Disciplinary socio-demography, and anthropological prejudice against quantification

“Is it worth learning quantitative skills?” I remember asking a pair of action researchers some years ago. “They’re useful insofar as they give tools for understanding social processes,” they said.

But I didn’t follow up on that at all until I recently started reading the “socio-demographic” work of Charles Soulié, a Bourdieuian French sociologist of universities whose research interests are fairly close to mine. The premise of this research is something like this: by examining the comparative history of enrollments and teaching jobs across disciplines, one can examine what Soulié calls the “evolution of the morphology” of academic fields. This isn’t very hard-core quantitative research by statisticians’ standards, I note — he doesn’t exhibit tedious anxieties about the uncertainties in his sources, nor does he propose mathematical models or major statistical analysis of his data. The methodology seems to be, in essence, visual inspection of the evolving demographics of disciplinary enrollments. He takes these as indicators of things like the “relative position of sociology in the space of disciplines,” and comes up with findings that are like:

  • Sociology produced half as many graduates in philosophy in 1973, but now things are reversed, and in 2004 sociology produced 2.6 as many graduates as philosophy. This is an indicator, for Soulié, of sociology’s rising comparative importance in the university system (and philosophy’s stability, which in context was a relative decline).
  • In 1998/99, “the fraction of children of professionals and upper management rose to 28.4% in letters and human sciences, against 23.1% in sociology and 38.1% in philosophy” — which tells us something important about the comparative class basis of sociology vs. philosophy at that point in time [updated to clarify: these examples refer to French academia].

I find this kind of thing quite interesting and revealing – hence this series of posts on the demographics of my own discipline – but I wonder about its epistemological basis. What does it mean, actually, that one discipline has more students enrolled than another? Is it right to speak of a competition between disciplines for students? What makes one discipline more “attractive” or “desirable” than another at a given moment? It’s not like students pick their courses based on a completely rational response to a job market, or even an idea market. In fact, it’s not clear that “market” is a good description for these kinds of systems; as Marc Bousquet has often argued, talk about the academic “job market” (for instance) disguises the fact that university administrators actually dictate the academic job system, by deciding to opt for hiring adjuncts, grad students, etc. Likewise, shifts in degrees issued, in enrollments, etc, may not necessarily be the result of “competition” or market forces (whatever one’s stance on the empirical existence of said market forces). There can be other kinds of systematic processes at work; the “morphology” of the disciplines as revealed in their enrollments doesn’t tell you everything about processes of interdisciplinary conflict and coexistence.

But the brute fact remains that there have been major historical shifts in how many students anthropologists educate, and major shifts in how large our discipline is vis-a-vis other disciplines. And these aren’t just arbitrary. They need to be explained, if we’re to understand where our discipline actually exists in the world. When American anthropology is educating a small fraction of a percent of college students, that’s not something that just happens by chance.

I feel here the strong sense of a bias in my own discipline against quantitative analysis. It’s somewhat jarring, from the narrow confines of an anthropologist’s culturalist background, to look at these comparative figures. In cultural anthropology, I think there is a widely shared consensus view today that goes something like this: culture is inherently qualitative, folded over on itself in swathes and patches and wrinkles of rich, dense symbolic significance; it would necessarily be deformed, or at best severely limited, by any effort to reduce it to a general and/or quantitative analysis. Among cultural anthropologists, numbers and quantitative facts are apt to be taken not as means of analysis, but as objects of cultural analysis and symbolic forms in their own right. So we get studies of the cultural effects of perniciously quantifying, rationalizing, neoliberal projects; and we see arguments about how the obsession with the quantitative is itself merely another local cultural phenomenon, and not a privileged, master form of knowing about the world. Often these kinds of arguments are made casually, in passing, or are simply taken for granted, inscribed in our disciplinary habits.

In fact, in cultural anthropology as I know it today, it’s seldom necessary to argue explicitly against quantitative work; its rejection is already inscribed within the positioning of our discipline against its others, like sociology and above all economics. Our primary research method, field ethnography, is almost constitutively anti-quantitative, being oriented overwhelmingly towards the experiential dimension of social life, toward the fine detail of the symbolic, the affective, the discursive. I note that earlier ethnography sometimes involved more quantitative work – Marilyn Strathern’s first book had a lot of figures about pigs in local economies, for instance – and one might speculate that, as post-colonial anthropology lost its identity as the discipline that studied exotic “primitive” cultures, it seized in part on qualitative methods as a new basis for differentiating itself from the other social sciences. And, coming back in the present, I note that even after the fieldwork, later as we ethnographers write our analyses, when we do venture to generalize, we generally make qualitative generalizations (I’m making one right now); and when we do incorporate quantitative information, it often figures as mere background data for our more specific ethnographic arguments. There do appear to be sophisticated studies of mathematical practice, like Helen Verran’s Science and an African Logic which I’d like to read. I note, however, that I’ve seen a number of ethnographic studies of, for example, financial markets, which for all their strengths, still take for granted that their qualitative mode of knowing is drastically epistemologically superior to (and allows privileged ideological diagnosis of) their informants’ quantitative modes of knowing. My sense, in short, is that our rejection of the quantitative can go without saying because a rejection of numbers structures much of our research practice and disciplinary identity. There are, of course, plenty of books about quantitative methods in anthropology, and there are people who polemicize against cultural anthropology’s “rejection of science” and numbers — here’s a pretty loquacious example — but, in relation to the literature I read and the cultural anthropologists I know, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now, the anthropological objection to quantitative research is correct and good up to a point. Numbers certainly are cultural forms, a fact which I have yet to see acknowledged by a quantitative researcher. Quantitative data is of course not always useful or accurate, and can be grossly misleading, can even be a vehicle for various other political and ideological projects. And any social science that effaces the lived experience of cultural life is bound to give a rather reductive analysis of the world.

But it still feels wrong and simplistic to reject and avoid numbers in cultural anthropology in the ways that we often do. Yes, numbers are potentially oversimplifying abstractions, and are sometimes used in ideologically pernicious and theoretically problematic ways. But I wonder what ways of knowing we numb ourselves to, in shrouding ourselves in qualitative, sensuous, tactile accounts of the world. Ethnographic tactility and sensitivity can become its own form of anaesthesia, can’t it?

4 thoughts on “Disciplinary socio-demography, and anthropological prejudice against quantification

  1. Very nicely put. Much of the same has been said for many years to challenge those who call themselves artists. I believe that Stendhal, perhaps ironically, had some arguments along those lines.

  2. Hi dattergio, I’m not quite sure what you’re saying about artists and Stendhal here — think you could give a more concrete example of the kind of analogous arguments you’re talking about?

  3. I think the point can be generalized. Academic disciplines too often ignore knowledge gained in other disciplines, as if reality itself would fear crossing an arbitrary disciplinary border.

    That neighboring disciplines (especially in the social sciences, sometimes have large disagreements (individual opinions in each discipline barely overlap) about matters of fact should be mortifying to us all.

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