Project description


Science, Numbers and Politics, an interdisciplinary research project funded by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, takes up the relationship between politics and science in order to analyse how processes of “quantification” and “rationalization” have come to shape our contemporary world. It seeks to develop critical approaches to the current roles of quantitative data, models, and statistical analyses, and will also track historical developments that shed light upon their genesis and proliferation. In both public and private contexts, decisions are informed by empirics, evidence, binding quotas and growth rates, the effects of which are then benchmarked and tracked. But every quantitative approach involves an epistemological and methodological register, that is, the various processes of defining, assembling and interpreting statistical information; quantitative approaches also presuppose assumptions about the relation of the general to the particular, of map to territory. The meanings attributed to the findings also vary with the contexts in which they are used, calling attention to institutional spaces and their particular rules, assumptions and orientations. Quantitative data can function in one way in the context of epidemiology, another in the consensus-oriented, transnational context of the European Union, and in quite another where its presence reflects basic institutional transformations. But these institutional spaces are not self-contained. For example, the weight imputed to quantitative information can often rest on the position occupied by its source. Further, any given institution operates in conceptual and ideological environments that are variable and which themselves have histories.

How might we think about what holds together this diversity of uses and contexts? For example, what connections obtain between, on the one hand, questions of institutional power (politics in the narrow sense) and, on the other, broader questions regarding the relations of technocratic attitudes to social issues (politics in a more general sense)? As a cultural phenomenon, does the proliferation of quantitative approaches and numbers reflect a desire for neutrality and objectivity, as well as a simultaneous intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety about precariousness? These overarching questions run throughout the schematic presentations of the project’s three main focus areas: 1) Historical Genesis, dealing with the history of quantitative approaches especially in politics; 2) Politics and Science Today, which tracks their contemporary uses; and 3) Case Study – European Education Policies, which assesses their role in the fashioning of current education policy.


Section I: Historical Genesis

This section addresses the history and development of quantitative approaches and the consequent Verwissenschaftlichung (“scientization”) of public debate and discourse, and also takes up comparative accounts of relations between quantitative and qualitative descriptions of the world. It focuses on how and in what contexts “rationalization” and quantitative analysis developed over time, and investigates the ways they have come to mediate and/or constitute political and social relations. Starting in the nineteenth century, the gathering and analysis of statistics by states resulted in what Ian Hacking has called an “avalanche of printed numbers,” one that gradually redefined processes of statistical inference, making it possible both to configure, treat and manage populations in new ways. Later, managerial and behavioural-psychological approaches (such as Taylorism) further extended the importance of number into the realm of human behaviour, with their ideas of measurable efficiencies in the administration of labour. Since the mid-twentieth century, economics and finance have come to rely predominantly on quantitative, rationalizing methodologies; more recently, the collection and use of “big data,” along with its corresponding metrics, have extended the quantifying impulse even further. Numbers and quantification now substantially shape two interrelated processes: how generalizations from individual instances are made, and also how generalizations are applied to assess individual outcomes. Both inform how “we” (in our various roles as individuals, citizens, consumers, etc.) are interpreted or assessed by “others.” Given the now-pervasive importance of quantification and data, the aim of this section is to investigate the historical sources and development of this “quantitative turn” in order to identify key case-studies, trends, and theoretical approaches that may help us better understand the ways in which quantification has become a pre-eminent value in politics.


Section II: Politics and Science Today

The use of quantification for the formulation of policy goals as well as in the assessment of the impact of policy measures both ex ante and ex post has long been on the rise. Proponents of these developments emphasize the increased transparency and improved information available for decision makers; critics, however, either point out that not all desirable outcomes can be perfectly quantified, or that quantification should not be the major determinant of political decision-making. Furthermore, the interaction between scientific communities and policymakers is complex, and is often associated with an apparent clash of value systems. This section of the project addresses the current state of politics and scientific policy advice, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of the tendency toward increased quantification as well as the dynamics of the relationship between politics and the scientific community. One specific area of interest is: what is the use and significance of quantitative indicators in policymaking, how are such indicators chosen and by whom, and what are the potential long-term impacts of these choices? The composition of the current landscape of evidence-based policy advising will be explored, with particular attention paid to the relative importance of official and unofficial sources of knowledge (e.g., advocacy groups or networks) and the role played by intermediaries who “translate” science to policymakers. Another important dimension of the current policy-science nexus is the potential for conflict between the goals of the scientific community and those of policymakers, a situation that raises questions about the extent to which science can remain objective in a political world. In particular, an important question concerns how the public and its representatives both construe and respond to scientific debate and uncertainty, and how uncertainty is – or is not – communicated in the political debate.


Section III: Case Study – European Education Policies

In recent decades, political decision makers along with the general public have shown an increasing interest in education policies, both in Europe and internationally. This development is due not least to the apparently high correlations between education/research and general socio-economic performance – a linkage commonly expressed using buzzwords like “the knowledge-based society”. In this context, a clear trend towards “quantification” can be discerned. This section examines the significance of scientific rationality and quantification in the making of European education policies and will address whether the meaning of “numbers” differs among the European level and national or regional levels. It will explore how number-based arguments enter into the European decision-making process, including by whom and through which channels. Of specific interest are the peculiarities of the European political sphere, which is characterised by complex decision-making structures and processes, often strongly diverging national priorities, and the lack of a common language. All of these factors come into play within the decision-making process, potentially affecting susceptibility to Verwissenschaftlichung and encouraging the search for a (seemingly) neutral common ground. Because education represents a “subsidiary” policy area within the EU (with Member States exercising the main competences and the Union itself having a merely coordinating function), common policy formation at the European level is difficult and, when attempted, generally controversial. This state of affairs presents both opportunities for and specific challenges to the making of European education policies, and merits scrutiny. This section will also examine the role of various stakeholders, including the OECD, NGOs and scientific policy advisers within European institutions, as well as different types of external consultants.


responsible: editorial office
Latest Revision: 2017-01-30