ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Made to measure: measurement, anthropology and the enlightenment

Location Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall B
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Alice Street (University of Edinburgh) email
Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh) email
Mail All Convenors


The continued legacy of enlightenment ideas of measurement, rationality and progress, the materiality of measurement, and the relationship between local and universal systems of measure.

Long Abstract

Enlightenment science gave rise to new systems and techniques of measurement that were championed as impartial and progressive, free of irrationality and superstition. Such ideas transformed economic governance, public health, environmental science, and industrial labour, focusing human ingenuity on the invention of new devices for measuring medicine, weather, time, and profit. Today, the idea that all aspects of the world, from the economy to the body, can be quantified and measured could be said to be one of the Enlightenment's most powerful and lasting effects. Whether in relation to quantifying the impact of international development, determining public spending on life-saving medicines, or evaluating climate change science, debates around how to measure are a platform for the generation of new kinds of knowledge, expertise and politics.

We often think of measurement as disembodied. This panel will focus, by contrast, on the materiality of measurement. From an app that enables the tracking and sharing of data about the quantified self to a plastic wristband that estimates the body weight of malnourished children, this panel asks how measures are made and how they work on and transform the world around them. Papers will explore relationships between measurement and the universal aspirations of colonial rule, modern science and global commerce. But we are also interested in the ways in which lives continue to be lived amidst multiple overlapping and contradictory modes of measurement. Are things always measured in the same ways in different places and where and to whom does this matter?

Discussant: Steven Shapin

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Measuring lived worlds: forest carbon, biodiversity and the governance of the 'biocultural'

Author: Marc Brightman (University College London)  email


Large-scale assessments of the value of ‘natural capital’ are being carried out around the world to attribute exchange values to the living environment for the purpose of rational governance based on economic calculation. What work does this require and what are its consequences?

Long Abstract

The idea of 'natural capital' and the 'green economy' were the key concepts that were discussed and promoted at the Rio 2012 climate summit, giving new impetus to their mobilisation across sectors in environmental governance. The role of 'natural capital' in a sustainable, 'green' economy is based on the powerful economic argument (articulated in particular by Partha Dasgupta) that economic calculations and exchanges should take into account the value of goods usually taken for granted, such as air, water and carbon, but also including ecosystems and biodiversity - which may be at least partially anthropogenic. In this paper I will present a study of the political ecology of the UN REDD+ programme in Suriname and introduce further research on biodiversity accounting in the EU in relation to the local politics of the re-introduction of keystone species - in both cases I am concerned with the relationship between the material object and the intangible commodity, and the work done to precipitate the latter from the former.

The art of envisioning climate change

Author: Cristián Simonetti (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)  email


Although climate scientists seem to sensorially engage with the past, knowledge about climate is regarded as being beyond the senses. Relying on ethnographic and historical research this article suggests that scientists depend on sensory experience for understanding climate.

Long Abstract

Climate research constitutes an effort for understanding processes that occur over long periods of time and across vast distances. Relying on measurement, scientists are able to understand past trends in climate change and predict their future. Most of the time, this knowledge is conceived as being beyond people's everyday perception and memory, in that it requires the implementation of a record. However, despite the apparent detachment of this knowledge, climate scientists report a sensuous engagement with climate. They are the ones responsible for providing a sense of what is beyond the lifespan of a person, namely long-term environmental history. But how do climate scientists manage this trick? Based on ethnographic research conducted with geoscientists in the Arctic, I suggest that climate scientists rely on everyday experience for understanding long-term processes, allowing them to see the invisible in time and space. This capacity is traced back to the establishment of modern geology, mainly throughout the nineteenth century, where important values of the Enlightenment, particularly measurement, where emphasized. Attending to the circumstances of this development, I show that the objective detachment scientists perceive while envisioning the past, coincides with an optical understanding of time that follows the image of the telescope, which parallels how contemporary geoscientists refer to their own processes of enskillment in the field. Challenging this detachment, I suggest that knowledge of the very long (history) in science necessarily depend on the very short (biography), as scientists have never been out of life. Measurement in climate research depends on aesthetics.

Governing the gap: measuring health in Papua New Guinea's 'fragile state'

Author: Alice Street (University of Edinburgh)  email


How do modes of governance that depend upon routinized systems of measurement operate in places where those measures are absent or chronically unreliable?

Long Abstract

How do modes of governance that depend upon routinized systems of measurement operate in places where those measures are absent or chronically unreliable? How does a state govern the health of a population when statistical measures of disease incidence and health care provision are unknowable? How do development agencies continue to justify their interventions in an industry increasingly dominated by 'monitoring and evaluation' when there is no means of measuring the impact of their actions? This paper explores bureaucratic practices of measurement in Papua New Guinea's medical state, a place where government and development agencies have to act on statistics that they do not trust, and where improving measurement has become key to an international state-building agenda.

Categorisation, measurement, and Australia's 'indigenous population'

Author: Frances Morphy (Australian National University)  email


The universalising definitions of family and household in the Australian census obscure the dynamics of Aboriginal sociality and spatial organisation. While the Enlightenment project of measurement cannot be abandoned by the state, it could be disentangled from the hegemony of ‘mainstream’ categorisations.

Long Abstract

The 1967 referendum, which provided for self-identification as an Aborigine and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Australian Census, allowed the emergence of an 'Indigenous Population' and a 'demography of disadvantage' that now drives state policy towards this population, imagined as homogenous, or heterogenous only with respect to the Settler Australian division of the continent into 'urban', 'regional', 'remote' and 'very remote' areas.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics makes universalistic assumptions about the 'facts' being measured in the census. For example, it takes Settler Australian categorisations of kin, family and household as 'normal', and definitions of these phenomena, derived from those categorisations, frame the questions posed to the population. This paper follows data collected in the 2006 Census from the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, a 'very remote' Aboriginal population, from point of collection to the Data Processing Centre in Melbourne, showing how census categories and technologies (materialities) of measurement work to obscure the enduring dynamics of Yolngu sociality and spatial organisation.

Does this matter, to either the Yolngu or the state? It will argued that the answer is 'yes', to both. For the factoids of the census output constitute the 'data' on which government policy is based, and such policy is unlikely to achieve its expected outcomes. The paper's concluding argument is that the Enlightenment project of measurement cannot be wholly abandoned as a technology of the state; however, it could be disentangled from the hegemony of 'mainstream' universalising categories. Indigenous demographies are possible, and are beginning to materialise in Australia.

Measuring time and matter: women's cooking practices in Marrakech's medina

Author: Katharina Graf (SOAS, University of London)  email


In Marrakech’s medina, the preparation of food relies on measurement: of foodstuffs and of time. None of these measurements rely on devices, but on a cook’s sensing body. I aim to show how cooking defies enlightenment ideas of knowledge quantification without falling back on Eurocentric binaries.

Long Abstract

In Marrakech's medina, the daily domestic preparation of food relies on measurement: of foodstuffs and of time. However, none of these coordinating measurements are carried out with specific devices, but through and with a cook's sensing body, in interaction with her material and social environment.

A cook uses a combination of smell, taste and sight to judge the amounts of spices, herbs and salt; she relies on her fingers' touch to judge the required cooking time of meat and her hearing to evaluate the right amount of fire underneath a pot. Timed by regular calls for prayer, a cook is able to serve a dish when her husband and children return home from work and school, serving homemade leavened bread that requires not only attention to temperature, rising time and combinations of different types of wheat, but also to the opening times of the nearby public oven and her own schedule of (house) work.

Rather than arguing that measures are absent in Moroccan cooking, as is often done in cookbooks of Middle Eastern or African cuisines, in this paper I aim to show how women's cooking knowledge is based on a constant sensory assessment of temporalities and quantities of food and eaters through a bodily engagement with various food environments. Using ethnographic examples from lower middle income families in Marrakech's medina, I question the extent to which cooking knowledge can be disembodied and objectified in the form of recipes or even research reports.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.