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Week 6. Quantities

This week is all about all the ways people add things up, turn them into numbers, and try to use those numbers to change the world. We will discuss what it means to be one of many, the relationship between counting and what counts, the meaning of normals and averages, and how changing scales alters the nature of knowledge.

What to do during week 6

  • Tutorials are continuing. This is the key place to get feedback on your mid-semester self-evaluation and draft assessment components!
  • Continue your independent reading and writing. Are you feeling more confident approaching new readings? More effective writing out your understandings and drawing connections? What reading and writing skills do you want to improve?
  • Revisit some of your writing and thinking from the first half of the course and spend some time developing and refining components for your final portfolio submission. Editing a couple items now will give you time to get feedback from your tutor.
  • Guest conversation with Dr Lukas Engelmann!
  • For those who signed up, the Museum Exercise starts promptly at 3pm on Thursday.

Response to mid-course feedback

Thanks to the students who submitted mid-course feedback. It sounds like things are going well, which is great to see! I noted that you are taking a deliberate approach to understanding what you want and need from the course and how to get the most out of it, which is exactly what we depend on for this course model to be successful.

Lecture Slides

Unit 6 slides (UoE login required)


Critical Thinking

  1. Identify some large numbers in which you are counted (students in Scotland, people who live in Edinburgh, human beings, etc.). How typical are you of those included in each number?
  2. Explore the spurious correlations website. Generate a correlation of interest and think of a causal story that would explain the correlation. Make a policy recommendation or a moral judgement. How do numbers and quantities make things comparable and enable action?
  3. What things do you count and quantify in your life? Money? Steps? Coursework marks? What aspects of these things does quantification preserve, change, and ignore?

Reading Guide

This week's resource list is a little shorter. If you find this topic especially exciting, Dr Engelmann (this week's guest!) and I are currently co-convening a whole honours course on this topic with its own resource list!

  • Important classic histories of quantification and statistics: Porter, Hacking (short and challenging! take your time with some short segments), Desrosières (long and challenging! pick some parts and don't worry about the details)
  • Recent work that rethinks big idea from of the classics: Derringer (quantities in politics and finance), Murphy (demography and population), Wernimont (life-related quantities), Bouk (risk and insurance), Rosenthal (slavery and management), Ghosh (revolution and statecraft)
  • A short accessible essay on maths, identity, and statistics: Rankin
  • A less familiar example of quantification and governance: Urton


A. Quantification has historically been a means to lump together people and things, and to identify patterns that are not visible when they are viewed individually. Discuss an example of this phenomenon from the textbooks or readings in the Resource List, identifying what aspects of the relevant historical context(s) made this lumping and analysing possible.

B. Identify and discuss an example from the textbook or Resource List of quantification as a means of authority or control. Connecting your example of quantification to its specific historical context and uses, relate the knowledge produced through quantification to the authority or control it supported.

intro/quantities.txt · Last modified: 2024/02/23 21:39 by mjb