the CSI (Center for the Sociology of Innovation), I learned that something called “economics of convention” existed. I remember: we invited François Eymard-Duvernay and Laurent Thévenot – who are at the core of the economics of convention – to the monthly seminar. But I never felt that I belonged to the group; it was not even clear to me that it was a group. These economists were friendly to us, and vice versa, but I had the feeling that we had diverging agendas. We were not explicating the differences and similarities between us; I did not care whether a group of “conventionalists” was existing, even though I was often interested in their writings. It was simply a biographical matter that I did not get really involved with them. At that time the more heated debate (to me) was evolving between the sociology “of critique” (Groupe de Sociologie Politique et Morale (GSPM) which is the group formed within École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) by Boltanski, Thévenot, Desrosières and others after their separation from Pierre Bourdieu’s approach) and the Actor Network Theory (at CSI – the Group of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and others). To put it in a nutshell, the question is, whether a sociologist can presuppose a totally flat world without any transcendental level (Actor Network Theory) or whether they need to presuppose a two levels world to give room to an exteriority of normativity (GSPM) (cf. Latour 2009).

WB: Alain Desrosières was a crucial figure in the formation of sociology of quantification. What was his role in the development of your interest in quantification processes?

ED: Alain had several specificities. First, he was not working in academia but at the INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques) and was a part time professor at the ENSAE. Therefore, he remained all his life a civil servant as much as a researcher. For me, as a student, I saw his position and, I was to discover very quickly his work too, as a little unusual, a little unexpected, very original. Besides, this position gave him direct access to core questions concerning the production of statistics and its relation to the government. He remained all his life, actually, the only one to care authentically about statistics from a reflexive point of view. I mean the whole Parisian flock was aware of the fascinating sociological questions statistics raised, but fairly soon they relied on him, personally, to produce actual studies and reference papers to be cited on this point.  Third, his position gave him a kind of exteriority within the academic field that allowed him to be, at the same time, an insider and an outsider. It must be said that this social exteriority was also bearing on a vast and profound knowledge of the literature. He knew about the squabbles between the different subgroups living in the ecology of the Left Bank, but he could remain outside of them. He often reinterpreted them from the viewpoint of statistics in a way that wound up being a synthesis of the different positions. Finally, Alain was also extremely generous intellectually. He was always very happy to introduce you to a paper you’d missed, to a colleague that could help you out of a difficulty; he read intermediate versions of your texts and never took you down, on the contrary, he gave important and wise inputs. I guess these points influenced me in trying to follow his path.

WB: Recently, Desrosières was honored by the INSEE, where he worked all his professional life, by naming a library after him. There is a video on that on the Internet (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1og8cTR8wEU). How might his reflexive spirit be able to survive in a public institution that is increasingly confronted with a neoliberal environment and tight budgets?

ED: I love the video, your readers should take a moment watching it! It gives many different, yet coherent, viewpoints on the importance of Alain, and gives a hint on his relationships to representatives of the conventionalist movement. I also love the fact that the library was baptized after him. I would like to insist on the point that Gael de Peretti, an INSEE administrator, encouraged strongly this nomination and is also the kingpin of the biannual « Alain Desrosières’ prize » for the best scholarly essay in the socio-history of quantification. I think, those talking in the video, those who directed it, and Gael’s initiatives are examples of the answer to your question: friends of Alain will make his spirit survive, especially if we find institutions such as a library to solidify the group. This being said, I would like to add that a reflexive spirit on quantification is especially necessary in a world in which arguments about the budget or economic liberalism become so prominent. Actually, I tend to think that this spirit will develop in any case because people need to find degrees of freedom to live their life. It happens that the Social Studies of Quantification are lucky enough to have an inspiring predecessor such as Alain, and it will be useful.

WB: Which aspect of the economics or sociology of convention do you consider problematic or critical with regard to its further development?

ED: Given my previous response, this question is a bit hard to answer. But still, I would like to say something about sociology in general. Society is constantly evolving. There are forces that make it change, sometimes fast, sometimes slowly, but it changes. The problem of sociology is to keep up with these transformations. It has essentially to constantly reinvent itself, so that its methods and findings fit to the transformations it aims at capturing. Some conventionalist works contribute to this necessary creativity of the discipline. But sometimes sociology falls for dogmatism. Particularly for pedagogic reasons, or to establish positions of power (both of which, I must say, are not to be neglected neither), it establishes rules and procedures that must allegedly be followed. Dogmatism is the end of sociology because it is the end of creativity. I hope that no conventionalist has fallen into this trap.

WB: What makes the second generation of scholars in the conventionalist tradition unique?

ED: The first economists of convention organized a conference where they could all sit down together. And their communications fit into one single edited volume (Salais and Thévenot 1986). What is very striking today is the number of people who might be seen as conventionalists and the diversity of the topics, methods, problems that they are tackling, within very different disciplines and countries. I doubt it would be possible to gather all these people in one single room. Rainer Diaz-Bone’s “EC-news-letter” which comes I think at least once in a week, presents at least three or four publications each time. It is really impressive. The first generation of conventionalists did succeed in following God’s order of the Genesis (1:28): “Be fruitful and multiply ”.

WB: The “Social Studies of Quantification”, as you termed the currently emerging interdisciplinary field, draws on a variety of scientific disciplines. Are there any common theoretical assumptions in “Quantification Studies” or are the assumptions held rather specific to certain approaches to the subject?

ED: I don’t know whether there are any theoretical assumptions unifying Social Studies of Quantification. Maybe there is this very general argument, which we all agree to, that quantification is not only a way to describe the world but also a tool of power able to transform it. But I think of Quantification Studies as a group of researchers, each following their own path and engaging with the works of others. Even “quantification” is not strictly defined. Some include data and “big data”, some don’t. Some include lay practices of counting, others don’t. Thus, I think the group of scholars interested in it resembles rather a “flock”, using the concept taken from ethology, than a theoretically established research program. To use another ethological concept, I recently heard about something called “Fish aggregating devices” (FAD). These usually consist of buoys or floats tethered to the ocean floor with concrete blocks. Fish are fascinated with floating objects. They use them to mark locations for mating activities. They gather in considerable numbers around objects such as drifting flotsam, rafts, jellyfish and floating seaweed. The objects appear to provide a visual stimulus in an optical void, and offer refuge for juvenile fish from predators. The gathering of juvenile fish, in turn, attracts larger predator fish (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_aggregating_device). Even though FADs are used now with the awful aim of industrially fishing countless quantities of fish, I’d like to see Social Studies of Quantification as a non-fishing FAD, something that helps researchers gather, discuss, exchange simply because they are attracted by the whole device and the sociality that corresponds to it.

WB: The sociology of quantification has been developed to a considerable degree with regard to the (historical) production of official statistics. Nowadays, public and private life seems to be increasingly permeated by numbers that are collected and analyzed by private tech companies. The conventions of quantification in these companies are generally not in the public eye. What does that mean for the sociology of quantification?

ED: The answer is in the question. I agree with your diagnosis: public and private life is more and more permeated by private numbers. Numbers, even public numbers, are produced with a series of new techniques, originally from the private sector. It’s interesting to see for example the success of an expression such as “data mining”, coming from the big private tech, whereas public statisticians used to simply say “data analysis”. The power that laid with the government, and that the former generation of sociologists of quantification wanted to analyze and criticize, lays now for a large part with private companies and operates very differently. So yes, obviously, I think that research focusing on tech companies, and especially on the intersections of tech companies and government, is extremely interesting. This is particularly striking in medicine and health where public health and private interests have intersected constantly for a very long time.
For example, the debates about a “Stop Covid” app is very interesting – an app that would detect infected people passing by your phone. Public health systems in most countries wanted to develop their own app to make sure that they would control the data. But Google and Apple just announced (September 2020) that they will install automatically an app in the operating system of our phones. So, they just bypassed public health systems! And now they have the data!
One of the difficulties raised by the big tech companies is that their economic model rests on free service or open source development for the users. Their private services look a lot like the ones public authorities might provide. They seem to be for free! But the data is not used the same way, and moreover, there is a long history of the social control of state power. The control of giant private companies’ power yet needs to be developed. Social studies of quantification could really help in this.

WB: What are the challenges and opportunities of Big Data for official statistics?

ED: William Davies wrote an interesting piece on the topic in the Guardian in 2017. It was entitled “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next” (Davies 2017). His main point was that the world has accelerated a lot recently and that the nation-state borders correspond less and less to the reality of the economy, but remain fundamental for statistics. Thus, statistics produce information on entities that are not significant anymore and hence lose their authority. On the contrary, Big Data is able to capture the mood of populations (through “likes” or Google queries), which a new genre of experts know how to put to use. However, they are more into math and physics than the good old statisticians, who are closer to sociology and economics. Especially, Davies warns, they enable populist uses of the information – as it has been the case with Cambridge Analytica.
But official statisticians are not helpless. For example, technically, they are developing very interesting techniques to produce reliable information through many channels at the same time – offline as well as online questionnaires – sufficiently robust to be aggregated in one single survey. It’s called “multimodal data production”. More generally, Walter J. Radermacher, a former head of Eurostat, just published a very good book in which he synthesizes all the innovations made by public statistics bureaus in relation to Big Data (Radermacher 2020). In particular, he argues that public statisticians are very good at producing reliable data and thus in fighting against “fake news” – whereas the “data scientists” working on “big data” are not always on top in this respect.

WB: The COVID-19 pandemic shows once again the importance of reliable (official) statistics. At the same time, there is a lot of insecurity attached to these numbers – for very different reasons. What can the sociology of quantification contribute to the common good in such a crucial situation?

ED: The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been also a pandemic of numbers. It was amazing to see the amount of numbers that we, as the public, were fed every day: numbers of infected persons, numbers of hospitalized persons, numbers of death, numbers of recoveries, etc. – all this in our own country and compared to others. Sociology of quantification did intervene in the media at the time. First it described the strength and limitations of the different methods used to produce these numbers. Especially it pinpointed methodological differences between countries that complicated the comparison. It underlined the social constraints that explain the different methodologies adopted by several public systems.
The best example concerns the number of deaths. It is a long and complicated process to establish the cause of a death – especially in the case of the Coronavirus which goes very often with comorbidities. A doctor has to see the body and be able to establish a cause of death. And it is also a long process to aggregate all the cases of death. Each country has its own method, depending on the history of the public health information system. The result is that international comparison is not always straightforward. Especially it is not clear what to do with the death of old people living in nursing homes. Sociology of quantification is particularly well equipped to explain all these subtleties to the public.
Another use of our discipline is to analyze the effects of the data on several publics. How does it affect the public if it is barraged with numbers? What does it do to the government to rely so heavily on data? I was involved in a collective paper finally publish in Nature about the ethical aspects for statisticians, to see their models at the heart of public policies. We highlighted how predictions need to be transparent and humble to invite insight, not blame (Saltelli et al. 2020).
Finally, social studies of quantification can help open up the range of things that should be counted. It was striking at the beginning of the lockdown how much we were fed only and uniquely with public health figures measuring how the country was hit by and resisted the virus. Yet, at the same time, we heard stories here and there about how hard it was for poor families to stay put in their small homes in the banlieux, stories of domestic violence, artist friends who told us that the containment policies were making them go broke, etc. But there was absolutely no figure (at least in France) to aggregate all the drawbacks of the lockdown.  Statactivism, is the activist side of social studies of quantification (Bruno et al. 2014b; Bruno et al. 2014a). It is a political resource, imagining: “The problems, which we encounter could be quantified and it would help our cause.” In the case of the lock down, people suffering from the situation finally reclaim other numbers (Didier 2020c).

WB: The economics or sociology of convention has been developed mainly in France with important efforts of internationalization having been made more recently by translating crucial works into other languages. For example your book on Statistics in the United States has recently been translated into English (Didier 2020a). Which places of academic work outside of France do you consider promising for the future development of the conventionalist approach?

ED: What’s an interesting group? I think it is a small group of people knowing each other, if possible being even close to one another, and thinking about questions that appear in their own vicinity, and that have not been answered yet, but which they are able to relate to very general questions of interest to a wide variety of scholars. That’s exactly how sociology of quantification, economics of convention, and actor network theory appeared in Paris. Lately I have been invited by you guys, people in Halle, a former GDR university, a very peculiar context, but at the same time with some interesting international ties. Your interdisciplinary discussions on “Schlüsselindikatoren” [key indicators] as a very powerful governing tool were very exciting (cf. Bartl et al. 2019), and your work has already begun to bear its first fruits.[1] The other group I met recently was in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a small and super active group of people all working on quantification, with an activist perspective, fiercely opposing Bolsonaro’s populism, demanding justice for the favelas and a better control of the police forces. We featured them in a special issue of Statistique et société. The very peculiar situation in which they find themselves, plus their energy, freshness, and shrewdness is producing very interesting and original results.

WB: You are the editor in chief of Statistique et Société, the French leading journal in the Social Studies of Quantification. How do you define your role as an editor there?

ED: Well, the first task, and probably the most time consuming one, is simply to make sure that the three issues per year are indeed published in time. More generally we, as an editorial board consisting of seven persons, try to make visible some interesting work and to give it a platform. In a sense, the journal is part of the Fish Aggregating Device. It aims at attracting the interest of people working on quantification and that of other people that are interested in topics that we focus on. For example, our next two issues will be on the Yellow Jackets in France and on the numbers of the pandemic. In both cases, we want to show that these two highly mediatized events, on which we tend to think that we have heard everything, can in fact be understood in a very fresh and yet very significant way if we focus on the numbers that they have co-produced. For example, to understand the Yellow Jackets it is crucial to understand that they have produced their own numbers about themselves. It let them dream of refusing any human representative – because they hoped these numbers could represent them. This appeared to be crucial in the development of the movement, yet very few people made the point. With the pandemic, it’s the same, quantification plays a crucial role in its development because the policies established to control it rely heavily on numbers, models, maps. But still, the “political” role played by the experts producing and processing these numbers (and I don’t say it in a critical tone: I am glad they were here to fight the disease!) has not been analyzed enough. We’ve already said a word about it above. So I would like to make the point that social studies of quantification are interesting for a public as wide as possible. Quantities are now everywhere, they always have political effects, and thus everyone should be authorized to understand and maybe participate in these decisions. This is the objective of Statistique et société.

WB: Which academic project are you working on currently and what are your plans for the next year?

ED: I would like, first, to have opportunities to discuss more the concept of “quantitative marbling”, which was the topic of my Amo Lecture at your university last year (Didier 2019, 2020b). Then, the “Decodeurs” of Le Monde (the newspaper’s fact checkers) sent me the dataset of all the questions they received from their readers during the pandemics. They stretch from very practical questions “How far from home can I take a walk?” to more general ones “Is the virus an artificial production?”. I would like to find time to analyze these data. This would take place in a larger work I have been engaged in for several years, which is on the transformations of truth in a time of digital information and disinformation – for the general public as well as for scientists.

WB: Sounds riveting! I am very much looking forward to the first results. Emmanuel, many thanks for your thoughts and your time.

References

Bartl, Walter; Papilloud, Christian; Terracher-Lipinski, Audrey (2019): Governing by numbers: Key indicators and the politics of expectations. An introduction. In Historical Social Research 44 (2, Special Issue), 7-43. DOI: 10.12759/hsr.44.2019.2.7-43.

Boltanski, Luc (1982): Les cadres. La formation d’un groupe social. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Boltanski, Luc (1987): The making of a class. Cadres in French society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Prévieux, Julien (eds.) (2014a): Statactivisme: comment lutter avec des nombres. Paris: Zones.

Bruno, Isabelle; Didier, Emmanuel; Vitale, Tommaso (2014b): Statactivism. Forms of action between disclosure and affirmation. In Partecipazione e Conflitto 4 (2), pp. 198–220.

Davies, William (2017): How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next. In The Guardian, 1/19/2017. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/19/crisis-of-statistics-big-data-democracy.

Didier, Emmanuel (1996): De l’«exclusion» à l’exclusion. In Politix. Revue des sciences sociales du politique 34, pp. 5–27. DOI: 10.3406/polix.1996.1029.

Didier, Emmanuel (2019): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7 [Video]). Available online at https://cloud.uni-halle.de/s/gB4rThkx7ZHIC9d/download?path=%2F&files=Amo_Lecture_cut.mp4.

Didier, Emmanuel (2020a): America by the numbers. Quantification, democracy, and the birth of national statistics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Didier, Emmanuel (2020b): Quantitative marbling: New conceptual tools for the socio-history of quantification. Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. Halle (Saale) (Anton Wilhelm Amo Lectures, 7).

Didier, Emmanuel (2020c): Politique du nombre de morts. In AOC media – Analyse Opinion Critique (blog), 4/15/2020. Available online at https://aoc.media/opinion/2020/04/15/politique-du-nombre-de-morts.

Latour, Bruno (2009): Dialogue sur deux systèmes de sociologie. In Marc Breviglieri, Claudette Lafaye, Danny Trom (eds.): Compétences critiques et sens de la justice: colloque de Cerisy. Paris: Economica, 359-390.

Radermacher, Walter J. (2020): Official statistics 4.0. Verified facts for people in the 21st century. Cham: Springer.

Salais, Robert; Thévenot, Laurent (eds.) (1986): Le travail: marchés, règles, conventions [table-ronde, 22-23 novembre 1984]. Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. Paris: INSEE Économica.

Saltelli, Andrea; Bammer, Gabriele; Bruno, Isabelle; Charters, Erica; Di Fiore, Monica; Didier, Emmanuel et al. (2020): Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto. In Nature 582 (7813), pp. 482–484. DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01812-9.

[1] Petra Dobner, Dirk Hanschel: The use of SDG-indicators for water-related aims as an instrument of domestic political and legal disputes (DFG project 432912052). Christian Papilloud: Translation in Nanomedicine. « Qualitative indicators » of medical innovation research in the European Union (DFG project 432916842). Richard Rottenburg, Alena Thiel: How Democracies Know: Identification technologies and quantitative analyses of development in Ghana (DFG project 432915420).