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False numbers as formalizing practices

It will be argued that false numbers in working documents, formulae, and business plans are used as temporary or conditional devices to enable rationalization. The social processes of creating formalized practices depend upon activities that are themselves conditional and ephemeral. That is, rather than subvert the ostensible purpose of fixed representation, false numbers make stability and fixity in representation possible. Examples used include business forecasting, property tax assessments, and the introduction of accounting into cooperative agriculture in Stalinist Hungary.

This text discusses two kinds of numbers that are used in formalizing practices: false numbers and provisional numbers. These are to be distinguished from numbers as one usually understands them: referents to stable entities that carry the same meaning no matter what their context. Provisional and false numbers do not share this stability, nor are they meaningful outside specific contexts. The author defends the endeavor by emphasizing the fact that assuming that the effective use of numbers depends upon their veracity obscures crucial social processes at the heart of modernizing practices. The author argues that provisional and false numbers occur in clearly identifiable situations. Provisional numbers are used in planning and strategizing: to assist groups in setting the parameters for tasks at hand and debating their relative merit. In other instances, so the author, provisional numbers parade as stable and fixed indicators, though their provisional status is well known by those responsible for making them. False numbers appear when the primary task is to learn how to deploy numbers, making the relative accuracy of the numerical sign less important than the attempt to master the logic of formal procedures.

Lampland, M., “False numbers as formalizing practices,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 40, Iss. 337, Apr. 2010, p. 377 – 404

Expertise Level

Professional Field
History, Science Studies, Sociology

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