8 May 2015


The aim of the workshop was to chart the state of the art in terms of the history of the measurement of inequality, and bring different sets of expertise (in terms of disciplines, periods and regional focus) together to identify profitable avenues for new research, collaboration and for wider impact in the public sphere and policy domain. In what was a lively and engaging day, a number of themes emerged that will guide the forthcoming work of the project, and serve as the basis for a larger conference to be held in 2016-2017 and subsequent publication.

The central themes for the conference included:

Abstraction, intelligibility and political power: the rhetorical and political power of quantification rests with its capacity for abstraction and generalisation in ways that are intelligible to its audience. Yet, the process of aggregation and abstraction comes at a cost of portraying complexity and granularity.  What are the benefits and costs of such generalisations? How do particular abstractions, from the GINI to HDI come to define issues, and at what cost? Can the past offer any insights on how to produce measures and generalisations (including the visualisation of inequality) that are more transparent, take into account causal and contextual diversity and yet retain their rhetorical power?

Sites and processes of production: the processes of categorisation, observation, enumeration and calculation involved in measurement do not take place in a vacuum, but in specific geographical, political and social contexts. How do these influence the making of measurement? What kinds of measurement are created in more or less equal sites of production, and how does the ownership of measurement influence the knowledge it produces? Equally, and thinking from the perspective of the consumption and reception of the measure – how do different sites influence how they are interpreted and used?

Disparity, poverty and equality: the contemporary concern for inequality should itself be analysed and historicised. How and why do societies in different places and times frame the issue of distribution? How and why do dominant debates shift from aiming towards equality (however defined) to condemning excesses of inequality (however defined)?  How do different framings of the political subject of disparity condition how societies approach and measure them?

Disparity and the body: the human body is a recurrent site for the measurement of disparity and its effects. Anthropometry, IQ and experimental psychology have all been used at different times to measure, justify and legitimise, or condemn social and economic disparities. Even abstract economic indices can trace their measure to attempts to measure physiological need. What are the histories and consequences of such embodiments of disparity? How are biological fundamentals mobilised to establish both equality and inequality? And what are the biological consequences of such choices?

For more on these themes, visit the project’s blog: http://inequalityandhistory.blogspot.co.uk/

Social Science Research for the 21st Century - Progress through Partnership

Email: philomathia@admin.cam.ac.uk